Every five years, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) parties meet to review progress in limiting nuclear weapons proliferation, reducing the threat of nuclear arms and facilitating the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The current review cycle culminates in the ninth NPT Review Conference in New York starting next Monday, 27 April, to 22 May. Only five countries will not be involved: India, Israel, Pakistan, North Kore and South Sudan. The first three are 'hold-out' states which have never joined the NPT, North Korea purports to have left it and South Sudan is yet to join.

What should be an opportunity for further strengthening the Treaty is likely again to be dominated by recriminations. The Iranian nuclear deal helps, but the failure to convene the promised conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East will feed resentments. And the five NPT nuclear weapon states will face growing unhappiness over their disarmament efforts.

But recriminations should give way to renewed efforts to address mounting challenges:

  • An alarming willingness by certain governments to brandish nuclear force.
  • A continuing threat of regional proliferation spirals in the Middle East and North Asia.
  • Rapid nuclear build-up on the Indian sub-continent with no systems to manage yet alone end the race.
  • Advances in industrial and scientific expertise providing a growing number of actors with potential access to WMD technologies.
  • A decline in public interest in nuclear security issues, potentially making it easier for governments to sweep them under the carpet.

The Australian National University's Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, guided by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, has published a report on developments since the 2010 NPT Review, 'Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015'. The report is comprehensive, authoritative and a sobering tool for all participants in the upcoming Review. Of 27 'action clusters' arising from the 2010 Review, none are judged 'implemented fully' and only two show 'significant progress'.

Australia has traditionally been a leading supporter of the NPT. Both sides of Australian politics understand that it helps underpin our national security. The commitment which Australia and key regional partners Japan, South Korea and Indonesia made to the NPT in the 1970s, and our subsequent fostering of high non-proliferation standards, have made our strategic environment immeasurably safer. And the NPT is central to Australia's stringent policies instituted in the 1970s on uranium exports.

So what will be the main issues for the Review Conference, and where will Australia stand?

Australia will have a high profile: our Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna will be chair of the committee reviewing progress on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Two other committees will review progress on non-proliferation and on disarmament. As a founding member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, Australia will help drive the disarmament agenda. Australia is also the convener of the Vienna-based G-10 group which over successive Reviews has become the most influential contributor on non-proliferation and peaceful uses.

On the Middle East, the partial success in reining in Iran's nuclear program and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stock only narrows the focus further on Israel's nuclear program. The Review Conference should support a successful deal on Iran's nuclear program. Following Foreign Minister Bishop's visit to Tehran, Australia would be well placed to help articulate that support. The next phase of negotiations with Iran will centre on the role of IAEA inspections in monitoring the deal. Review Conference participants should commit the strongest political, financial and technical support to the IAEA to facilitate that complex and costly mandate.

The discussion on disarmament will focus on the P-5's failure to meet many of the modest targets set in 2010. They will be pressed to commit to further reductions of weapon stockpiles, reduce the launch-alert status of deployed weapons, and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies.

Advocates of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons will continue their campaign for a start to negotiations. Last December Austria hosted a conference on 'the humanitarian consequences' of nuclear weapons. The 180-plus participating countries included for the first time the US and UK, who concluded that it is best to have their views heard than not. China, France and Russia stayed away. Those opposed to starting negotiations argue that negotiations would be futile without the participation of states with nuclear weapons, and that such talks would distract from the potentially more profitable work on smaller tangible steps such as a ban on the production of nuclear material for weapons (the so-called 'cut-off' treaty). Australia confirmed at the Vienna Conference its view that the better way forward was to recognise the inevitability of gradualism, thus siding with the P-5 sceptics. While Australia's view is responsible, particularly as we continue to rely on the US nuclear umbrella, it will come under pressure because it can so easily be an excuse for inaction.

The US will promote work on the policy, legal and technical tools needed to verify nuclear disarmament. While this initiative will not excite those who would like to ban nuclear weapons tomorrow, it is a practical step that warrants consensus support. Australia should commit to this project, preferably in collaboration with one or more regional partners; the Asia-Pacific Safeguards Network could be the framework.

Cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be less contentious. Despite the Fukushima tragedy, some countries continue to expand their nuclear power capacities. Cooperation by NPT parties (including Australia) in nuclear power programs in non-NPT states, especially India, will be criticised by those who argue that NPT membership should be a condition for nuclear cooperation. For the many NPT parties with no plans for nuclear power, the IAEA continues its modest program of support for nuclear science applications in medicine, agriculture and industry.

How to measure the success or failure of the Review?

The public test of success of the Review will be whether or not there is agreement on a report on the implementation of the NPT over the last five years and setting goals for future strengthening. With membership as broad as the NPT, consensus is extraordinarily difficult, easily aggravated by the hot political issues of the day, and so not surprisingly not always attained.

However, the real test of success is the extent to which parties remain convinced that despite its weaknesses, the NPT serves their national and global security interests. This might be hard to read amid the acrimony of unmet expectations and regional conflict. But the global condemnation of North Korea's proliferation and the serious effort invested in a deal with Iran give cause for optimism. The way countries respond to these challenges to the NPT is the litmus test of its continuing relevance.

Photo by Flickr user James Brooks.