Top 3 things I learned at the NPT Prepcom (so far)

The NPT Prepcom continues in Vienna, though the chair is building in some nice lengthy pauses for consultations and to draft his report. I’ve been to a few NPT meetings in my time, and decided to share the top 3 things I got from this meeting. Hopefully some of these things will make it into the Chair’s summary, but having been to this rodeo before I know not to hold my breath.

1.     Women are significantly under represented at NPT meetings, despite the fact that nuclear weapons have a disproportionate impact on female bodies.

Probably the best side event I attended during the Prepcom was hosted by Sweden and Ireland and discussed gender, development and nuclear weapons. Speakers at the event presented information, including statistics found in the ILPI & UNIDIR report on the subject, as well as referred to the 30th anniversary since Carol Cohn first published her articles—“Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” and “Slick ‘ems, Glick ‘ems, Christmas Trees, and Cookie Cutters: Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb” which detail the overwhelming and unashamed sexual imagery associated with nuclear weapons. In her presentation, Ray Acheson also raised “the physical impacts of a nuclear weapon detonation on women’s bodies, but there are also ways they are increasingly exposed to radiation due to social norms.”

A working paper submitted to the PrepCom by Ireland raises the important point that “we must approach our commitments to disarmament of nuclear weapons with due regard also to our commitments under humanitarian law, to sustainable development, gender equality and our commitments under the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. We cannot continue to maintain, modernize and improve weapons which are now known beyond any scientific doubt to have disproportionate gendered impacts on women.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this issue must be reflected in the Chair’s outcome document, and elaborated throughout the Review Cycle.

2.     Counting rules need to change.

There’s a problem with the way disarmament is counted. The numbers of missiles may go down in some places, but their killing capacity doesn’t. Fewer missiles flying should mean more people dying- but that’s exactly what’s happening. In some countries, there is a push to MIRV missiles again (that means putting multiple warheads on the same missile). This has got to stop. We cannot congratulate States for bringing down the number of missiles when they’re increasing the number of warheads attached on the remainder.  The way of counting needs to change.

There is hope for this. Several States (continue) calling for baseline information on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes. That will give information on the warhead capacity, and will offer an alternative to assess what real reductions are actually taking place in the arsenals. When you count how much stuff you made to build your bombs, and then count how much stuff you took out of bombs you disarmed, and you put the bomb making stuff into safe and secure facilities to make sure it can never be a bomb again, then you’re really disarming.  (Or as favoured relatives would say “now you’re cookin’ with gas!”).  It’s time for this discussion to be taken to all parts of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, and for some serious pressure to be put on all  those that can make the bomb building stuff (not just the nuclear armed- in case that’s not totally clear).

3.     A lot of States remain stuck protecting the status quo.

It gets me every time. States give these grandiose general debate statements calling for a nuclear weapons free world, committing themselves to the goals of the treaty, and then at the end of the day, the actual working papers and ideas they put forward don’t rock any boats, don’t risk making anyone uncomfortable, and don’t challenge the status quo.

Take the NPDI as an example. Here’s this cross regional group, came together in 2010 to get that Action Plan implemented, and it chooses to focus on a couple of key areas, like transparency. They put out a template for how the Nuclear Weapons States should submit reports (which, we all remember, the nuclear weapon States agreed to do), but, the Nuclear Weapons States didn’t like the template, or even the idea of all presenting the same information. So, this time, they come with another suggestion. Basically taking the plan from 2010 and suggesting each State report on what it did. Great idea. Except, one little problem- they left out any responsibility for themselves (or others) to report on activity reducing the reliance on nuclear weapons in security strategies or doctrines.

This oversight is just one example of ways that some States just aren’t making things uncomfortable enough to create change.

At the same time, though not discussed nearly as much as many people thought it would be, the majority of States parties to the NPT are looking to make things uncomfortable for those that benefit from the status quo, and they’re making nuclear weapons illegal. This new legal instrument will be like adding oars to the status quo boat- both providing stability and the tools to rock it when necessary.


Overall, the first Prepcom in this Review Cycle has been generally straightforward. The procedural matters were dealt with quickly and efficiently. The extended General Debate presented no significant position changes (no one announced they were unilaterally disarming, no one announced they were escaping the nuclear bulls eye, I mean umbrella, they cower under, Egypt condemned the failure to create a Middle East Zone free of WMD, the NAM said its amazing and everyone supported peaceful access to nuclear technology).

If the Chair’s report manages to address gender issues, the way disarmament is measured, and the ban, it will set the stage for concrete action for all areas of the treaty.