GP Interview - Brando Benifei (MEP) on the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review

By Valentina Amuso - 28 April 2015
GP Interview - Brando Benifei (MEP) on the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Global Policy's Valentina Amuso interviews Member of European Parliament, Brando Benifei, about the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review.

The 2015 NPT Review Conference is a stark reminder of the nuclear threats still facing the world. Concerns of proliferation to non-state actors have grown with the rise of groups such as ISIS, whilst the disarmament agenda remains stalled by great power politics.

MEP Benifei emphasises the acute nature of these problems, but also stresses that we are perhaps in a unique moment for progress and change. He comments the potential role of the EU, US-Iranian relations, and why there is reason for optimism from the Humanitarian Initiative.


VA: How do you envision the agenda of the NPT Review and the potential it may yield, in relation to the nuclear threats facing the world?

BB: In the last few years we have been experiencing a worrisome worsening of the overall global security scenario. If we just think of two macroscopic crises, such as Ukraine and the raise of IS, first in Syria and Iraq and now spreading across Lybia, we can understand how delicate it can be to start the forthcoming 2015 NPT Review Conference in such a tense context.

Especially in the first case, a nuclear threat risks not to be that remote an option anymore, or at least it is used as an instrument for pressure by Russia in its military operations in Ukraine, as announced by Vladimir Putin one month ago. In the second case, the spread of IS gloomily revives the much feared risk of nuclear weapons to fall in the hands of non-state actors.

So far, we must say that the NPT per se has held up remarkably well, in that it prevented previous predictions that we would have many more nuclear weapon states (NWS) by now. Nevertheless, this does not mean it is a perfect tool towards disarmament either; the core problem being that it does not contain a legal obligation to ban nuclear weapons, leaving it de facto to another instrument. As we know, after so many years from the entry into force of the NPT, such legal obligation has not been established yet. Moreover, we must also be aware of the fact that, despite being one of the international treaties signed by most countries, the NPT is fundamentally flawed in that only 5 of the 9 Nuclear Weapon States are represented; thus leaving 4 Nuclear countries aside (Israel, Pakistan and India did not sign it from the start, while North Korea recently withdrew from it), as well as in the provision of a de facto veto power for the 5 NWS for any amendments to the treaty.

VA: What are the main challenges to the emergence of a functioning non proliferation regime?

BB: The greatest challenge to the nonproliferation norm today is the lack of implementation of the obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament. We still have 16,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, but while all Nuclear Weapon States officially claim they want “global zero”, the credibility of this claim is quickly evaporating, as each of them is at the same time planning massive modernizations of their nuclear weapons and associated delivery vehicles. Globally, over 100 billion dollars are spent each year, all for a weapon that should never be used.

The 2010 Review Conference of the NPT can be considered a success in that a consensus outcome was reached, which is not always the case, including the Action Plan detailing 22 steps to be taken. Unfortunately, the past pattern continued: States agree to consensus outcomes, but these do not get implemented.

Procrastination, even on the most elementary steps, has been going on for decades. The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty is still not ratified, even though it was negotiated by consensus in 1996; even though it is a non-proliferation measure and thus in the interest of nuclear armed states; and, even though the US and others still claim that ratification of this treaty is a priority for them.

We are in a paradoxical situation whereby the deadliest weapon of mass destruction remains to date the only one never officially being banned (as opposed to chemical and biological weapons, for instance).

Of course, the framework agreement reached only a few weeks ago between the E3+3 countries and Iran is a positive sign in light of the upcoming NPT conference. Nevertheless, there are also worrying signs (e.g. the worsening security context) that make it difficult to predict whether the Conference will yield change or just reiterate a generic commitment to preserve the status quo. Reality is, Nuclear Weapon States still find it hard to abandon the possibility to rely on nuclear weapons (in a word, deterrence), as an instrument of power and political pressure, even more so as the world becomes more unstable and faces new threats.

VA: How is the EU addressing these issues?

BB: I would like to stress the role of the EU in this regard. It was disappointing that the European Parliament, despite holding a debate on the Treaty Review Conference, did not vote on a Resolution for the first time in years. I made it clear during the plenary session debate that we were losing a historic opportunity. We have now a possibility to bring the issue back to the table; we are fighting to have a Resolution approved already in the next plenary, taking place at the beginning of the Review Conference. This would provide Ms. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, with fundamental mandate by the Parliament to negotiate on behalf of the EU. We cannot miss this opportunity.

