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Last Updated: 01/26/2015
From Vienna to New York: Diverging attitudes and expectations among NPT members spell trouble for the 2015 NPT Review
Rob van Riet

The resurgence of Cold War style rhetoric between Russia and "the West", ongoing concerns over North Korea's nuclear program, a still elusive nuclear deal with Iran, and the recurrent fear of nuclear-armed non-state actors all stand as stark reminders that humanity still lives with the unacceptable risk of nuclear war. In this timely and important article, Rob van Riet reviews the promises and ambiguities of recent conferences, summits, working group sessions, legal actions, and negotiations on nuclear weapons, and evaluates the potential of the NPT review conference in May this year to make real political progress towards the goal of nuclear disarmament.

On 8 and 9 December 2014, nearly 160 States and a large number of civil society groups and international organizations participated in the Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,[1] hosted by the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Like the two preceding conferences in Oslo, Norway[2] (2013) and Nayarit, Mexico[3] (2014), the gathering in Vienna heard testimonies from victims of the use of nuclear weapons, examined the capacity at the international level to provide appropriate humanitarian assistance in the event of a nuclear explosion (hint: there is none), scrutinised the chilling risks inherent to nuclear weapon systems (hint: there are many) and examined the state of international law as it applies to nuclear weapons.

Being the third such conference, there was a sense of expectation among many delegations and civil society participants as to where this series of meetings, often referred to as the ‘Humanitarian Initiative’, is heading. Surely, we can only get together so many times to listen to harrowing victim accounts, to be reminded of the uniquely destructive force of nuclear weapons, to count our lucky stars that none of the incidents on the long list of nuclear near-misses ended in nuclear catastrophe, and to ponder the apocalyptic scenarios that would unfold when our luck does run out? In the words of the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz, at some point it is “time to move from words to action.”[4]

Speaking of words, countries chose them carefully in their conference statements.[5] Though a large number of states voiced their support for a new legal instrument that would ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, descriptions of what such an instrument would entail were kept deliberately ambiguous. As such, it is not entirely clear how support is divided between the different approaches for starting negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Options proposed include a nuclear weapons convention or package of agreements involving all states, a ban treaty involving those states that are ready now to prohibit nuclear weapons, a ban on use followed by negotiations on elimination, a framework agreement (i.e. an agreement on what is required to eliminate nuclear weapons and on negotiations to achieve this), or a hybrid mix of some of these approaches.[6]

What is clear is that an increasing number of states have lost faith in the incremental, or ‘step-by-step’ approach to nuclear disarmament, which is still advocated as the only way forward by some of the nuclear-weapon states[7] (NWS) and those under extended deterrence arrangements. Many seem ready to consider pursuing disarmament outside of the existing machinery.

In a reflection of the ambiguity and heterogeneous nature of support, Austria concluded the Conference by pledging to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”[8] Austria also promised to present the findings of the three humanitarian conferences to this year’s Review Conference of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).[9]

And so now our eyes turn to that Review Conference, to take place in New York this May. Held every five years, the last NPT Review Conference in 2010 was largely deemed a success, producing an outcome document that contained a range of disarmament action items.[10] However, since then, progress on actual implementation of these commitments has stalled and the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the NPT[11] (P5) and non-nuclear-weapon states have ended up pursuing different trajectories and initiatives. Taking stock of key developments and events in the last five years seems to spell trouble for the upcoming Review Conference.

Growing support for a humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament

It was in fact the 2010 NPT Review Conference that gave rise to the Humanitarian Initiative in the first place. The Final Outcome Document, adopted by all 188 NPT member states, declared that the Conference “expresses its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and reaffirms the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”[12]

Seizing on this common recognition, May 2012 saw sixteen NPT states parties submit a joint statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament to the first session of the preparatory committee to the 2015 NPT Review Conference.[13] Similar statements have been re-introduced at subsequent NPT preparatory committee meetings and UN General Assembly First Committee sessions, while support has steadily grown over the years. The latest joint statement, introduced in October 2014 at the UNGA First Committee, was co-sponsored by a record number of 155 states.[14]

The conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons have also seen increased participation. The inaugural conference in Norway in March 2013 was attended by 127 states, as well as a wide range of civil society organizations. One hundred and forty-six states participated in the second conference in Mexico, while 158 states made the trip to Austria for the most recent conference.

