Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Contents

Chapter 5: The 2020 NPT Review Conference

391.The next NPT Review Conference (RevCon) is scheduled for 27 April to 22 May 2020. It will mark the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the NPT. Dr Grossi said that this was “a good opportunity to take stock of where we are, what this instrument gives us with the rule to conduct our activities in this field.”661 Ms Nakamitsu said the RevCon was “an opportunity for States Parties to review and to make sure that the resilience and the relevance of the NPT in the 21st century will continue.”662

Previous Review Conferences

392.The Final Document of a Review Conference must be agreed by consensus. Mr Kmentt said that in 1995, 2000 and 2010 “it was not possible to find an agreement” between the States Parties but “creative diplomatic language” had been used “to find formulations to go around” the disagreements.663

393.Mr Plant said that in the run-up to the 2015 NPT RevCon there had been “a substantial diplomatic conflict of viewpoints on disarmament progress, a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and so on”, which “led … to failure to agree a consensus outcome document at the Review Conference”.664 Dr Burford said that “debates at the 2017 and 2018 Preparatory Committee meetings” had been “more fractious and antagonistic than in 2015”.665

394.Ms Shetty said that while agreement of a Final Document in 2020 was “an arbitrary litmus test of a successful Review Conference … it would point to at least a shared view that the NPT was worth adhering to and sustaining”.666 BASIC said that failure to agree a Final Document would be a “symbolic blow” to the regime.667 A “back-to-back failure of two such conferences … could lead to the undermining of the treaty’s legitimacy, support and effectiveness”.668

395.However, witnesses said the success of a RevCon should not be measured only by whether a Final Document was agreed.669 Dr Elbahtimy said that while “it might be tempting to think that the failure of the 2015 Review Conference means that the treaty is in dire straits”, the “reality” was “that it has difficulties”.670 Mr Plant said there had “been no substantial changes to the global nuclear landscape as the result of that failure in 2015”.671

The UK’s influence and approach

Challenges and opportunities for the 2020 Review Conference


396.Witnesses said that many of the challenges to the NPT already discussed in this report—the absence of four nuclear possessor states from the treaty, the dissatisfaction of Non-Nuclear Weapon States about progress on the disarmament pillar, leading to the signature of the Ban Treaty, failure to develop a Middle East WMD-Free Zone, and the health of arms control agreements between the US and Russia—would be challenges for the 2020 RevCon.672

397.The 2020 Review Conference is likely to be challenging for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and will be affected by the global security situation. In particular, the Review Conference will be likely to be tested by the collapse of important non-proliferation and arms control agreements, and the perception of wider threats to the rules-based international order.

398.The Nuclear Weapon States must, in good faith, address the dissatisfaction of Non-Nuclear Weapon States at the 2020 Review Conference, including by showing a demonstrable commitment to the disarmament pillar of the NPT.

399.The Government should make every effort to ensure that a Final Document to the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is agreed and avoid a situation such as that in 2015 when the UK was one of only three countries which prevented consensus being reached.


400.Ms Nakamitsu suggested that, in the 50th year of the treaty, States Parties might wish to take advantage of making a “political message” by holding a ministerial meeting at RevCon.673 Ms Shetty welcomed this idea, and suggested the UK should be represented by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.674

401.A second opportunity at RevCon, suggested by Ms Nakamitsu, was to include discussions on the potential link between nuclear weapons and “science and technology” (discussed in Chapters 2 and 4).675 Dr Elbahtimy, however, said the NPT regime was “burdened with the agendas that it already has”. The “difficulty of charting a way forward among these different disagreements” meant that “the cyber issue has not been put formally on to the NPT agenda”.676

402.Ms Price supported the idea of discussing, and seeking agreement on, the “threats to the regime” posed by technological developments. The UK did not have proposals on this issue, but “the States Parties should be talking about this”.677

403.We recommend that the UK, as one of the three depositary powers, should mark its political support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on its 50th anniversary by being represented at a high level. The Government should consider representation by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs at the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. It should also support High Representative Nakamitsu’s initiative to hold a ministerial meeting in advance of RevCon, by indicating the willingness of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to attend such a meeting.

