Opportunities to advance nuclear risk reduction, including no-first-use, in the wake of the ‘failed’ NPT Review Conference

On Friday August 26, after four weeks of deliberations, the 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was held at the United Nations in New York, concluded with no final agreement.

This was of course a disappointment to many of the States Parties to the NPT and to civil society organizations including NoFirstUse Global members who had been very active leading up to the Review Conference and at the conference itself.

But the result was not surprising. NPT final agreements are adopted by consensus. It was obvious from the start of the conference that the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has elevated the risk of nuclear war, as well as the serious risks of a nuclear catastrophe arising from the Russian militarization of the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant in Ukraine, made the prospect of an agreed outcome remote if not impossible. Most States Parties to the NPT felt obliged to condemn Russian action, but Russia would not agree to such condemnation in any final document. (For more on this see NPT Review Conference ends without agreement: What next?)

NPT Review Conference impact despite lack of agreement

Despite the lack of agreement on a final outcome document, much was accomplished during the deliberations, especially on nuclear risk reduction, that is influential and could be advanced further in other forums.

Indeed, the failure of an NPT Review Conference does not necessarily curtail progress on key issues and initiatives that are discussed during the conference. Sometimes, a failed conference provides additional impetus for some of these.

The 2015 NPT Review Conference is an example. The conference failed primarily over disagreement about how to advance/implement the commitment to establish a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and other WMD. This failure stimulated the main proponents to turn instead to the United Nations and set up a UN Conference on a Middle East Zone free from Nuclear Weapons and other WMD, which now convenes annually until it concludes a legally binding treaty.  

Another key issue of disagreement at the 2015 NPT Review Conference was a proposal to start negotiating a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons regardless of whether or not nuclear armed and allied states joined such negotiations. The lack of agreement in the NPT stimulated the proponents to reconvene the UN Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Negotiations for Nuclear Disarmament, which led to negotiations and adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in 2017.  

What issues/initiatives from NPT 2022 might get taken forward?

Issues/initiatives at the 2022 NPT Review Conference that drew a lot of attention, possibly paving the way for action in other forums, included nuclear risk reduction, non-use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict, the adoption of no-first-use policies and negative security assurances.

The call for adoption of no-first-use policies, for example, found much stronger support than in previous NPT Review Conferences, and for the first time ever was included in the draft final document (up until the final few days). This was in large part due to the campaign activities of NoFirstUse Global, including the presentation to the NPT Review Conference of the Open Letter Fulfil the NPT: From nuclear threats to human security, campaigning in capitals and advocacy during the Review Conference.

In addition, informal discussions were held during the NPT Review Conference, on a proposed United Nations General Assembly resolution on reducing the threat of nuclear-weapons-use arising from armed conflicts including the Ukraine conflict.

UNFOLD ZERO, NoFirstUse Global and other partner organizations will use the momentum generated at the NPT Review Conference on these initiatives (and others) to make progress in the UNGA and other relevant forums. We encourage you to stay tuned and engaged in this.   

According to Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, President of the NPT Review Conference, the conference was “very meaningful.” “Delegations engaged in discussions on very complex issues, and the lack of an outcome document did not diminish their work. It is like we had a movie for four weeks, but we couldn’t take a picture at the end of the movie. So not having the picture of that doesn’t reflect that the movie didn’t exist.” (See UN Chief disappointed nuclear treaty conference ends without consensus, UN News, August 27, 2022).

Cover photo: John Hallam, NoFirstUse Global, presenting to the NPT Review Conference