Although all NPT member states signed up to the 2010 NPT Final Outcome Document, thus expressing, inter alia, their deep concern over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, none of the NPT nuclear powers or NATO states (or four nuclear-armed states outside the NPT) sponsored the joint humanitarian statements. With the exception of the most recent conference in Austria (which had the official participation of the United States and United Kingdom and unofficial participation of China[15]), the conferences too have been boycotted by the P5, who have called it a “distraction”.[16] However, India and Pakistan attended all three conferences.

This “distraction”, however, has gained momentum and has been successful in reframing the debate on nuclear weapons around humanitarian concerns. But with increased participation and deepened understanding of the effects and risks of use of nuclear weapons, also comes heightened expectation for action and increased frustration over the lack of progress made by the nuclear-armed states. In the context of the NPT, a growing number of non-NWS and civil society groups are increasingly convinced that the actions of the P5 to supposedly implement their disarmament obligations are, in fact, the real distraction. The P5 loudly promote their minimal quantitative reductions in arsenals, while quietly modernizing their nuclear weapon systems—spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the process[17]—and continuing to place critical importance on these weapons in their security doctrines.

Unprecedented legal action taken against the nuclear powers

Frustration over lack of progress led the Marshall Islands to take the nine nuclear-armed states to the International Court of Justice on 24 April 2014 for violations of international law with respect to their nuclear disarmament obligations under article VI of the NPT and customary international law.[18] For the Marshall Islands, the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons are not a theoretical matter—the small island nation was used for 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, including the “Bravo Shot”, a 15-megaton device equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima blasts, and has suffered the trans-generational effects of radiation exposure, including high cancer rates and environmental poisoning, as well as displacement from areas declared uninhabitable. The Marshall Islands does not seek compensation with these lawsuits—rather, it seeks declaratory and injunctive relief requiring the nine nuclear-armed states to comply with their obligations.

The case is going ahead against those states that have accepted the jurisdiction of the ICJ—i.e. the UK, India and Pakistan—and thus covers both NPT and non-NPT nuclear powers. It won’t be known until later this year or next year where the cases are heading, but they have already served the purpose of underlining the failure of the nuclear-armed countries to uphold their disarmament obligations.

New forums on pathways to nuclear disarmament

It was also this failure that underpinned the creation of the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), set up by the UN General Assembly in November 2012 “to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.”[19] It was once more widespread frustration at the lack of progress in other forums—including the Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked since 1996—that prompted the move.

The OEWG met over 15 days in May, June and August of 2013 and has seen active participation of a large number of UN member states as well as international organizations and civil society groups. It discussed a range of proposals to start multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament.[20] The OEWG discussions have been invaluable in focusing discourse on practical proposals for eliminating nuclear weapons.[21]

As with the humanitarian impact conferences, the P5 boycotted the OEWG sessions (of the non-NPT nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan again attended). It leaves us wondering how serious they can really be about achieving a world free of nuclear weapons—a goal to which they have all professed their commitment—if they refuse to participate in a Working Group explicitly mandated with exploring pathways toward reaching it.

Although the UN General Assembly did not renew the OEWG’s mandate, it has offered hope for achieving an agreement on a nuclear disarmament proposal by deciding in October 2013 to hold a High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament no later than 2018.[22] Through the same resolution, it also declared 26 September as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, to enhance “public awareness and education about the threat posed to humanity by nuclear weapons and the necessity for their total elimination, in order to mobilize international efforts towards achieving the common goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world.”[23] The UN General Assembly may yet decide to re-establish the OEWG (or similar UN-initiated forum), which could further flesh out proposals and serve as a vehicle for preparatory work on the High-Level Conference.