404.The UK should propose that the impact of new technologies should be considered by both Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States at the 2020 RevCon of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ahead of this conference, the Government should set out its ideas on how to manage the nuclear risks associated with new technologies.

Objectives for RevCon

405.The FCO said the UK’s objectives for RevCon were “to remind the international community that the NPT continues to be an effective and vital part of the international security architecture; and to highlight the UK’s own strong track record promoting disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as a responsible Nuclear Weapon State.”678

406.Ms Price said the UK would “focus on encouraging other countries to look at some of the very basic building blocks that are needed … to work towards disarmament”, such as the UK’s work on verification (discussed in Chapter 3).679


407.Sir Simon Gass was “not completely convinced that there is a big initiative that the UK could float that would substantially transform the non-proliferation agenda”.680 Mr Schulte and Professor Wheeler said the UK’s contribution would “have to be largely through influence and persuasion, often behind the scenes” with France and the US, NATO, the P5, and “the NPT as a whole”. They cautioned that “UK governments must resist grandiosity; anyone with experience of international nuclear negotiations and alliance consultations will realise that a country with perhaps 2 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons is simply not going to overturn others’ calculations”.681

408.Mr Plant said the UK had “attempted to show leadership” through a unilateral reduction in its nuclear weapons.682 Dr Ritchie acknowledged this was “a pretty positive record” compared to the four other nuclear-weapons states.683

409.Mr Plant said that these reductions had been undertaken at a time when “the norm was towards disarmament” and it had seemed “that reinforcing that would be sensible”. He had “a bugging question: what is the utility of UK unilateral reductions in stimulating larger nuclear powers, who rely more heavily on nuclear weapons, to disarm? How does our unilateral disarmament drive that? I do not think it does.” Further cuts would put into question whether it had “a minimum credible deterrent … to trade-off against others”.684

UK approach

410.Professor Evans said the UK “may be the least emotionally and intellectually committed of all the present nuclear armed states to its nuclear armoury” which gave it “a potentially critical role to play in … intergovernmental advocacy”.685 Dr Ritchie said the UK liked “to paint itself as a responsible Nuclear Weapon State and the most forward-leaning of the five on disarmament”. However, “in the context of NPT diplomacy”, there was “not much to separate the UK and the US”, a point also made by Mr Kumar.686

411.Ms Shetty said that “in the absence, frankly, of US leadership”, however, the 2020 RevCon was “a real opportunity for the UK to be a leader in disarmament and non-proliferation”.687

412.The UK has a strong track record of disarmament—having unilaterally reduced its arsenal to a single strategic system—and has been actively engaged in counter-proliferation work, including talks with Iran. In the run up to the 2020 Review Conference, it should set out a clear vision for future work towards disarmament, and seek to influence the Nuclear Weapon States to fulfil their obligations under the three pillars of the NPT.

UK leadership as the chair of the P5 process

413.The P5 process is set out in Chapter 3. Witnesses suggested ways in which the UK could improve the P5 process when it assumed the chair in May 2019.

414.First, Dr Zhao said it could suggest that the P5 process play a role in managing nuclear tensions, by holding “more candid discussions and in-depth exchanges” between the five countries. He suggested establishing dedicated P5 working groups and research projects, engaging experts to deliver this work.688

415.For example, the P5 process could look at countries’ doctrines and postures689 (discussed in Chapter 2). Rear Admiral Gower said there was a “strong reason for there to be discussion within the P5 … as to whether the continued ambiguity of [NATO’s] posture, and indeed the UK posture, contribute to deterrence”, or whether this increased the chance of misinterpretation.690

416.Mr Baklitskiy and Ms Shetty suggested the UK could push for greater transparency between the P5 members.691 Mr Baklitskiy said this could include regular reporting of the numbers of strategic weapons similar to New START reporting (see Chapter 4) as “a confidence building measure.”692 Ms Shetty said they could “possibly share that with non-nuclear-weapons states”.693

