Editorial: After breakdown of NPT Review Conference, path toward nuclear abolition must be rebuilt

What was the meaning of the deliberations that took place during the four-week gathering? The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, held at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, came to an end without a consensus being reached on a final document. That the second conference in a row had broken down, after the last one held seven years ago, left all of us dejected.

The result has led to a situation in which the NPT regime, which has imperfectly served as a brake on nuclear proliferation for more than a half-century, has lost credibility after its limits were exposed. It is entirely unacceptable that, far from a path toward nuclear abolition being forged, momentum toward even nuclear disarmament was lost.

Needless to say, Russia is the party that bears the blame for the breakdown, as that nation expressed last-minute objections to the draft final document, which the participating parties had been busy modifying right up until the last minute. Russia opposed a part of the draft that referred to the importance of returning to Ukraine control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which was seized by Russia after their invasion of Ukraine, although the document did not call out Russia by name. There is great resentment at that nation’s brazen and unscrupulous attitude of refusal to deal with its own reckless acts of violence.

There is no doubt that proactive deliberations were hindered by the deteriorating situation surrounding nuclear issues in Ukraine, including Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons and the unprecedented crisis posed by its battle for control of nuclear power plants in that country. It was therefore only natural that the United States, Europe, Japan, and other nations issued a joint statement about how Russia has weakened the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the very significance of the NPT itself.

However, there is one thing to consider. Even if a final document had been agreed upon, the conference might not have been called a success, given the content considered merely “better than nothing.” Daily news reports highlighted that various points at issue that had surfaced during the deliberations had been gutted one after another amidst the negotiations aimed at obtaining approval from all parties for the draft final document.

Clearly, excessive consideration was paid to the nuclear weapons states. For instance, the wording “no first use of nuclear weapons” was readily deleted because the United States, the United Kingdom, and France raised objections. The demand for suspension of the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons disappeared from the draft because China, a country aiming to enhance its own nuclear capabilities, opposed the statement. The wording that had highlighted the significance of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), whose First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW was held earlier this year in June, was also removed.

On the other hand, the setting of numerical targets and deadlines for nuclear disarmament sought by non-nuclear weapons states was shelved. The section in the draft final document that called for the United States and Russia to seek agreement on a successor to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) also went up in smoke.

That the NPT is being said to have regressed as a result of the conference, by which nuclear weapons states are obligated to make sincere efforts to reduce nuclear arms, is only natural. Russia was not the only country to blame — the nuclear weapons states should also hang their heads in shame at their own passive attitude.

The failure of the meeting will once again raise the question of the role of the A-bombed nation of Japan. Japan’s national government, which was expected to act as a mediator between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons nations, failed to make an impact at the meeting.

Yesterday, Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was the first prime minister of Japan to attend an NPT Review Conference, showed his appreciation to other countries for not disagreeing with the draft final document while, at the same time, criticizing Russia. Although he mentioned the importance of maintaining and strengthening the NPT, one would be forgiven for wondering whether the prime minister fully appreciates the reality of the NPT regime’s descent into dysfunction.

The next NPT Review Conference is scheduled to be held in 2026. The world must not sit idly by, leaving everything up to the NPT conference deliberations. The elimination of nuclear weapons is the only real solution to the nuclear crisis. Given the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons, the international community and Japan must work to rebuild a path, based on the TPNW, toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on August 28, 2022)