Although different initiatives, the Humanitarian Initiative, the Marshall Islands’ unprecedented legal action, the OEWG and planned High-Level Conference are born of the same frustration: 70 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 45 years since the entry into force of the NPT and 18 years since the Conference on Disarmament was able to yield any substantive outputs, what is currently on offer as constituting progress on nuclear disarmament simply does not cut it and the machinery for achieving a world free of nuclear weapons is inadequate.

While non-NWS (as well as allies of NWS) have participated in these, as well as other initiatives to find pathways to a nuclear weapon-free world and reframe the debate on nuclear weapons, the NPT nuclear powers have been kept occupied by a series of nuclear crises and have focused their efforts primarily on halting proliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism.

High-level political attention to curbing nuclear terrorism

At the initiative of US President Barack Obama, three Nuclear Security Summits have been held (Washington 2010[24]; Seoul 2012[25]; The Hague 2014[26]) on the topic of bringing nuclear materials, technology and facilities under safer and more secure control, in order to prevent nuclear terrorism. The summits enjoy high-level political participation, with leaders of around 50 states—primarily those with nuclear technologies and materials—attending.

Although important, the summits only focus on one small part of the problem—the acquisition of nuclear weapons or fissile materials by non-state actors—rather on the larger and more dangerous problem of the estimated 16,300 nuclear weapons still in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states, many of which are on high-alert status, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. It is imperative that the same high-level political support given to combating nuclear terrorism is given to eliminating nuclear weapons.

Iran’s nuclear programme

The NWS have also given considerable attention to the proliferation risk of the Iranian nuclear programme. The possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons has kept diplomats busy for over three decades, but talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) on hammering out a deal that would allow Iran to have nuclear power, but reduce the likelihood of it gaining nuclear weapons have intensified in the last five years. Although progress has been made since the election of Hassan Rouhani (a moderate and centrist) as President of Iran in June 2013, both sides agreed in November they needed more time, extending the deadline to reach a political agreement to 1 March 2015.[27]

For all the legitimate concerns the P5 raise over the Iranian nuclear programme, they also benefit from keeping the international community’s attention on the scare of a nuclear-armed Iran. It conveniently allows them to equate the public perception of nuclear threat with Iran (or North Korea or terrorists for that matter), not with the thousands of weapons in their possession, the use of any one of which, either by accident, miscalculation or intent, would cause unimaginable damage and suffering.

Missed opportunities for a WMD-Free zone in the Middle East

Meanwhile, the prospect of a Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East—which could prove a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and remove the double standards over Israel’s nuclear weapons—remains as elusive as ever. There has been little to no progress on implementing the 1995 resolution to establish such a zone.[28] The resolution served in part as a political bargain of the 1995 NPT Review Conference to extend the NPT indefinitely. For Middle East NPT states, the viability of the NPT regime is thus closely related to making progress on the Zone.[29] And the signs are not good. The lack of progress on implementing the 1995 resolution has been the cause of animosity, concern and frustration at every NPT Review Conference since its adoption. Israel, the only country in the region to possess nuclear weapons, has still not joined the NPT and there are no signs it is willing to do so.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference had offered hopeful signs with inclusion in its final document of specific steps towards the Zone’s establishment, including convening a conference for all regional states by the end of 2012 on the creation of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East.[30] However, despite extensive work between the conference facilitator, Finnish undersecretary of state for foreign and security policy Jaakko Laajava, and the regional actors, the conference was postponed without setting a new date. The frustration with this lack of progress was on display at the 2013 NPT Preparatory Meeting, when the Egyptian delegation walked out of proceedings in protest.[31] Members of the Non-Aligned Movement place high priority on the zone and with very little to show for at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, it will be one of the potential key sources of tension and acrimony.

Echoes of the Cold War in Ukraine

While the P5 have cooperated relatively well in forming a united front on the Iranian nuclear programme, the crisis in Ukraine has brought back Cold War-esque tensions between Russia and the Western nuclear-armed and allied states. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, relations between the West and Russia have steadily deteriorated. With regard to nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, the consequences have included a threat by Russia to suspend cooperation with Washington on reciprocal inspections of nuclear facilities and an announcement from Russia that it will not participate in the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit.[32] It is also highly unlikely both nations will pursue further bilateral stockpile reductions—a previously expressed desire of US President Obama in follow-up to New START in 2010.

