Calm Before The Storm? Low-Key NPT PrepCom Meeting Avoids Acrimony

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova
June 2012

On May 11, 2012, the Preparatory Committee [PrepCom] for the 2015 Review Conference [RevCon] of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] concluded its first two-week session in Vienna under the chairmanship of Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia. Uniformly described as smooth and business-like, the 2012 PrepCom meeting accomplished most of its tasks — settling all but one of the procedural matters and beginning the discussion on implementation of the Action Plan adopted at the 2010 RevCon. After assessing the existing differences of views, the Chair avoided potentially divisive negotiations over his factual summary, deciding not to attach it to the PrepCom report and seek consensus approval, but issuing the summary as a working paper instead.

The two issues that generated the most interest and intense discussion on the conference floor and at side events at the PrepCom in Vienna were the Middle East and humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons use and possession. Preceded by low expectations and cautiousness on the part of member states, the PrepCom demonstrated that while NPT states parties reaffirm their commitment to the decisions of the 2010 RevCon, they are not yet prepared for an in-depth review of their implementation. Cautious positions can be explained partly by the early stage of the review cycle and by the desire of many states to see how progress on the 2012 Conference on Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction unfolds. The course and outcome of the 2012 Conference thus have a potential to greatly influence the 2013 PrepCom and the current review cycle overall, and one can expect the debate on both disarmament and compliance issues to be less restrained next year.

“Three Ambitions” and Realization

Speaking at the outset of the PrepCom, the Chair said he had “three ambitions” for the meeting: to have procedural decisions be taken quickly and smoothly; to begin a substantive discussion of the implementation of the 2010 action plan, and to produce a fair and balanced factual summary. Two of the three ambitions were fulfilled quite successfully.

Procedural matters that had to be settled included the adoption of an agenda for the review cycle leading to the 2015 RevCon, setting the dates and location for the next PrepCom meeting, and nomination of the next meeting’s chair. Conducting extensive consultations with states parties ahead of the PrepCom in Vienna allowed Ambassador Woolcott to reach a broad agreement on the agenda before the meeting started. Flexibility on the part of some of the Western states also helped avoid the kind of controversy that marred the 2007 PrepCom meeting, and the agenda was adopted within an hour of the start of the 2012 PrepCom.[1] It was further agreed that the next PrepCom meeting will take place in Geneva, on April 22-May 3, 2013.

There was, however, no decision about the chair for the next meeting, as the Eastern European Group [EEG], which traditionally chairs the second PrepCom and consequently Main Committee II at the RevCon, was not able to decide on its candidate. Hungary and Romania have both indicated their desire to chair the 2013 meeting and neither has been willing to step aside, which even led to brief speculation of possible co-chairmanship. In some ways, this deadlock highlights how outdated the NPT regional groups system has become since the end of the Cold War. Russia, the traditional leader of the EEG, is no longer in the position to control or discipline the group, as many of its members now belong to, or associate themselves with, the European Union and align their positions with the Western Group. It is unclear when the decision on the 2013 PrepCom chair might be taken, and whether a compromise candidate will emerge. It is widely believed, however, that the decision will have to be made by October 2012, when the First Committee of the UN General Assembly convenes its annual session.

The substantive part of the PrepCom, devoted to the review of the implementation of the treaty and decisions of past RevCons, also went smoothly, and it seemed that states were keeping their powder dry in anticipation of further developments this year. As mentioned above, the two issues that were most noteworthy in the deliberations in Vienna were the Middle East and the humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons use and possession. At the same time, it was clear that progress on nuclear disarmament overall will be central to the 2015 Review Conference.