417.Second, Mr Koenders said the UK could play an “instrumental” role in the P5 “to get the discussion going” on how to address short-range ballistic missiles (the INF Treaty is discussed in Chapter 4).694

418.Third, Mr Ingram said the UK could seek to encourage the nuclear-weapons states “to show some progressive moves”695 and signal strongly “that nuclear weapons are not with us for ever”.696 Measures suggested by witnesses included:

419.Fourth, Ms Berger suggested the UK should encourage more outward engagement by the P5 during its chairmanship.706 It could find ways to more meaningfully engage Non-Nuclear Weapon States707 and NGOs in the P5 process.708

420.Ms Shetty said in the past the P5 format had been used to “engage with other Non-Nuclear Weapon State groupings”. Civil society and Non-Nuclear Weapons States had been invited to “side meetings after the P5 had met”, but “more could be done”.709 Dr Tzinieris suggested the UK should enhance co-ordination between the P5 and the Non-Aligned Movement, the New Agenda Coalition and the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative.710 Ms Fihn said that proponents of the Ban Treaty “would love to be invited to talk to the P5 members about the treaty and our views on nuclear weapons” at the next P5 conference in London.711

421.Mr Franklin said that while Non-Nuclear Weapon States could not be “directly” involved in the conference “because it is important that we can carry out our P5 dialogues safely”, the UK was “discussing a number of avenues to ensure a better reflection and appreciation of that conversation on what is happening with the Non-Nuclear Weapon States.”712

422.Some witnesses said this should also extend to softening the approach of the P5 to the Ban Treaty (discussed in Chapter 3). Dr Johnson said the P5 had “to be seen to be taking a constructive attitude and not just trying to undermine and attack it … Nothing can be gained by turning that into a fight in 2020.”713 Dr Grossi requested that proponents of the Ban Treaty keep issues relating to it out of the RevCon, and that critics of the Ban Treaty “abstain from using the NPT platform for this debate”.714

423.Fifth, Rear Admiral Gower said the UK “could take a lead in advocating” at RevCon that discussions be held with nuclear possessor states outside the NPT. Such talks “would be a “significant means to reduce … risks of misinterpretation and miscalculation”. However, he thought this suggestion might be best received if proposed by a Non-Nuclear Weapon State, “preferably one that is also a signatory to the Ban Treaty”, with support from the Nuclear Weapon States.715

424.Sixth, Dr Grossi said the P5 needed “to show engagement” with him, as the President-designate of the 2020 RevCon, “in the run-up to and during the conference”. He would “bring to them the sentiment of the many and will try to work with them in ways that will … preserve the integrity and usefulness of the treaty for us all”. The P5 had a “responsibility in staying engaged” and be “prepared to listen”. He intended to “consult with the P5 as frequently and intensely as I can” and hoped to work with the UK as chair of the P5 process.716

425.Assuming the chair of the P5 process from May 2019 presents a significant opportunity for the UK. It should encourage the other Nuclear Weapon States to use the P5 process for more substantive discussions, and as a forum to promote greater transparency between them.

426.As the only Nuclear Weapon State to have adopted a credible minimum deterrent, the UK should advocate reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, and outlining the conditions for moving towards credible minimum deterrence.

427.The Government should consider proposing that Nuclear Weapon States’ doctrines and postures, and increasing transparency through regular reporting on strategic weapons numbers, should be on the agenda for the next P5 conference. Such discussions could be a valuable contribution to transparency and should reduce the risk of miscalculation.

428.The Government should consider clarifying its nuclear posture at the 2020 NPT Review Conference and encouraging other members of the P5 to take similar steps. This could include providing clearer negative security assurances, considering declarations of sole purpose and a no first use commitment, and further work on de-alerting. The objective should be to reduce the possibility of misperceptions and misunderstanding during a crisis.

