'Humanitarian Pledge' in the spotlight as NPT conference fails to agree on disarmament action

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The month-long review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has ended in disarray after governments represented at the conference were unable to reach agreement on the wording of a final document outlining the conference's conclusions.

However, despite the disappointment at the formal outcome, the conference demonstrated widespread concern among a majority of nations about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use, adding to momentum for a new process to negotiate a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

A key point of contention at the conference was a proposal by Egypt, backed by other Middle Eastern nations, for the United Nations Secretary General to convene a conference on a Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone by no later than March 2016.  A commitment to organise the conference by 2012 had been included in the action plan agreed at the last NPT Review Conference in 2010, but foundered as a result of differences between Egypt, the Arab League, and Israel over the conference agenda.

The UK, USA, and Canada refused to accept a final document which included any deadline to organise the conference.  As agreement of the final document requires consensus among the NPT's 191 signatory states, the three nations have effectively blocked the entire blueprint for global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation for the next five years.  

After the conference Israel thanked the USA, UK, and Canada for blocking adoption of the draft final document.

Another major stumbling block was deep differences between non-nuclear and nuclear weapon states over the slow pace of action on nuclear disarmament.  Proposals that the final document should include commitments to concrete action on disarmament, including commencing work on a global agreement to ban nuclear weapons, were repeatedly blocked and watered down by the five nuclear-armed states represented at the conference.

South Africa’s disarmament ambassador Abdul Minty led criticism of the nuclear-armed states, asking the conference: “What does this then mean for the commitments made by many leaders to eliminate nuclear weapons? We should instead be saying that despite these calls, we have failed in our supreme responsibility to all of humanity, which all of us hold”.

He added: “Why is it that only the security of the five requires nuclear weapons, whilst no-one else needs nuclear weapons for their security? If the truth is that no-one’s security needs nuclear weapons, then all of our security is enhanced by getting rid of nuclear weapons.”

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, described the draft final document as presenting “the weakest disarmament outcome in the Treaty’s recent history”, and said that the conference had “demonstrated beyond any doubt that continuing to rely on the nuclear-armed states or their nuclear-dependent allies for leadership or action is futile”.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association said that the final draft document was “little more than a roll-over of disarmament and non-proliferation commitments that were agreed in 2010”.

Kimball said that the five nuclear-armed states which have signed the NPT – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA - “came to this conference without new ideas or proposals for meeting their NPT obligation to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons and the risks they might be used.”

“The fact that there are tensions between the big powers does not excuse them from their solemn, legally-binding obligations to accelerate work to fulfil their NPT Article VI disarmament obligations, which are fundamentally in their own security interests”, he said.  "In the coming months, Russia, the United States, and the other NPT nuclear-weapon states must find new ways to get back on track or risk the fracturing of the NPT regime," Kimball warned.

Despite stalling tactics by the nuclear armed states, the conference demonstrated widespread concern among a majority of nations about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use and the need to act with greater urgency to eliminate nuclear dangers.

A group of 159 states endorsed a conference statement saying that it "is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances", and 107  states have endorsed the "Humanitarian Pledge", a document prepared by Austria which calls on states "to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons."  Signatories have also pledged to “cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, States, international organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

Campaign organisations described the pledge as 'the real outcome from the conference' and it is expected that the it will now become the basis for a new process to develop a global treaty banning nuclear weapons, outside the NPT process.

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