Nuclear- and non-nuclear weapon states alike reaffirmed their commitment to the Conclusions and Recommendations for Follow-on Action [Action Plan] adopted by consensus at the 2010 Review Conference, which was important given the past experience of states reneging on prior RevCon commitments, such as the 13 Practical Steps at the 2000 RevCon. Indeed, the Non-Aligned Movement [NAM] not only recalled the final document of the 2010 Rev Con but also reiterated the importance of decisions taken in 2000 and 1995 regarding nuclear disarmament and the Resolution on the Middle East. In reference to the 2010 Action Plan, many non-nuclear-weapon states [NNWS] expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, and highlighted in particular the importance of action items related to transparency in nuclear arsenals, disarmament verification, continued consultations among the nuclear-weapon states [NWS], and reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in national security doctrines. While acknowledging the ratification and implementation of New START, a US-Russian agreement that caps the numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, a number of states, particularly among the Non-Aligned, also highlighted that ongoing arsenal modernization programs in all NWS undermine the “minimal reductions.”[2] Many states called for further cuts in arsenals, which should also cover non-strategic nuclear weapons, including those deployed abroad. For the most part, however, delegations were reserved in their criticism. Likewise, commentary on compliance with the treaty was mostly low-key. These included statements by the United States in the general debate and cluster II [nonproliferation][3]; however, any criticism of Iran and Syria for failure to cooperate with the IAEA were reserved in tone [much unlike the US comments during the discussion on the Middle East], with France displaying the toughest stance on the matter.

Several factors accounted for this restraint. As the meeting in Vienna was the first session of the review cycle following the 2010 RevCon, states wanted to “take stock” and assess each others’ positions, which — combined with the Chair’s inclusive, pragmatic approach — provided for a business-like atmosphere. Realization that the first PrepCom meeting was not going to produce a negotiated substantive document also contributed to a more relaxed environment. The talks between Iran and P5+1 [China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and United States] concerning the former’s nuclear program re-started in April 2012 in Istanbul and for the first time in years held a promise of some progress. With the continuation of negotiations scheduled for after the PrepCom,[4] most states wanted to avoid confrontation at the meeting in Vienna. Finally, keeping in mind the centrality of the Middle East issue to the compromise achieved in 2010, many states were in a wait and see mode, and were reluctant to prejudge what might transpire regarding the regional conference mandated by the 2010 RevCon.

Humanitarian Dimension

While most deliberations at the PrepCom covered familiar ground, along familiar lines, one issue — the humanitarian dimension to the nuclear weapons problem — stood out as relatively new and potentially paradigm-shifting. This issue began to gain prominence at the 2010 Review Conference and was referenced in the chapeau of the disarmament section of the Action Plan. Since 2010, the issue has drawn the renewed attention of humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross,[5] and was actively promoted by civil society. It has also garnered increased cross-regional support among NPT member states, 16 of which produced a joint statement at the PrepCom that highlighted the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and raised the question of the incompatibility of such use and international humanitarian law. The statement pointed out the indiscriminate destructive capacity of nuclear weapons and underscored that “all rules of international humanitarian law apply” to them, including “the rules of distinction, proportionality and precaution, as well as the prohibition to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering and the prohibition to cause widespread, severe and long-term damage to the environment.”[6] Norway and Switzerland also jointly hosted a well attended side event featuring the presentation of studies on the potential impact of a regional nuclear war on agricultural production. The studies found that due to climate disruption caused by a limited nuclear war, agricultural production will decline and global agricultural markets would be disrupted. As a result, “[t]he number of people threatened by a nuclear-war induced famine would be well over one billion.”[7] During the PrepCom, Norway also announced that it would host an international conference in Oslo in spring 2013 on humanitarian aspects of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear-weapon states appeared unprepared for a discussion of humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons, but in response to other states’ statements, several of them addressed the issue at the end of the first week, arguing that international humanitarian law does not prohibit the use of nuclear weapons outright. The U.S. delegation took “note of the interest that has been expressed about the legal aspects of the use of nuclear weapons,” but argued that the analysis of the legality of such use should “consider the precise circumstance of that use” rather than the overall concept.[8] The United Kingdom referenced the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice [ICJ], stating that the Court “rejected the argument that use of nuclear weapons would necessarily be unlawful in all circumstances.”[9] One must note, however, that the Court was also unable to agree unequivocally that nuclear weapons use even in extreme circumstances would indeed be legal. Rather, the Advisory Opinion indicated that “the Court is lead to observe that it cannot reach a definitive conclusion as to the legality or illegality of the use of nuclear weapons by a State in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which its very survival would be at stake.”[10] France also recalled the ICJ Advisory Opinion but simply stated that its policy of nuclear deterrence does not contradict international law.[11]

