UN Headquarters in Vienna, August 2023

Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty fails to adopt a summary document, highlighting the treaty’s precarious future.

Over the last two weeks, diplomats and members of civil society gathered in Vienna for a preparatory meeting regarding the next review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to be held in 2026. Often referred to as a cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, the NPT is one of the largest agreements amongst states. Unfortunately, after two weeks of plenary sessions, the preparatory conference could not even adopt the Chair’s factual summary. As the failure of this Preparatory Committee comes on top of failures of the last two review conferences, held in 2015 and 2022, the treaty is in a dire state.

Drafted in 1968, the NPT opened for signatures more than 55 years ago, offering a comprehensive response to the dangers and challenges of the nuclear age. Today, besides its sheer size of 190 states parties, it can also claim success in regards to two of its three pillars: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and promotion of the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy. While five countries had nuclear weapons and the ability to produce nuclear energy in 1968, that number has grown to nine when it comes to nuclear weapons and 32 when it comes to nuclear energy. The former growth is considered undesirable, but limited, and the latter is viewed as a success of the treaty.

These apparent successes stand in sharp contrast with the failures of the treaty, which revolve around its third pillar, nuclear disarmament. According to the treaty’s Article 6, the states recognized as nuclear weapon states back in 1970 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) have been under an obligation to negotiate in good faith towards not just nuclear disarmament, but total and complete disarmament. Demonstrably, this has not happened. Today’s nuclear arsenals, albeit far smaller than they were at their peak in 1986, still contain nearly 13,000 nuclear warheads, 90% of which are in the possession of Russia and the United States.

Hundreds of people spent countless hours in Vienna listening to states and NGOs sharing their views on the future of the treaty, attending side events where various experts and parties, including victims of nuclear testing and use and youth, discussed the path forward on nuclear disarmament and more, and speaking to colleagues in hallways, during breaks, and in small meeting rooms. And yet, not even a summary of what transpired during the meetings will become a part of the UN official record.

There is plenty of blame to go around and while Iran, the state that blocked the adoption of the summary due to what it perceived as being negatively singled out in the document, deserves a good chunk, it is the failure of the nuclear weapon states to engage meaningfully on nuclear disarmament that is the largest impediment to the treaty, its future, but also the future of humanity. The U.S. delegation spent time pointing fingers at China and Russia, rather than attempting to seize the moment to lead the world on disarmament, as is our historical and moral responsibility and as is critical to our own security.

Surely, the current geopolitical situation is incredibly challenging, but rather than being an excuse for maintaining the status quo, it should be seen as an urgent call to pursue and achieve nuclear disarmament before it is too late. Eliminating nuclear weapons is the only way to ensure humanity’s survival, given what we know today about global nuclear winter and nuclear famine that would result from even a limited regional nuclear war. Furthermore, the U.S.’s current insistence on the status quo begs the question of where we were 15 years ago, or even at the end of the Cold War, when the geopolitical situation was far less challenging. I see this a little bit like I see the issue of having children, especially for women who might aspire to a career or need to work to feed their families. The truth is that there is never a good time and so you might just as well – if you want to have children or remove the nuclear threat – get on with it.

But all is not lost. While nuclear weapon states have been busy digging in their heels and faulting one adversary or another, a great many states, led by countries like Austria, Chile, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Thailand have devised a different instrument, called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which bans everything having to do with nuclear weapons, the same way that other weapons of mass destruction, like biological and chemical weapons are banned. These countries recognize that nuclear weapons put all of humanity at risk and are working to get rid of them, before they get rid of us.

Rather than compete with the NPT, the TPNW compliments and strengthens the NPT and provides a mechanism for the NPT to achieve its disarmament objectives. The treaty was adopted in 2017, has been in force since January of 2021, and held its first meeting of states parties, also in Vienna in June of 2022. At that meeting, TPNW states parties didn’t just agree on an outcome document, but also devised a superb action plan, that they are now following. That is a definition of success.

The second meeting of states parties to the TPNW will begin in New York City at the end of November and last for a week. I’m willing to bet it won’t fail, but rather bring us ever closer to a world free of nuclear weapons.