The Importance of Being Earnest: The P5 Process and the 2015 NPT Review Conference

August 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the risk of nuclear war may be low in today’s world, contemporary scenarios and risks, such as state failure or a terrorist takeover, present new dangers that increase the possibility of inadvertent or accidental nuclear use. These concerns will supposedly be addressed in May when the 189 state signatories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meet in New York for the review conference (RevCon). It is hard to envisage a successful conference in 2015 on a par with 2010 given the low rate of implementation of disarmament actions in the last five years and the lack of trust which seems pervasive in the current global nuclear order. The five NPT-recognised nuclear weapon states (NWS) will meet in London on 4th and 5th February in the so-called ‘P5 process’, a last opportunity to put aside their differences and agree on some concrete actions that will inject hope into the NPT. The P5 process is viewed as an important mechanism working alongside the NPT, a forum for multilateral confidence-building measures among the NWS aimed at pursuing nuclear disarmament. It was established as a result of an initiative from the United Kingdom with its first high-level conference taking place in London in September 2009. However, since the 2010 NPT RevCon, which included a 64-point action plan incorporating all three of the treaty’s pillars – disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy – progress has been slow to demonstrate tangible outcomes. Since the beginning of the Eastern Ukraine crisis in November 2013, relations between the Western powers and Russia reached a new low in 2014. Following the signature of the New Strategic Arms Treaty (New START) between the United States and the Russian Federation in April 2010, President Obama called for negotiations on further nuclear arms reductions. However, Russia did not share Obama’s interest in deeper nuclear cuts and linked future reductions to progress on other issues. Even existing treaties are coming under pressure. The Obama administration has formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and, more recently, Moscow and Washington have officially ceased 20 years of cooperation over securing vulnerable nuclear materials in the Russian Federation. Amid these simmering tensions, the NWS will want to reaffirm the commitments they made in 2010 and the continued importance of the NPT but it is high time they acknowledged that the further alienation of the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) could lead to the collapse of the treaty. Since the last RevCon, long-standing problems have persisted but the lack of progress on the broader disarmament agenda has fuelled efforts by a group of NNWS to reframe the continued existence of nuclear weapons in humanitarian terms. This perspective has been joined by the legal proceedings brought by the Marshall Islands to take the nine nuclear-armed states to the International Court of Justice on 24 April 2014 for flagrant violations of international law concerning their nuclear disarmament obligations. The Humanitarian Initiative has now gained significant international traction, especially among NNWS. While the P5 have boycotted the first two conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) held in Oslo and Nayarit by not participating, the United States and the United Kingdom attended the third conference in Vienna in December 2014. The Austrian government closed the conference with both a chair’s summary and a ‘pledge’ to deliver the findings of the three HINW conferences to the NPT RevCon in May. The recent endorsement of the Austrian Pledge by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) at its third annual summit on the 29th January 2015 strengthens the Humanitarian Initiative. CELAC is the first regional group of states to acknowledge that a treaty banning nuclear weapons is the best option on the table to fill the unacceptable ‘legal gap’ in the international framework regulating nuclear weapons. Amid rising tensions between Russia and the West, these humanitarian concerns will prove a challenge for the nuclear non-proliferation regime ahead of the RevCon in May. So what can the P5 countries do under the current circumstances to avoid a debacle at the RevCon? First, engaging with the issue of humanitarian consequences and changing their current discourse on nuclear weapons would provide the P5 with an opportunity to rebuild trust with the NNWS and enhance cooperation between the two groups. The RevCon could be the first of several steps to reach significant qualitative changes in nuclear policies. Second, dialogue between the NWS is under great strain and the P5 process could help increase trust among the NWS if the P5 are willing to look for opportunities for bilateral or multilateral projects that do not have buy-in from all five NWS. The United States and the United Kingdom will most likely continue their long-standing programme of warhead dismantlement verification research. The UK and China are reportedly discussing the initiation of a joint research programme on verification that draws on the success of the UK-Norway Initiative – a research project on the verification of warhead dismantlement. The UK-China project is designed to establish a new Track II dialogue between UK and Chinese officials and scholars to facilitate forward-looking discussion. This measure would not only build trust and cooperation among the P5 but would ultimately lay the foundation for wider efforts on disarmament. Whether these initiatives can be classed as ‘P5’ activities is, however, open to debate. The distinction is difficult, especially as briefings on such activities take place at P5 meetings. However, should UK–China cooperation on verification come to fruition, it will likely have been helped rather than hindered by interaction with the P5 process. The road to the NPT RevCon in May will not be a smooth one. Even if the P5 process enables the group to deliver a glossary of nuclear terms at the RevCon in May, which would be regarded as a positive development, the NWS will inevitably have to engage with the Humanitarian Initiative in order to attempt to secure a positive outcome at the RevCon. Also, even in the event of a political resolution of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the current P5 is not politically sustainable in the long run. The P5 process is something the NWS should work to keep alive but it is also worthwhile to develop a more comprehensive framework for nuclear arms control that engages the UK, France, and China to reduce their stockpiles despite their strong beliefs that it is currently up to the US and Russia to lead the way in this regard. While it is unlikely that these three states will engage in nuclear disarmament in the near future, the adoption of various confidence-building mechanisms negotiated by Moscow and Washington under the New START would at least indicate their willingness to make nuclear arms control a multilateral endeavour.

Ana Alecsandru is an ESRC-funded doctoral student at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS). Prior to the start of her PhD, Ana was an intern at NATO HQ in Brussels in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Non-Proliferation Centre (WMDC).

Photo Source: Flickr/ US Department of State. P5 Conference public event at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., June 27, 2012.

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