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Lessons Learned from the 2007 NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting

Dr. Christopher A. Ford, United States Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation
Remarks at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Washington, DC
June 25, 2007

I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this event, and to offer thoughts on some of the lessons that can be learned from our experience at the 2007 meeting of the Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom) for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

I. The 2007 PrepCom Meeting

For those of you who were not there, let me recap the main events of the PrepCom, which took place from April 30 through May 11 in Vienna. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the experiences of the last five-year Treaty review cycle that culminated in the 2005 Review Conference (RevCon), the major struggles were substantive ones fought out through the prism of procedure. Two issues predominated: the agenda and the Chairman’s “factual summary.”

First, there was a dispute over the draft PrepCom agenda offered by the meeting’s chairman, Ambassador Yukiya Amano of Japan. After extensive consultations in the weeks and months prior to the PrepCom, Amano had drawn up a draft agenda that, he believed, could satisfy the key players. No one seemed to like Amano’s document very much, but neither did any delegation – including ours – seem to dislike it enough to cause trouble. Amano’s draft, in other words, appeared to be a reasonable diplomatic compromise, a middle ground among Treaty Parties whose differences had seemed well-nigh irreconcilable at the 2005 RevCon, and at the 2004 PrepCom before that. Prior to the PrepCom, Amano had given the most interested parties repeated opportunities to make clear their views on his proposed agenda.

At the actual PrepCom meeting, this draft agenda received widespread support from delegations across the various regional groupings. On the first day of the meeting, however, Iran surfaced in opposition to the Chairman’s draft agenda. At issue was phrasing in the draft about “reaffirming the need for full compliance with the Treaty.” Being the NPT regime’s most conspicuous State Party scofflaw, Iran apparently regarded any unqualified reference to “compliance” as being aimed exclusively at Tehran.

Iran urged that the 2007 PrepCom instead use the agenda from the 2002 PrepCom. (This formulation had seemed adequate in 2002 – five years earlier, before most revelations about Iran’s nuclear program, about Libya’s WMD efforts, and about the A.Q. Khan proliferation network, as well as before North Korea’s announcement of withdrawal from the NPT and nuclear detonation – but it had become quite obsolete by 2007.) Failing that, Iran attempted to secure amendment of the Amano draft to specify that “compliance” referred to “all provisions of the Treaty,” and not just to nonproliferation noncompliance. Iran’s intent in this latter regard seems to have been to highlight that the PrepCom also should consider noncompliance with such obligations as the disarmament-related provisions of Article VI, thus laying the groundwork for yet another fatuous argument that an alleged lack of progress in nuclear disarmament by the nuclear weapon states somehow excuses nuclear proliferation by countries such as Iran. Amano’s draft agenda, however, had already been carefully drafted to permit discussion of any sort of noncompliance. Iran’s apparent purpose was thus not actually to secure a restatement of the obvious but, rather, to open the agenda for amendment – a move which, many delegations felt, would “open Pandora’s Box” and prevent further progress.

To their credit, other delegations held firm in a remarkable display of international unity that even included most members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – Iran’s traditional allies in international fora of this sort. In the end, Iran backed down, rejecting a clarification by the Chairman of his already clear intent in drafting the agenda, but ultimately accepting a face-saving compromise proposed by South Africa. In the end, the PrepCom adopted the Chairman’s draft agenda, but formally decided that “the reference in the agenda to ‘reaffirming the need for full compliance with the Treaty’” meant “that it will consider compliance with all the provisions of the Treaty.” In its game of diplomatic “chicken” with the rest of the world, Iran had blinked: in return for its agreement to the agenda, it received only a restatement of what had been clear all along. However, nearly seven of the ten days of the meeting had now elapsed – indicating, perhaps, the real “agenda” of the Iranians.

