Nuclear Non Proliferation – NPT Treaty Fifty Years On

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held every five years was due to take place this year 2020. Due to the covid-19 pandemic it is postponed to next year. The new deadline to convene the Tenth Review Conference is now set for August 2021.

But what is the purpose of this multilateral treaty? The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as its full title suggests, aims at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the NPT’s opening for signature, 24 May 2018 in Geneva:

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an essential pillar of international peace and security, and the heart of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Its unique status is based on its near universal membership, legally-binding obligations on disarmament, verifiable non-proliferation safeguards regime, and commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Thus the NPT is the essential pillar of the frail international disarmament regime. The Treaty not only demands from the signatories not to proliferate Nuclear Weapons but it also urges the Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS) to take effective measures to disarm themselves from their lethal arsenal. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

The NPT is a unique treaty in the universal body of international law: it represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the Nuclear-Weapon States.

While the list of the parties to the NPT opened for signatures July 1st, 1968, the Treaty actually entered into force two years later in 1970. The provision for review conferences every five years (article VIII, paragraph 3) meant that on the fiftieth anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force, in 2020, we should have had the Tenth Review Conference. The Review Conference is going to take place before the end of summer in 2021 as explained above.

Why is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons so important? Simply because its membership coincides almost entirely with the UNO membership, that is to say 191 participating states including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which are all NWS. Consequently, the NPT is the most widely adhered to multilateral disarmament agreement. However, the second most populous country in the world, India, has not been admitted to the NPT as it has acquired nuclear weapons after the Treaty’s entry into force. India became a NWS in 1974.

Neighbouring Iran is a party to the NPT since 1970 but was found in non-compliance with its NPT safeguards agreement, and the status of its nuclear programme remains to this day in dispute, especially after the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a hard negotiated compromise between Iran on the one hand and the rest of the world. In the US Department of State view, however, ‘the JCPOA is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JCPOA reflects political commitments between Iran, the P5+1, and the EU’. [The P5+1 include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: US, Russia, China UK and France plus Germany]. This is what Julia Frifield, the US Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, opined in 2015. Subsequently, Donald Trump pulled out from the Iran nuclear deal. Nevertheless, president-elect Joe Biden undertook to restore it.

In all frankness, the NPT in its fifty years of life, failed to deliver the goals for which it was established i.e. to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and further to disarm the Nuclear Weapon States. Be that as it may, and in the absence of any other legally binding multilateral agreement, the NPT continues to be ‘the heart of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime’.