VA: How can we understand the recent developments between the US and Iran, including the interference from the US Senate in the letter that came before the framework agreement? How can this be understood in light of the NPT?

BB: As I mentioned, the developments in the talks with Iran have yielded quite promising results. Of course we will see in June if the overall framework agreed upon by the parties will hold. Anyway, it is positive already to note how the negotiations have pushed the two parties most involved, Iran and the US, to engage in constant dialogue and exchange, even though on a dialectical basis. This can only be seen as a good sign, as compared to the relationship between the two countries in the recent past.

Of course, the letter by the Republican Senators represented a bump on the road and the exchange with Mr. Mohammad Javad Zarif was particularly harsh, but the potential crisis was promptly reabsorbed. More recently, the issue of the timing in the lifting of the sanctions has recently emerged as the most controversial between Iran and the US, and is causing internal political difficulties for the Administration, so much remains to be fixed in view of the 30th June deadline.

VA: Does Article X of the NPT represent a fundamental weakness in the NPT framework?

BB: Indeed, article X can represent not only a weakness in the Treaty, but also a danger, insofar as it allows any member party to withdraw unilaterally from the Treaty, in particular to start/make public its own nuclear program, as was the case for North Korea. Just imagine if no agreement was reached with Iran and if the fragile mutual trust between the parties would be damaged: what would stop Iran from making use of the provisions of Article X? In this sense, I would like to stress that the European Union has a major role to play in the continuous building of mutual trust: we have to be proactive in restoring normal economic relations with Tehran, which constitutes the strongest bargain argument for it to accept the conditions posed by the E3+3. The EU has far stronger ties with Iran than does the US in this regard. Failure to do so will result in growing disappointment and disenchantment by Tehran and a reason to eventually stop implementing the agreement.

VA: What do you think of the Humanitarian initiative? Is there any chance that such an initiative will have any impact on disarmament policy? If yes, how? If no, then what use is it?

BB: The Humanitarian initiative constitutes an innovative, alternative approach to overcome the impasse of the NPT. If NWS do not move forward in implementing the agreed measures on disarmament and taking action towards a legal ban of nuclear weapons, the Humanitarian initiative tries to fill the gap, to take the lead, by the initiative of few Non-Nuclear Weapon States. After years of disappointment on the issue of disarmament, the latter made their political efforts more concrete in changing the narrative on nuclear weapons, shifting the focus from deterrence to the potential impact on humankind of the use of such weapons. It is hardly deniable that such impact would be disastrous; hence the force of the Initiative lies precisely in that it is based on objective fact. Moreover, it focuses on human beings rather than on states, as such weapons cannot distinguish between civilians and the military, which is generally perceived as contrary to international humanitarian law. What is more, the use of one or more nuclear weapons against one country can have consequences that spread over other regions and over time, to the point that it can even alter the basic Earth parameters (i.e. temperatures).

The Humanitarian initiative will be presented to the Review Conference for the first time since its inception. The Conference held in Vienna last December was attended by 156 countries and, quite significantly, two NWS, the United Kingdom and even the United States, were present. This shows there is growing attention to this approach. We will see if it manages to serve as an instrument of political pressure to the NWS in finding an agreement on a serious legal ban. In any case, it will surely play a role. In the event that the Review Conference fails to yield a consensus document, which is generally perceived to represent a "success", the promoters of the Initiative are ready to launch a Conference for a legal ban anyway. The role of this new approach could therefore be key in reviving action towards disarmament and non-proliferation, moving beyond the NPT and its potential failures.

Brando Benifei, European Federalist, is a newly elected S&D MEP from La Spezia, Italy. He has been chair of European Affairs for the Young Democrats and Vice-President of ECOSY (youth organization of PES) for 4 years. His main fields of legislative work in the EP are Employment and Social Affairs and Foreign Affairs. Valentina Amuso is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at Durham University (UK). Her research focuses on the analysis of the negotiation process between the European Union and the United States on the Transatlantic International Trade and Investment Partnership.

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