The second issue arose at the end of the meeting, when Iran for a time refused to permit the adoption of the PrepCom’s Final Report, which included the text of the Chairman’s “factual summary.” Iran claimed to be offended because this “factual summary” – a recounting of issues discussed that meeting chairs have prepared as called for in the Final Document of the 2000 RevCon – recorded that States Party were concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and many countries criticized Iran’s noncompliance with the requirements of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions. Iran’s position was ironic, for Amano’s report had treated its noncompliance astonishingly lightly, discussing Iran only in one short paragraph of only eight lines buried among the 51 paragraphs of that nine-page, single-spaced document. Such incidental treatment of the Iran issue did not provide an accurate representation of the heavy weight of well-merited criticism directed at Iran at the PrepCom. The Chairman apparently hoped to forestall procedural problems by watering down his comments about Iranian noncompliance, but to no avail. Iran remained determined to obstruct all proceedings if it were mentioned by name at all, and the Chairman’s “preemptive dilution” had the effect only of guaranteeing an unrepresentative record.

Fortunately, however, Iran failed to hold the meeting hostage for long over this issue. During the flurry of last-minute negotiations, Iran’s ambassador found himself again uncomfortably alone. Once again, Iran backed down, accepting a Russian “compromise” proposal under which Iran accepted what, not even an hour before, it had expressly and vehemently rejected as a threat to its “national security.” The Chairman’s summary would not be annexed formally to the Final Report, but would be included in the record as a Chairman’s working paper, following a precedent established in 2004.

II. Substantive Lessons

A. Constructive Debate

Though NPT fora are too often distinguished by repetitiousness, the 2007 PrepCom nonetheless saw the introduction or development of some important new issues:

  • Building upon work pioneered in large part by the European Union (EU) at the 2005 RevCon, for instance, the issue of Treaty withdrawal was discussed in some detail, often with an explicit eye to preventing Iran from following in North Korea’s footsteps. The specific suggestions made by the United States, France, and other delegations on this subject are emerging as a key topic for the 2010 review cycle.
  • The United States introduced the issue of leadership rotation among the NPT’s three political groupings for PrepCom chairmanships and RevCon presidencies. The EU, Canada, and Cuba also discussed the issue of rotation, from slightly different perspectives. The subject has clearly become a focus for discussion, with the possibility of a new approach being implemented beginning with the next review cycle.
  • Also led by the United States, this meeting also saw the beginnings of a new dialogue about how to create a global security environment conductive to achieving and sustaining nuclear disarmament. If this dialogue continues, it can help move the discourse beyond the naïve tendency of many who call for rapid nuclear disarmament to regard disarmament as a process that can occur independent of context.

Overseen by a gentle but firm hand from the chair, the 2007 PrepCom thus offered a good example of how efficiently good discussions can be conducted.

B. Disciplined Time-Management

One side-effect of the delay caused by Iran in opposing the Chairman’s agenda was that delegations thereafter showed themselves capable of commendable focus and discipline during the brief structured debate that took place under the Chairman’s revised “indicative timetable.” This is all the more remarkable, given that “special time” for discussion of the topic newest to PrepCom discussions and most distasteful to Iran –how to deter withdrawal from the NPT by Treaty violators – appeared only at the very end of the timetable, and could so easily have been threatened by further delays.

As it was, the three days of structured debate saw countries limit their oral remarks to only a few, carefully chosen points each. This allowed rapid progress through the abbreviated timetable, but still permitted the construction of a detailed substantive record because Parties released longer versions of their remarks and introduced numerous working papers, all of which will be made available in the official record. In fact, many delegates and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) speculated openly that if delegations could show such discipline at future meetings, the time set aside for PrepComs and RevCons could be significantly shortened. This is perhaps a lesson for all of us, for if Parties can find a way to preclude having procedural disputes cut into what time is made available, we probably could have much shorter meetings and still use them to good effect.