In addition, the current geopolitical climate, rife with bellicose nuclear rhetoric and posturing reminiscent of the Cold War, means that NATO (especially its central and eastern European members) will be reluctant to lower or phase-out the role of nuclear weapons in the alliance. Support for the removal of tactical nuclear weapons currently hosted in five NATO states (with or without Russia’s pledge to, in turn, remove its tactical nuclear weapons on its western border) is also expected to wane.

But perhaps most worrying is Russia’s violation of the Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 between the US, Russia and the United Kingdom, under which the three nuclear powers pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in return for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union and to join the NPT as a non-NWS. The legacy of Ukraine’s decision (together with Belarus and Kazakhstan) to relinquish nuclear weapons has been one of the few positive examples in proving disarmament is a viable option. However, some commentators (in Ukraine and abroad) have already posited that if Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons it would have been more secure against Russia.[33] It would be hugely detrimental to the global non-proliferation regime if that decision will now go down in the history books as a mistake.

North Korea’s nuclear programme

The leadership in North Korea probably sees developments in Ukraine as proof it should not give up its nuclear weapons. The hermit nation’s nuclear weapons programme continues to rattle the non-proliferation and disarmament regime. It has been estimated that Pyongyang has produced enough highly enriched uranium for 6 to 10 nuclear devices.[34] Tensions escalated with the West when it conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, leading to international condemnation and sanctions.[35] In November 2014, North Korea threatened to conduct a fourth nuclear test in response to a United Nations move towards a probe into the country’s human rights violations. On 20 December, North Korea vowed to boost its “nuclear power” to counter Washington's hostile policy, saying it had become apparent the United States aimed to invade the North under the guise of human rights abuses.[36] There are signs the NWS will be able to form more of a front in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, as even longtime alley China is getting increasingly exasperated with the North Korean regime.[37]


After engaging in and pursuing different trajectories in the five years since the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the P5 and non-nuclear weapon states will come back together at the next NPT Review Conference in May 2015 with different attitudes and expectations.

While the Humanitarian Initiative and Open-Ended Working Group have energised and raised expectations of several NPT member states on progress on nuclear disarmament, it is met with little interest by the NWS who only have piecemeal progress to offer and do not seem willing to implement their disarmament obligations.

Then there are plenty of potentially acrimonious issues, including the unfulfilled promise of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East, and a series of crises, such as the Ukraine conflict, that could thwart constructive discussions on achieving NPT objectives, further jeopardising the credibility of the NPT regime.

Einstein famously described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And so it is with the NPT. We cannot keep meeting every five years for another half-century and simply expect the NPT to deliver.

Societies have a tendency to hold sacred the institutions they have created and overvalue their worth. Indeed, the NPT is the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime and basis for disarmament efforts, and every effort should be made to make it deliver on its promises. But the NPT regime also suffers from several serious flaws, not least of which is that four nuclear-armed states remain outside it. Meanwhile, the Conference on Disarmament, which was formed as the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community, consists of only 65 member states and has been deadlocked for over 18 years.

The longer key promises of the NPT and other disarmament machinery remain unfulfilled, the more strain these regimes will come under. Frustration with a lack of progress on nuclear disarmament will force those states ready to make universal nuclear disarmament a reality to look for ways forward outside of the existing architecture. Such an approach has worked for banning landmines and cluster munitions.[38]

Indeed, alternatives exist. Forced to be creative, states committed to nuclear abolition and a re-energized civil society have already put forward a plurality of practical proposals for the start of a negotiating process aimed at the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. These include a comprehensive convention or framework treaty, a global prohibition on use or a like-minded possession-ban treaty. With the High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament looming in 2018, the next NPT Review Conference (and subsequent Preparatory Committee Meetings for the 2020 NPT Review Conference and annual UN General Assembly First Committee Meetings) offers an opportunity to build political will for reaching such a comprehensive agreement or achieve interim measures (e.g. a ban on targeting cities[39] or adoption of no-first use policies[40]) conducive to such a process. A re-instituted OEWG would be able to further explore key proposals.