As a result of the extended focus on the humanitarian dimension and legality of the use of nuclear weapons, three paragraphs of the Chair’s factual summary were devoted to these issues, noting states’ “concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences” and lack of response mechanisms to nuclear weapons use.[12] As it continues to gain prominence, the topic is likely to receive further attention throughout this review cycle and generate more serious, in-depth debate.

Middle East

No part of the PrepCom session was more anticipated than the report of Ambassador Jaakko Laajava of Finland, the facilitator for the 2012 conference on a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction [WMD-free zone] in the Middle East and implementation of the 1995 Resolution. The centrality of the Middle East issue was evident from the first minutes of the PrepCom, as speakers — from the President of the 2010 Rev Con Ambassador Libran Cabactulan to the new UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane — referenced the decisions of the 2010 RevCon on the Middle East and how crucial they were for the consensus outcome.

According to the 2010 Conclusions and Recommendations for Follow-on Actions, the three NPT depositaries and co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution [Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States], together with the UN Secretary-General, should convene a conference in 2012 on the implementation of the resolution that calls for the establishment of a WND-free zone in the Middle East. They were also charged to designate a host country and appoint a facilitator for the process, in consultation with states of the region. In October 2011, Finland was chosen as the host government and its Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Ambassador Jaakko Laajava was designated as the facilitator. On May 8, 2012, the facilitator addressed NPT parties on the progress of preparations for the 2012 Conference for the first time.

The facilitator’s report was by necessity scarce on detail but reflective of the difficulty of the task and sensitivity of the subject. Ambassador Laajava reported that he and his team had conducted over a hundred consultations with states in the region, the NPT depositaries, international organizations, civil society, and other parties. These consultations led him to conclude that “all states of the region share the goal of establishing the zone,” even as they disagree on ways to achieve it.[13] Some states, according to the facilitator, place emphasis on the negotiations of the zone agreement and seek practical steps to this end, while others prefer “a more open-ended dialogue” on issues beyond WMD and want the political environment to become conducive to the establishment of the zone first. It is understood that Israel falls into the latter category, as it would like to address regional security before nuclear weapons issues. Ambassador Laajava pointed out that many parties believe that the participation of all states in the Middle East is required for a successful conference, but not all the states have indicated their intent to attend. At the same time, no state has yet definitively refused to participate. While no exact dates have been set for the conference, views are converging around December 2012. At the same time, the Finnish government has put in place arrangements to have the conference “at any time” this year, indicating the seriousness of its commitment. Although the facilitator did not say so explicitly, it was evident that concrete proposals on the conference modality, agenda, and outcomes have not yet been forthcoming, and in his remarks, he emphasized the importance of regional states taking the initiative in this regard. Statements by states outside the region also highlighted the need for regional ownership of the process.

A joint statement by the Arab group expressed overall satisfaction with the progress of preparations and the facilitator’s work, while also pointing out the delays. Interestingly, it used significantly milder language than the NAM, which expressed “deep concern over the delay” in implementing the 1995 Middle East resolution and called on the facilitator “to accelerate consultations” with regional states and “exert maximum efforts” to convene the 2012 conference. The tougher language used by NAM than the Arab group may reflect the influence of Iran, which is not a member of the Arab group. Overall, most Arab states — as a group and individually — underscored the importance of the 2012 Conference establishing a process leading to the establishment of the zone, but did not offer specifics. The Arab group statement indicated that states were expecting proposals from the facilitator on Conference organization in the near future and hoped to discuss them by August 2012. As customary, Arab states also called on Israel to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state and place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA comprehensive safeguards.

In a joint statement, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States, as the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, welcomed the work of the facilitator and expressed willingness to assist in preparations of the conference. At the same time, they were careful to point out that no nuclear-weapon- or WMD-free zone can be established against the will of states in the region, and the process is likely to be long and laborious. While guarded, the statement was not pessimistic.