429.The UK should use its chairmanship of the P5 group to encourage a more constructive tone and approach by Nuclear Weapon States towards advocates of disarmament at the 2020 RevCon. It should explore further engagement between the P5 and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) on the disarmament agenda to bridge the gap between the P5 and signatories to the Ban Treaty. It should ensure that both NNWS and civil society are invited to engage in parts of any P5 meetings led by the UK.

430.Recent tensions between India and Pakistan demonstrate that it will be impossible to reduce the risk of nuclear use without engaging all nuclear possessor states. The UK should propose inviting India and Pakistan to meet the P5 on the margins of the next P5 conference.India and Pakistan have been included in discussions in the past, and this would be an opportunity to hold dialogue with the aim of reducing tensions and increasing understanding.

431.The Government should continue to engage constructively with the President-designate to the 2020 Review Conference, and seek fully to engage the members of the P5 in preparations for this conference.

432.The UK’s contribution to disarmament verification was widely welcomed by witnesses. It should continue this work, and be prepared to increase its wider funding for research on non-proliferation and disarmament.

The ‘Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ initiative

433.Dr Roberts said the UK could work with the US and NATO to “exercise leadership in the international debate about the future scope and objectives of nuclear disarmament diplomacy”. He drew attention to the US’s ‘Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ initiative in this regard717 (see Box 15).

Box 15: The US ‘Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ initiative

At the 2018 PrepCom, Dr Christopher Ford, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, US Department of State, said the US had:

“begun to articulate a new approach to disarmament diplomacy designed to seek ways to increase the odds of achieving a peaceful and stable disarmed world … by focusing upon the very ‘easing of international tension and … strengthening of trust between States’ that the Preamble of the NPT explicitly envisions ‘in order to facilitate’ disarmament. Perhaps one could call this the ‘CCND Approach’ … to stand for ‘creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament’ negotiations.”

This approach was “intended to point the way to an international disarmament agenda for all nations that is faithful to the ideals expressed in the NPT, while yet acknowledging, and honestly grappling with, the problem of geopolitical conditions in ways that the international disarmament community has rarely hitherto done.”

He said “some continuities in our thinking about what conditions would need to look like” were:

  • “Robust and reliable nonproliferation assurances”;
  • “Successful curtailment of other WMD threats”;
  • “Verification of disarmament”;
  • “Stability after ‘zero’”; and
  • “Making “zero” desirable”.

In December 2018 the US launched the ‘Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament Working Group’ initiative, to implement this work.718 In March 2019, this work was renamed as the ‘Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ initiative.

Source Dr Christopher Ford, ‘Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament: A New Approach’ (17 March 2018): https://www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/rm/2018/279386.htm [accessed 15 March 2019]

434.Ms Shetty said the initiative showed “some willingness on the part of the US, at least in rhetorical terms, to … find ways in which disarmament can be brought about”. The step-by-step process and the CCND seemed “complementary”.719 Dr Roberts said the CCND was “a logical follow-on” from longstanding US policy.720 Ms Price said the UK was interested in the initiative as “one part of the step-by-step process”.721

435.BASIC said the initiative was “to be welcomed”, but it was “not an alternative to finding concrete arms control measures that can be implemented today”.722 Dr Meier thought “Europeans should engage” but “they should make sure that this does not turn basically into a self-serving attempt to deflect disarmament pressures”.723 He suggested it might be an opportunity to engage with nuclear possessor states that are not States Parties to the NPT.724

436.Mr Plant was sceptical: “It looks more like a presentation exercise to me.” He did not think it was a change in US policy.725 Dr Zhao said that in focusing “exclusively on how the current international security environment should be improved first … before nuclear disarmament could take place” the initiative “downplays the effect of the continuous existence of nuclear weapons on complicating the international security environment.”726

437.Ms Bell said the Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative represented “a small hope that the United States is aware of its NPT Article 6 commitments and does not want to show up at the 2020 NPT Review Conference being unable to show that it has done any work in trying to further progress in disarmament.”727

438.The US’s ‘Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ initiative could be a helpful part of the step-by-step process towards eventual disarmament. We recommend that the UK should engage fully with the initiative, to seek to make it a constructive forum for engagement between Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States.