The disarmament game has been played on the terms of the P5 for too long. Nuclear disarmament is simply too important to be left just to the nuclear-armed states. It is not yet time to give up on the NPT but we have reached ‘crunch time’. Its credibility will certainly be put to the test at the NPT Review Conference in May.

[1] Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, 8-9 December 2014. More information available at:

[2] Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, 4-5 March 2013. More information available at:

[3] Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, 13-14 February 2014. More information available at:

[4] Presentation available at:

[5] Statements available at:

[6] Basel Peace Office produced a useful background paper on these (and other) approaches:

[7] The nine nuclear-armed States are: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, United States.

[8] The ‘Austrian Pledge’ is available at:

[9] The NPT is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. See:

[10] 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document. Available at:

[11] China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States. The other four nuclear-armed are not members of the NPT.

[12] Ibid., p. 19.

[13] Joint Statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament, First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 2 May 2012. Available at:

[14] Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations General Assembly 69, First Committee, 20 October 2014. Available at:

[15] See, e.g., “China Sends Official Posing As ‘Academic’ To Attend Vienna Nuclear Conference: Report”, International Business Times, 9 December 2014. Available at:

[16] See, e.g., “After Oslo: Humanitarian Perspectives and the Changing Nuclear Weapons Discourse”, Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons project paper no. 3, 2013. Available at:

[17] See, e.g., “Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT?”, Arms Control Today. Available at:

[18] For more information on the cases visit:

[19] UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/67/56, 3 December 2012. Available at:

[20] For more information on the OEWG visit:

[21] Options proposed include a nuclear weapons convention or package of agreements involving all States, a ban treaty involving those States that are ready now to prohibit nuclear weapons, a ban on use followed by negotiations on elimination, a framework agreement (i.e. an agreement on what is required to eliminate nuclear weapons and on negotiations to achieve this), or a hybrid mix of some of these approaches.

[22] UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/32, 5 December 2013. Available at:

[23] For more information on the Day visit:

[24] Nuclear Security Summit, Washington D.C., United States, 12-13 April 2010. More information available at:

[25] 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 26-27 March 2012. More information available at:

[26] Nuclear Security Summit 2014, The Hague, Netherlands, 24-25 March 2014. More information available at:

[27] See, e.g., “Iran nuclear talks extended to 2015 after failure at Vienna negotiations”, The Guardian, 24 November 2014. Available at:

[28] Resolution available at:

[29] See for more information: “Toward the 2015 NPT Review Conference: Attitudes and Expectations of Member States in the Middle East”, British American Security Information Council Paper, 2 October 2014. Available at:

[30] 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Outcome Document, p. 30.

[31] See, e.g., “The Walkout: Day 6 of the NPT PrepCom”, James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, 29 April 2013. Available at:

[32] See, e.g., “Cold War threat returns as US responds to Russia’s renewal of its nuclear arsenal”, The Guardian, 4 January 2015. Available at:; “Russia told U.S. it will not attend 2016 Nuclear Security Summit”, Reuters, 5 November 2014. Available at:

[33] See, e.g., “Ukraine’s nuclear regret”, BBC Echo Chambers, 20 March 2014. Available at:

[34] See “Nuclear Weapons: Who has what at a Glance?”, Arms Control Association. Available at:

[35] See, e.g., “New Sanctions on North Korea Pass in Unified U.N. Vote”, The New York Times, 7 March 2013. Available at:

[36] See, e.g., “North Korea says to boost nuclear power to counter U.S. hostile policy”, Reuters, 20 December 2014. Available at:

[37] See, e.g., “The US and China need to cooperate on North Korea”, The Diplomat, 10 October 2014. Available at:

[38] Both the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and 2008 Conventions on Cluster Munitions came about through freestanding processes of treaty negotiation outside a United Nations-facilitated forum.

[39] See, e.g., “U.N. Urged to Ban Nuke Strikes Against Cities”, Inter Press Service, 10 December 2014. Available at:

[40] See, e.g., “Draft Treaty on Non-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons”, International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, June 2009. Available at:

Rob van Riet, Coordinator, Disarmament Programme, World Future Council