Tighten the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Action Plan

Despite recent progress toward halting Iran's nuclear weapons program, North Korea's recent ballistic missile test offers a grim reminder that the perils of nuclear proliferation remain grave. Indeed, risks from nuclear weapons are at all time highs, with renewed US-Russian antagonism, nuclear states' weapons modernization efforts, and risks of nuclear terrorism. To address these threats, it is essential that in concluding their review conference on May 22, the parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) not only renew but tighten commitments they made under the 2010 Action Plan.  

Unfortunately, recognition of the modest results under the Action Plan are leading some states to propose renewing it without change.  This result would be both a mistake and a lost opportunity.  What is urgently needed are rigorously formulated actions that can help build trust and the adoption of clear targets and metrics for assessing impact.  

When approved five years ago, the Action Plan gave hope to improving the treaty's impact.  On the heels of President Obama's 2009 call in Prague to eliminate nuclear weapons, the 190 states party to the treaty recommitted to its key elements, while agreeing on key actions to bring about its implementation.  

The Action Plan represented an innovative approach to better manage the treaty within existing structures -- of crucial importance given that unlike most other multilateral agreements it lacks a permanent organization to back up its implementation.  While the plan failed to prioritize among its elements, it did give the parties and other stakeholders greater focus needed to spur implementation.  

There are compelling reasons for updating and tightening the Action Plan, most notably the need to halt nuclear weapons modernization, adopt metrics to gauge progress, and improve cooperation between the parties.  

First, new developments have emerged in the five years since the Action Plan was agreed.  Key among these changes is the undeniable trend that rather than reducing weapons count, many nuclear states are developing new, more lethal weapons systems, undermining any gains from the retirement of older arms.  Growth in short, intermediate, and long-range nuclear arms in Southern Asia is amplifying risks in a dangerous part of the world.  The solution to these concerns is not simply to restate the existing action items but to undertake new commitments to reduce the lethality and numbers of weapons deployed.

Simultaneously, there have also been some clear arms control successes, particularly with Iran and Syria.  The framework emerging from the Lausanne negotiations will have Iran cease its nuclear weapons program.  Similar concerted efforts also brought Syria into compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.  The US and Russia have put the new START agreement into operation, which has helped build trust between them in arms control, even with the current tense relations between the countries.  These accomplishments provide the basis for strengthening all of the parties' commitment to the treaty.   Second, the weak execution of the current Action Plan is very clear when compared to the use of strategic frameworks among other international agreements.  State support for the strategies of treaties covering topics as diverse as biodiversity to maritime laborers show greater commitment and follow through than seen with the Action Plan.  A key difference is the fact that unlike similar strategies and plans among other treaties, the Action Plan lacks clear targets, deadlines, and an overall results orientation.  A recent assessment of the Action Plan's results prepared by the NGO Reaching Critical Will reported that many elements of the plan were unverifiable because of their loose drafting.  

Third, rather than a total failure, progress on elements of the Action Plan provides a basis on which to move forward.  The utility of these types of plans and strategies within treaties is to create frameworks for action linked to aspiration.  They provide a basis for ongoing actions that cultivate trust between the parties.   The approach is not a panacea, but as seen with other treaties undertaking similar processes, they can strengthen states' commitment to treaty frameworks and build bridges between diverse actors and agreements.

The compromise upon which the parties achieved unanimous agreement in 2010 on the Action Plan should be viewed as momentum towards making the NPT more vital after the previous decade of discord and stasis.  Failure to renew and redouble efforts risks undermining the treaty's effectiveness.  Let's hope that the parties to the NPT opt to continue the journey toward reducing threats from nuclear arms rather than reversing course or abandoning the trip altogether.