660 Written evidence from Andrey Baklitskiy (NPT0046)

664 Q 35 (Tom Plant)

665 Written evidence from Dr Lyndon Burford (NPT0032)

667 Written evidence from BASIC (NPT0020)

668 Q 34 (Shatabhisha Shetty)

669 Q 57 (Dr Elbahtimy), Q 34 (Shatabhisha Shetty), written evidence from Dr Brad Roberts (NPT0029) and written evidence from PAX (NPT0018)

672 79 (Rear Admiral John Gower), Q 136 (Dr Grossi), 3 (Izumi Nakamitsu), Q 63 (Dr Elbahtimy), and written evidence from BASIC (NPT0020)

678 Written evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (NPT0035)

681 Written evidence from Mr Schulte and Professor Wheeler (NPT0030)

685 Written evidence from Professor Gareth Evans (NPT0036)

686 Q 107; written evidence from A. Vinod Kumar (NPT0015)

688 Written evidence from Dr Tong Zhao (NPT0038)

689 Q 31 (Shatabhisha Shetty)

691 Written evidence from Andrey Baklitskiy (NPT0046) and Q 34 (Shatabhisha Shetty)

692 Written evidence from Andrey Baklitskiy (NPT0046)

696 Q 34 Rear Admiral John Gower said that the UK “might be in a position over the next 10 years to influence” such moves, because it was two-thirds of the way through a cyclical expenditure in its nuclear deterrent. Q 81

697 Q 31 (Paul Ingram) and written evidence from BASIC (NPT0020)

698 Q 34 (Paul Ingram) Dr Zhao also made this suggestion. Written evidence from Dr Tong Zhao (NPT0038)

699 34 (Paul Ingram), written evidence from PAX (NPT0018) and written evidence from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (NPT0022)

700 34 (Paul Ingram)

701 Rear Admiral John Gower, Mr Ingram and Dr Zhao said the UK was well placed to make this case, having reduced to a single strategic system. Q 27 (Paul Ingram), Q 84 (Rear Admiral John Gower), and written evidence from Dr Tong Zhao (NPT0038) Also see written evidence from Dr Sarah Tzinieris (NPT0032)

702 Q 34 (Paul Ingram)

703 Q 93 (Alexander Kmentt) and Q 112 (Dr Ritchie). Dr Ritchie suggested undertaking a study on the modalities of de-alerting the UK’s nuclear weapons.

704 Written evidence from Dr Tong Zhao (NPT0038) and from BASIC (NPT0020)

705 Q 112 (Dr Ritchie)

707 Q 31 (Shatabhisha Shetty)

708 Q 105 (Beatrice Fihn)

710 Written evidence from Dr Sarah Tzinieris (NPT0032) The New Agenda Coalition is a group of geographically diverse, middle power countries (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa). The Nuclear Threat Initiative, ‘New Agenda Coalition’: https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/new-agenda-coalition/ [accessed 13 March 2019] The Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative is a ministerial-level group of states within the framework of the NPT (Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates). The Nuclear Threat Initiative, ‘Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative’: https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/non-proliferation-and-disarmament-initiative-npdi/ [accessed 13 March 2019]

715 Q 84. Dr Grossi said that India and Pakistan were “observers who are quite close to the process”. He “often” interacted with them and expected this to increase before the 2020 RevCon. Q 136

716 Q 143. Dr Burford suggested the UK should “offer to co-chair a multilateral NPT working group” on “‘Responsibilities under Article VI’”. Written evidence from Dr Lyndon Burford (NPT0032)

717 Written evidence from Dr Brad Roberts (NPT0020)

718 Dr Christopher Ford, ‘The P5 Process and Approaches to Nuclear Disarmament: A New Structured Dialogue’ (10 December 2018): https://www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/rm/2018/288018.htm [accessed 22 March 2019]

720 Written evidence from Dr Brad Roberts (NPT0029)

722 Written evidence from BASIC (NPT0020)

726 Written evidence from Dr Tong Zhao (NPT0038)

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