The Twin Problems of the Middle East WMDFZ and Modernization: The Current Precariousness of the NPT regime

4 Feb

As the new review cycle of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) continues this year and the second Preparatory Committee (Prep Com) for the 2015 Review Conference is scheduled to be held in April 2013 in Geneva, the sustainability and robustness of the NPT regime remain uncertain. This is the result of the inability to convene a NPT-mandated conference for the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East as well as the continued pursuit of extensive nuclear modernization programs in all the nuclear possessor states.

Concern around the NPT was inevitably heightened when the NPT-mandated Conference on a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDFZ) for the Middle East was “postponed” in December 2012. The so-called “co-conveners” of the Conference, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia could not reach agreement on a postponement decision and issued separate statements with the US noting the lack of agreement among the regional states on “conditions for a conference,” the Russian government called for the Conference to be held under the same conditions no later than April 2013 (before the next NPT Prep Com), and the UK issued a statement that called for continued consultations and urged the conference to be convened in 2013.

The Action Plan adopted at the conclusion of the 2010 NPT Review Conference called for the convening of a WMDFZ conference in 2012 in fulfillment of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. The inability to do so undoubtedly has not only damaged the credibility of the NPT regime, but has brought into question future implementation and adherence to cornerstone Treaty provisions among many states parties. In particular, the Arab states, most notably Egypt, have placed much emphasis on this Middle East conference tying it closely to its investment in the NPT writ large. In 1995, Egypt threatened to withhold support for the NPT’s indefinite extension should the United States not support the Resolution on the Middle East, including the paragraph about the need to establish a WMDFZ. It is a serious and valid concern that the NPT regime could be “held hostage” by those states, specifically the Arab Group, who believe that such a failure to fulfill a binding commitment represents reason enough not to fulfill other obligations furthering hindering progress made on the twin pillars of the NPT (in addition to the third pillar regarding ‘peaceful’ uses of nuclear energy)—non-proliferation and disarmament. It is also possible that states parties may interpret these failures as a reason to leave the NPT framework altogether and join those states outside of the regime (India, Pakistan, Israel, and the DPRK) that are not subject to its obligations. These alarming trends would only further increase insecurity and decrease the NPT’s legitimacy.

Moreover, the issue of modernization has not been adequately addressed in the context of the NPT itself. While many delegations called for an end to modernization of nuclear weapons at the 2012 NPT Prep Com, modernization programs continue in China, France,  India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States. While it might still be an open question as to whether modernization results in ‘new’ weapons, the continued investment in nuclear weapon arsenals must clearly be understood as incompatible with obligations to non-proliferation and disarmament. By improving and expanding the capabilities of nuclear warheads, even if the number of warheads itself remains the same, the nuclear weapon possessor are engaging in a form of proliferation. Moreover, the disarmament obligations found in Article VI are surely not being met with the appropriate seriousness and resources (both financial and political) where modernization programs are under way. Reaching Critical Will notes in its study “Assuring Destruction Forever” (April 2012) that committing billions of dollars to nuclear arsenal modernization not only drains a large portion of the world’s resources, it sets precedents for pursuing the global nuclear weapon industry indefinitely. As Beatrice Fihn of Reaching Critical Will has rightly stated, “Commitment to nuclear disarmament is not just about quantitative reductions, it must also include a cessation of qualitative improvements, as ‘leaner but meaner’ weapons do little to change the continued reliance by a few states on nuclear weapons to provide security.”

There is much to be done to reinsert confidence and robustness back into the NPT framework. The 2013 NPT Prep Com in Geneva must begin to rebuild the momentum that was first gained with the adoption of the consensus Action Plan from the 2010 Review Conference. The success of this Prep Com will depend, in large part, on whether or not the Conference for a Middle East (WMDFZ) will be convened prior to the start of the Prep Com in April. If not, the stakes of the Prep Com will only be higher and the political difficulties only increased. Patience will wear thin and some states may seek alternate pathways, including pathways outside of the NPT, to achieve security assurances. This would be a dangerous precedent if it were realized.

Likewise, delegations must continue to hammer the point home that modernization of existing nuclear arsenals is incompatible with NPT obligations. The vast majority of states parties to the NPT do not possess nuclear weapons nor are they pursuing such capabilities. It is time for these delegations, representing the overwhelming majority of the global community, to speak strongly against the inherent hypocrisy of committing to disarmament, but engaging in expansive modernization programs. Rather than modernizing the weapons, nuclear weapon possessors should be pursuing the means to safely, verifiably, and transparently reduce the number of warheads in their stockpiles.

Without significant movement on these two threats to the NPT regime, the likelihood of achieving substantial progress towards the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons will be seriously lowered.


—-Katherine Prizeman

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