A Dissenting Voice

Against the controlled, business-like tone of the session and the PrepCom overall, as well as the joint statement of the three NPT depositaries, the US statement on the Middle East struck a discordant note. After proclaiming support for the goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the region, the US representative underlined the long-term nature of the goal and the need for a set of conditions to be in place if there were to be any prospect for success. Such “essential conditions,” according to the United States, include “comprehensive and durable peace” and all regional states’ full compliance with their nonproliferation obligations. The United States further argued that states in the region should take “political steps to create the conditions necessary for a successful and constructive Conference” — phrasing that led some to question if comprehensive peace and full compliance were now also prerequisites for convening the Conference. Such a stance would run counter to the 1995 Middle East Resolution and the 2010 RevCon Conclusions and Recommendations, which acknowledge the link between regional peace and establishment of the zone, but do not make one conditional on the other.

The United States stated that “continued efforts to single out Israel or any other State will make a Conference increasingly less likely,” and proceeded to name Iran and Syria as being in noncompliance with their nonproliferation obligations. The United States further questioned the feasibility of convening the conference in 2012 in light of the recent and ongoing transition in several countries of the region, as well as the conflict in Syria.

While questions concerning instability and the need for greater confidence among states in the region are valid and have to be addressed, the overall tone and message of the statement were negative and in contrast even with the opening US statement in the general debate and some of those delivered in other clusters. Not only Arab states, but also many European delegations, privately expressed disappointment at the US position, which raises questions about the US commitment to convening the 2012 Conference and the support it is prepared to provide to the facilitator.

Iran, for its part, responded by naming the United States, France, and other states for their cooperation with Israel, including their alleged assistance to its nuclear weapons program. Iran also stated that the 2012 Conference, being mandated by an NPT RevCon, should follow “NPT procedure,” suggesting that only NPT parties can attend it as full participants. Ironically, this view echoes the Israeli position that Israel, as a non-party to the NPT, is under no obligation to attend the conference. Iran might well be trying to create a rationale for a decision not to attend the meeting should it be convened, although it is unlikely that Iran would stay away if all other states in the region, including Israel, chose to participate.


Convening of the 2012 Middle East Conference would not, in itself, guarantee substantial progress toward establishment of a WMD-free zone in the region. Failure to convene the NPT-mandated conference, however, would likely have significant negative consequences for the NPT review process, which would become evident at the 2013 NPT PrepCom. Both the NAM and Arab group statements underlined that the 2012 Middle East Conference is “integral” to the 2010 Action Plan, and that failure to convene it and make progress towards establishing a WMD-free zone in the region would undermine the implementation of the Action Plan overall. Many other states subscribe to this position.

In 2010, agreement on the steps related to the Middle East was crucial to achieving a consensus outcome of the Review Conference, and was one of the reasons non-nuclear-weapon states — from NAM and outside — did not push for a more ambitious action plan on disarmament.[14] Failure to convene the conference, especially if the United States and other nuclear-weapon states are perceived as responsible for this development, could reinforce existing skepticism on the part of many states about the sanctity of prior commitments regarding nuclear disarmament and the potential for future compromises.

Chair’s Paper

At the outset of the meeting in Vienna, Ambassador Woolcott indicated that he would not seek to negotiate a consensus document to be adopted by the PrepCom session. Instead, he decided to submit a Chairman’s Factual Summary as a Working Paper, reflecting the discussion and his assessment of the member states’ support for the various issues raised during the meeting. Away from the conference floor, the Chair and his team conducted extensive consultations on the text of the summary, reaching out to many delegations, and were subsequently commended for the inclusive approach. To reflect the variety of views, the Chair used a clever formula that distinguished among “States parties,” “some parties,” and “many States parties” in ascribing positions on different items and amount of support afforded to them. The 14-page paper is a comprehensive overview of the views expressed during the first PrepCom session and, although not formally adopted by the meeting, it is a conference document that will be a useful reference for the next sessions of this review cycle.