C. The Power of Unity

Another lesson concerns how effective the international community can be when it chooses to stand together against a troublemaker. Despite their many disagreements on many issues, the States Party proved remarkably unified in their commitment to the integrity of the Treaty review process as they stood up to Iran’s efforts to obstruct and delay the proceedings. Iran’s two notable defeats during the PrepCom were occasioned by the almost startling unity displayed by other delegations in the face of such gamesmanship. Even NAM delegations declined to support Tehran, with some key NAM states playing critical roles in pressuring Iran and bringing about a resolution to the disputes.

III. Procedural Lessons

The squabble over the draft agenda that cost us several precious days of debate also offers lessons for the future. For months, the United States had been urging the adoption of a new approach to agenda formulation. In our view, the best way to avoid procedural squabbling and ensure maximum time for constructive substantive debates is to eschew politically-provocative issue-specific call-outs in the agenda and instead adopt a simple and all-inclusive formulation that permits full discussion of any subject that any Party might wish to raise. We argued that the best agenda would focus upon “principles, objectives and ways to promote the full implementation of the NPT, taking into account all facts and circumstances currently affecting the Treaty’s operation, with particular reference to the realization of its provisions and the purposes of the Preamble.”

The 2007 agenda dispute, as did the ones in 2004 and 2005 before it, illustrates the wisdom of finding an elegant way around procedural challenges. The 1995 Review and Extension Conference agreed that the purpose of PrepCom meetings should be to “consider principles, objectives, and ways in order to promote the full implementation of the Treaty, as well as its universality.” It also noted that it is the purpose of Review Conferences to “assure[] that the purposes of the Preamble and the provisions of the Treaty are being realized,” and that RevCons should both evaluate the results of the period they are reviewing and look forward by

“identify[ing] the areas in which, and the means through which, further progress should be sought in the future … [and] address[ing] specifically what might be done to strengthen the implementation of the Treaty and to achieve its universality.”

Why can we not follow such simple formulas? Nothing compels us to hobble ourselves with complex and controversial agendas. If anything, the review process would be much more effective were States Party able to agree to a simple agenda formula and then move rapidly to the substantive debate all Parties agree is needed.

Unfortunately, calls for such a formula prior to the PrepCom were apparently not sufficiently persuasive. The fact that agenda disputes again caused harmful delays at this otherwise constructive and harmonious meeting, however, suggests that if States Party are serious about ensuring that the 2010 RevCon avoids paralysis, they should stop trying to insert contentious points explicitly into the agenda and adopt instead a simple and all-inclusive formula. The generally constructive atmosphere at the PrepCom, and the willingness of the United States and other major players to address the full range of NPT topics, should encourage States Party in the future to draw a firm line between procedure and substance, and to seek to address the latter through the allocation of adequate time for debate, rather than through the agenda proper.

The 2007 PrepCom also suggests a further lesson about how little agendas seem to matter in the first place. Anyone familiar with the recent history of PrepCom and RevCon meetings cannot have missed how relatively insignificant such formulations actually have been, in practical terms. Even if an agenda formulation explicitly precluded some subject matter, it would be unlikely to be adopted by consensus if a Party wished to discuss that topic. Moreover, even if such an agenda were adopted it is very hard to imagine that any Party would refuse to bring up and discuss any subject that it felt important to the operation of the Treaty. It is unclear how much significance agendas have in determining how a meeting actually comports itself.

The dirty little secret of the past few years of agenda fights is that agenda formulations are not intrinsically important, but acquire political salience to the extent that Parties pursue substantive disagreements through procedural mechanisms. It is easy to see why one Party might feel compelled to join a procedural fight once another country had first crossed the line by trying to “spin” an agenda for political gain, but what if someone called a procedural war and no one came?

As the Iranian obstruction dragged itself out during the 2007 PrepCom, there was growing interest – especially in Western circles – for commencing unstructured debate without an agenda while consultations on the agenda continued on the margins. In this fashion, it was argued, the PrepCom could salvage something from its procedural meltdown by creating a debate record to serve as a foundation for the review cycle, whether or not an agenda was ultimately agreed.

