Another War in Europe: Dispatches From The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

The EU won the Nobel Peace Prize for maintaining peace between European nations, but it has failed to prevent wars of words. Proof can be found at the UN, where battles between EU members could spoil the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

States party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are currently gathered in New York for their five-yearly Review Conference. Their task is to review the Treaty’s health and to agree, by consensus, ways to improve implementation of the various provisions outlined in the document. Despite being the most widely subscribed to arms control treaty in history, the NPT is mired in controversy. A large number of non-nuclear weapons states are convinced that their nuclear counterparts – France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States – are simply not treating the risk of accidental or deliberate nuclear use, or their obligation to disarm, seriously. With the Review Conference set to conclude on 22 May, the distance between the opposing fronts on disarmament issues remains substantial. And unusually, the states likely to be the spoilers are European.

The Humanitarian Issue and Disarmament

One of the primary points of contention at this Review Conference is the so-called ‘humanitarian consequences initiative’. Initiated by a core group of non-nuclear states including Norway, Switzerland, and Austria, its official objective is to promote a facts-based discussion on the risks and humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. However, many states participating in it also view it as an opportunity to exert pressure on nuclear weapons holders to increase the pace of disarmament. Three humanitarian conferences have taken place: in Norway in 2013, and in Mexico and Austria in 2014.

France, China, and Russia, are firmly opposed to the initiative, warning that the facts-based discussion will be used to build agreement that continued nuclear weapons possession and the maintenance of deterrence doctrines is illegal, illegitimate, or both. On the other hand, the United States and United Kingdom, as well as many NATO states, have cautiously engaged with the conferences, primarily in hopes of easing the standoff between the humanitarian discourse supporters and nuclear weapons states. Yet they too remain wary of the direction of the initiative.

The Vienna humanitarian conference expanded their reservations. The Austrian chairperson concluded that ‘the scientific results and the discussions which emerged in the Vienna Conference underscored that the humanitarian consequences and risks associated with nuclear weapons are far higher and graver than previously assumed.’ Acting upon this conclusion, Austria announced a pledge to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons that over 80 states have since signed on to, and penned a more general statement on humanitarian consequences that was endorsed by 159 states. Together they represent a monumental and qualitative change in the conversation around nuclear disarmament.

Building European Consensus: The First Attempt

Most of the key figures in this debate – proponents, opponents, and hesitant NATO states in the middle -- are European Union members, and agreement at the Review Conference must therefore run through Europe. The EU has recently had two opportunities to bridge internal divides over the humanitarian issue: the negotiations over EU Council conclusions for the NPT Review Conference, and the Review Conference itself. Neither appears to have been successful.

It is common practice for the EU to negotiate a common position for NPT meetings, in order to promote the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. However, the exercise was especially important in 2015. If common ground could be found in advance of the Review Conference, the EU Council’s decision could in theory have served as a starting point for discussions amongst the wider NPT community.

Negotiations spanned months and were bitter. Austria and Ireland insisted that the humanitarian initiative should be encouraged, that new information had been brought to light through the conferences, that this information indicated an increased risk of nuclear use, and that it necessitated policy change. France pushed back on all fronts. The UK was similarly unwilling to accept Austrian and Irish proposals that suggested its nuclear forces were more dangerous than previously thought.

The hard-won text hints that it was Austria and Ireland who softened their stance: ‘The Council further notes…the ongoing discussions on the consequences of nuclear weapons, in the course of which different views are being expressed, including at an international conference organized by Austria, in which not all EU Member States participated’.

Building European Consensus: The Second Attempt

Hopes that the EU council conclusions would serve as a basis for agreement vanished by the second week of the four-week Review Conference – the second opportunity to ease tensions. Austria and Ireland arrived in New York thoroughly angered by the preview of the debate that they had been afforded by the EU discussions. Backed by dozens of like-minded states from outside of the EU, they are now loudly promoting the initiative, its conclusions, and the need for a legal approach to mandate time-bound disarmament and thereby reduce nuclear dangers.

Initial Review Conference drafts relating to disarmament reflected the volume of statements made in favour of the humanitarian initiative, and repeatedly expressed a desire for new legal instruments. France and the UK argued that one of the draft texts on nuclear disarmament was so unacceptable that the subsidiary body that had negotiated it should be scrapped entirely. They did not get their way and have instead been forced to provide rebuttals on each point. France’s representative, for example, repeatedly argues that information that has been released is not new, that nuclear risks are not higher than previously understood, and that no risk of accidental or unauthorised use exists.

The Review Conference in Europe’s Hands

In a speech to the Arms Control Association on 14 May, Austrian Ambassador Alexander Kmentt stated his belief that the positions of France, the UK and other nuclear-armed states are irreconcilable with those of Austria, Ireland and others humanitarian advocates outside of Europe. If this is the case, the Review Conference will find it difficult to produce a consensus document – the traditional though imperfect measure of success -- and any failure to do so may be the partial responsibility of Europe.

A consensus document may still be possible and current drafts appear more mutually agreeable. But the most that can now be expected are provisions on disarmament riddled with vague, caveated, and conditional formulations. Austria and Ireland, amongst others, may tolerate such an outcome like they did for the EU Council conclusions, if they feel they will have another chance to advance their case in the near future. That opportunity could be independent pursuit of a ban treaty or other legal instrument. A growing number of non-nuclear states, aggravated with the perceived intransigence of nuclear weapon states at the Review Conference, could decide to forge ahead on this path. 

Should such developments transpire, the 2015 NPT Review Conference will hardly be remembered as a success, even if it ended with a consensus document. Instead it will be remembered for a product that masks the substantial divisions between states party to the Treaty, and perhaps, for Europe’s inability to ease them. Throughout the next NPT review cycle, efforts should be made to promote meaningful reconciliation between EU members on the humanitarian issue. Failure to do so would undermine the EU’s claims that it is ‘one of the most important contributors to strengthening the Treaty’, and instead demonstrate that it can have the exact opposite effect: to entrench the fissures that hinder the international community’s collective ability to make progress on disarmament.

Andrea Berger is Deputy Director of RUSI’s Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme. This article was written at the NPT Review Conference held in New York.


Andrea Berger

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