The working paper was well-received by the parties, both among the nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states. Only the Russian Federation pointed out that the summary did not reflect its position that further steps on nuclear disarmament would require the maintenance of strategic stability and “undiminished security for all” — both of which Russia sees as undermined by the U.S. and European missile defense plans. While a lone dissenting voice at the close of the first PrepCom session, Russia’s statement points to more difficulties ahead in pushing for more progress in implementing the 2010 Action Plan, particularly the steps calling for deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals and reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines.


The 2012 PrepCom was not expected to be stormy, but the observed calm was very much due to its timing and masks deep concerns among many member states. Developments during the rest of this year — especially the fate of the 2012 Middle East Conference and the ability to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran, as well as the outcome of elections in the United States — will significantly affect the rest of the 2015 review cycle. The second PrepCom meeting in 2013 will not have to worry about procedural issues thanks to the work of the 2012 PrepCom, but it is likely to face other challenges, not the least of which will be more questions about the Middle East and progress in implementing the nuclear disarmament provisions of the 2010 Action Plan.

[1] In 2007, at the first PrepCom session in Vienna, states were not able to adopt the agenda until the second week of the meeting due to a disagreement between a number of a countries [particularly the United States] and Iran over the reference to “full compliance” in item 6 of the provisional agenda.
[2] See, for example, Statement by Ambassador Ahmed Fathalla [Egypt] on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement States Parties to the NPT, Vienna, April 30, 2012.
[3] At the Preparatory Committee meetings, issues are usually divided into three clusters, corresponding to the three “pillars” of the NPT: disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses. Under each cluster, there are also usually specific issues, such as negative security assurances or regional issues, including the Middle East. Unlike the Rev Cons, PrepComs do not split into main committees that can conduct their work in parallel.
[4] The high-level talks were set to restart on May 23, 2012 in Baghdad, while some reports suggested that “preparatory” expert-level meetings were taking place during the week of May 7. Also, Iran and IAEA held talks on May 13-14, almost immediately after the PrepCom. Laura Rozen, “Iran Nuclear Talks Prep Meetings to Get Underway — Quietly,” Al-Monitor, May 7, 2012,; “Iran: Nuclear Talks Move to Vienna,” AP, April 28, 2012; “Iran, IAEA ‘Make Progress’ at Nuclear Talks,” BBC News, May 15, 2012,
[5] On November 26, 2011, the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a resolution expressing deep concern about the destructive power of nuclear weapons and “the unspeakable human suffering they cause,” called on all states to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, and to pursue negotiations on their complete elimination. “Working towards the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” Resolution of the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Geneva, November 26, 2011,
[6] Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Dimension of Nuclear Disarmament by Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Holy See, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, Switzerland, First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, May 2, 2012.
[7] Ira Helfand, “Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk. Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition,” International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2012.
[8] Statement by Ambassador Laura Kennedy, Permanent Representative of the United States to the Conference on Disarmament, Cluster 1 Specific Issue: Nuclear Disarmament and Security Assurances, First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, May 4, 2012,
[9] “Cluster I — Disarmament,” Statement by Ambassador Jo Adamson, UK Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Vienna, May 3, 2012, Interestingly, there appeared to be two versions of hard copies of the UK statement in circulation, one of which entirely lacked the two paragraphs that addressed the threshold for nuclear weapons use and applicability of international humanitarian law.
[10] “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Advisory Opinion of July 8, 1996, International Court of Justice, p. 41.
[11] Intervention du chef de la délégation français, Chapitre 1, First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, May 3, 2012,
[12] Chairman’s Factual Summary, Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT/CONF.2015/PC.I/WP.53, May 10, 2012.
[13] Report of the Facilitator to the First Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, May 8, 2012.
[14] See discussion in William Potter et al., “The 2010 NPT Review Conference: Deconstructing Consensus,” CNS, June 17, 2010, and William C. Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Nuclear Politics and the Non-Aligned Movement: Principles vs. Pragmatism, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012, Chapter 2.

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