In the end, however, it was decided not to pursue substantive debate in the absence of an agenda, because some NAM governments opposed doing so and it was deemed expedient not to press the issue. But the episode is interesting because some NAM governments apparently opposed debate without an agenda precisely because they liked investing agenda formulations with substantive and political significance, and because they therefore wished to make not having one as costly as possible. To agree to debate without an agenda would, they asserted, set a “bad precedent” because it would make it easier for someone to block an agenda in the future. If such debate occurred, in other words, it might become apparent how little these meetings actually need a formal agenda in the first place, thereby making it harder to employ the agenda for political ends because controversial formulations could be circumvented at little cost.

A lesson of 2007, however, is that such attitudes need to change if it is ever to be possible for the review process to get past this perennial hurdle of divisive agenda squabbling. Some who opposed debate without an agenda at this PrepCom worried that without an agenda, the meeting would just be “a seminar.” This comment, however, reflects confusion about the nature of the review process. NPT meetings constitute a unique global forum in which the States Party can come together, discuss key issues, and hopefully agree upon how to meet the most important challenges affecting the Treaty regime. Implementation of steps that support the NPT’s objectives occurs elsewhere, in the actions of states acting individually or in concert to do such things as prevent proliferation, persuade non-Parties to joint the Treaty, promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, or achieve disarmament. In the end, therefore, an NPT meeting is usually rather like a seminar, with or without an agenda. It is not “just” a seminar, however, for it is one made up of participants who make important decisions and take action in the real world, in part on the basis of what is discussed at NPT meetings. Far from being a reason to sneer at such meetings, this is precisely why they are important and valuable.

IV. Setting the “Tone” for the Review Cycle

Finally, there is the political and diplomatic importance of setting a good “tone” for the review process. Engagement and dialogue were high priorities for the United States, and we produced a wide range of public position papers in advance of the PrepCom, on a scale that we traditionally employ only during review conferences. We focused a considerable part of our engagement effort on disarmament, a topic on which we have inaccurately been perceived as being unwilling or afraid to engage. We did so not because we view disarmament as the most critical challenge facing the NPT –nonproliferation noncompliance enjoys that dubious honor – but because others have called for further transparency and dialogue by the nuclear weapon states on this subject, and because too many continue deliberately to deny our record of reductions and transparency its proper due.

In addition to releasing four new, disarmament-related papers in March 2007 and producing a brochure for the PrepCom meeting itself, we engaged on this topic for months beforehand in fora ranging from academic conferences to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. At the PrepCom in Vienna, we introduced key papers into the record, and hosted a two-hour briefing and discussion session for anyone, delegations and NGOs alike, who wished to engage on the disarmament issue. Sadly, almost no delegations bothered to attend, hopefully because American outreach on this topic is finally making some headway. I am happy to report, however, that the NGOs filled our briefing room and had out what I am sure Rebecca will remember as a lively exchange of views with our Delegation.

V. Conclusion

Let me conclude my remarks today with an excerpt from the final U.S. address to the PrepCom:

“. . . Though the time available for these substantive discussions has been distressingly constrained . . . it has been striking the degree to which so many delegations have used this limited time so well.

“For months … as this Preparatory Committee meeting … approached[,] … the refrain one heard again and again was that all hoped that this meeting would establish a good “tone” or “atmosphere” for the NPT review cycle that is now beginning, and which will culminate in the Review Conference of 2010. They hoped it would be possible for delegations to overcome division and dissention over the meeting’s agenda, and for us all to engage in open, honest, and serious debate about how the NPT regime can meet the grave challenges that face it today. Indeed, some even dared to hope that the States Party of the NPT would be able to show themselves effectively united in their support for the integrity of the Treaty, committed to its goals, and capable of speaking as if with one voice in the face of challenges to the Treaty’s effectiveness and viability.

“Well, … in perhaps surprising ways, and perhaps against the odds, this Preparatory Committee meeting seems to have been a success. It offers … a good foundation upon which those committed to the success of the NPT regime can build during the remainder of the Treaty review cycle.”

Thank you.

Released on July 9, 2007

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