A monthlong review at the United Nations of the global treaty intended to prevent the spread and ultimately the disarming of nuclear weapons worldwide ended on May 22 without a consensus because of a contentious proposal on steps to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Objections from the United States, Britain and Canada blocked the consensus required by treaty review procedures.
Reviews of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force in 1970 and is known commonly as the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, or NPT, take place every five years. This year’s review reaffirmed universal support of the treaty’s basic principles of working toward a nuclear-free world while supporting civilian uses of nuclear technology.
Government delegations from 191 countries had no problems with the statement in the now-discarded consensus agreement reaffirming “that every effort should be made to implement the Treaty in all its aspects and to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices without hampering the peaceful uses of nuclear energy by States parties to the Treaty.” Countries were also universally supportive of emphasizing the cataclysmic humanitarian threat hanging over the world as long as nuclear weapons exist.
What spurred the collapse of consensus was a bid by Arab states, led by Egypt, to convene a regional conference, apparently whether or not Israel attended, to chart a course that would culminate in the removal of all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East by 2016. Israel neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear arms, but it was clearly the target of the Egyptian-organized proposal.
“The Arab states are understandably frustrated with the years of inaction,” Martin Malin of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard wrote in a commentary published on May 11 by the European Leadership Network. (He is also the director of the center’s project on managing the atom.)
“In 1995, the indefinite extension of the NPT was conditioned on UK, US and Russian sponsorship of a resolution calling on Middle Eastern states to take practical steps toward the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems,” Malin continued. “Between 1995 and 2010, there was no discernible movement toward the implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution.”
After the 2010 nuclear nonproliferation treaty review revived the issue with concrete proposals, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s under secretary of state for foreign and security policy, to direct an effort to forge agreement among regional countries beginning in 2011. Hundreds of consultations were subsequently held, with Israel and Arab nations attending all of them. (Malin wrote that Iran also participated in at least one of the meetings.)
For the first time since 1995, Israel took part this year as an observer in the review of treaty, which it has not signed. But the Israelis strongly objected to the stipulation of a deadline of 2016 for action on a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. Opposition to that deadline played a major role in the US decision to block consensus on what the UN calls a “final document,” expressing the conclusions of the 2015 review.
Rose Gottemoeller, the US under secretary of state for arms control and international security, who led the American delegation at the 2015 review, said that the US government “had long supported regional weapons-free zones,” but that these needed to be established “under a process freely arrived at and with the mutual consent of the states in the region.”
She added that the US has tried unsuccessfully to write less “unrealistic and unworkable” terminology into the draft consensus, but that “a number of these states, in particular Egypt, were unwilling to let go of these unrealistic and unworkable conditions. . . . The blame for the inability of this conference to produce a forward-looking consensus document, however, lies squarely with those states that were unable to show any flexibility in pursuit of convening a Middle East conference that enshrined the principles of consensus and equality.” She called the Egyptian-sponsored bid an attempt to “cynically manipulate” the conference for narrow objectives at the expense of the nuclear treaty itself.
Egypt denied these allegations of deliberate obstruction and had warned that blocking consensus would provoke consequences in public opinion in the Arab world. The Three Western nations’ action brought strong criticism and regret from around the world, including from Russia, which has a major role in negotiations in the Middle East region.
Matthew Rowland, Britain’s ambassador at the permanent Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, was as pointed as his US counterpart in saying why fundamental disagreement on the means of establishing a Middle East weapons-free zone wrecked a consensus in New York.
“This issue, and this issue alone, was the stumbling block for us,” he said at the end of the 2015 review. His government remained committed to supporting a Middle East weapons conference, but only “if we were convinced that preparations would lead to a meaningful conference on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by all states in the region.”
Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Rob Nicholson, said in his remarks at the close of the conference that it was “regrettable that a few states of the region were unable to accommodate the needs and interests of the region as a whole. It was with deep regret that Canada, alongside its close allies the United States and the United Kingdom, was unable to support consensus on today’s 2015 NPT Review Conference outcome.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.