The principal message from the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which concluded on May 28, 2010, is that the nuclear weapon states are still on a Snail Plan for eliminating their nuclear arsenals – moving slowly and not recognizing the vulnerability of their thin shells.  If a sense of urgency is to be instilled in the nuclear disarmament process, the people will need to press their leaders from below. 

At five-year intervals, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty meet for a Review Conference.  In 1995, on the 25th anniversary of the treaty, the parties extended the treaty indefinitely, with promises from the nuclear weapon states that they would pursue “systematic and progressive efforts” for nuclear disarmament.  Five years later, in 2000, the parties to the treaty agreed upon 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament.  These included an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament….” 

Five years later, however, the parties were deadlocked, could not agree on a Final Document, and the 2005 NPT Review Conference ended in failure.  Since that time, the US has elected a new president, one who has expressed a vision of seeking “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  President Obama’s vision brought hope to the non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the treaty that the 2010 Review Conference would produce a positive outcome. 

The treaty is often referred to as having three significant pillars: nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament, and assistance with peaceful nuclear energy.  The principal tension among the parties to the treaty is over whether the nuclear weapon states have made sufficient progress toward their nuclear disarmament obligations.

The initial draft Report of Main Committee I (on nuclear disarmament), which was released on May 14, contained some very promising text.  It called for “the need to implement Article VI [requiring nuclear disarmament] within a timebound framework.”  It has long been a goal of the non-nuclear weapon states to achieve a timebound commitment to nuclear disarmament from the nuclear weapon states.  Further, the draft called for the nuclear weapon states to “convene consultations not later than 2011 to accelerate concrete progress on nuclear disarmament….”

In addition, this draft contained a provision inviting the Secretary-General of the United Nations “to convene an international conference in 2014 to consider ways and means to agree on a roadmap for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified timeframe, including by means of a universal, legal instrument.” 

These provisions raised hopes among representatives of non-nuclear weapon states and civil society organizations that real progress on nuclear disarmament would come from the NPT Review Conference.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.  The Final Document of the Review Conference requires consensus from all parties, and consensus agreements tend to result in a watering down of key provisions.  Many of the key disarmament provisions were diluted by the US, UK, France and Russia. 

Instead of a commitment to nuclear disarmament within a timebound framework, the Final Document simply affirmed that “the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process should be pursued within an agreed legal framework, which a majority of States parties believe should include specified timelines.”  [Emphasis added.]  In fact, the belief of the majority of states was clearly overridden by the nuclear weapon states, which did not want to be bound by timelines. 

Many of the main nuclear disarmament points in the Final Document involved no more than the conference taking note of something, without commitment.  For example, “The Conference notes the proposals for nuclear disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to inter alia consider negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention or agreement on a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by a strong system of verification.”  This strong proposal by the UN Secretary-General would seem worthy of strong support rather than simply taking note. 

Instead of committing to convene an international conference for nuclear disarmament in 2014, the Final Document called upon the nuclear weapon states only to report back on their progress in achieving a series of steps in 2014.  It further called upon the 2015 NPT Review Conference “to take stock and consider the next steps of the full implementation” of the Article VI disarmament obligation. 

The Final Document of the Review Conference gave strong affirmation to the spread of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.  While this is in accord with the treaty provisions referring to nuclear energy as an “inalienable right,” it would increase the possibilities of nuclear materials being used for weapons – as was the case with Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and South Africa – and would thus complicate the likelihood of actually achieving nuclear disarmament. 

One very positive outcome of the Review Conference was its endorsement of practical steps to achieve a Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.  The Final Document called upon the UN Secretary-General, along with others, to convene a regional conference in 2012 for the establishment of a “Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.”

The 2010 NPT Review Conference resulted in a reaffirmation by the nuclear weapon states of their “unequivocal undertaking to accomplish…the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”  In the end, the Final Document was largely aspirational.  It brought the parties back to where they stood in the year 2000, but provided few specific guidelines for success to measure progress in 2015.  One such measure, albeit a difficult one, will be progress toward the attainment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.

Most of the people of the world view the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, weapons capable of destroying civilization and ending most complex life on Earth, as urgent.  Clearly, though, that sense of urgency has not reached the upper levels of political authority in the nuclear weapon states.  The people throughout the world, and particularly those in the nuclear weapon states, will have to continue speaking out ever more forcibly in an attempt to move their governments to serious action.