Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym


Indefinite Extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: Risks and Reckonings

ACRONYM Report No.7, September 1995

Part I: Introduction

The primary purpose of this report is to look at the arguments, decisions and dynamics of the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference (NPTREC), in terms of what states parties said and did at the time. Although many governments had stressed the necessity for consideration of the review and extension decisions to be interactive and interrelated, it turned out that they followed two parallel but largely separate tracks at the Conference. This is reflected in the structure of the report. Part I provides introduction and background. Part II considers what led up to the extension decision, examining the issues raised during the General Debate in plenary, and then the role of the President's Consultations on strengthening review and implementation. Part III looks closely at the review debates in the three Main Committees and considers reasons for the failure to agree a Final Declaration. Part IV assesses the outcome within the context of political behaviour and actions in the four months immediately following. It examines the strengths and weaknesses of the decisions and looks at some implications for the future.

Summary of Decisions

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), described as the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, was made permanent without a vote on 11 May 1995. Of 179 states now party to the NPT, 174 participated in the decision, which was taken during the NPT Review and Extension Conference, 17 April to 12 May 1995, in New York

The decision to extend the NPT indefinitely was agreed as part of a 'politically binding package' of three resolutions proposed by the Conference President, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka. The package comprised:

  • Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty;
  • Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; and
  • Extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

A fourth resolution on the Middle East, formally proposed by the depositary states - United States (US), Russian Federation and United Kingdom (UK) - was also adopted without a vote. This was a watered down version of a draft from 14 Arab states putting pressure on Israel, which has refused to join the NPT and is thought to have a significant nuclear arsenal.

The NPT Conference failed to agree a final declaration on the review and implementation of the Treaty since 1990. The reports from Main Committees II and III, on safeguards and non-military uses, were almost completely agreed, but the report from Main Committee I, on nuclear disarmament, was a mess which, in the time available, the Drafting Committee failed to resolve. In the circumstances, the differences between the nuclear-weapon states, which wanted approval for progress in the past five years, and non-aligned states, which wanted to bind them into a programme for future nuclear disarmament, proved intractable. The Conference agreed that the Main Committee Reports be attached to the Final Document. They are interesting for what they reveal about the range of disagreements on nuclear disarmament and the areas of hard-won agreement, on strengthening safeguards, transshipment of nuclear materials and so-called peaceful nuclear explosions for example, but they have no legal standing or authority.

The Final Approach
Four of the five nuclear-weapon states - US, Russia, UK and France - had made the indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT a major foreign policy objective. Enormous amounts of political, economic and diplomatic energy had gone into achieving this objective. This intensified after the near debacle of the Third Preparatory Committee in September 1994, when Iran outmanoeuvred the Western states and forced serious consideration to be given to the question of voting on several alternative extension proposals. Delegations of ambassadors and trade representatives criss-crossed the globe in 'demarches' to illustrious and obscure capitals alike, to persuade governments to join the NPT (if not already members) and sign up for indefinite extension. Many did. Whole alliances, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the South Pacific Forum (SPF), pledged themselves to support indefinite extension. This translated into a large number of votes before the Conference even started (although, as it turned out, membership of such an alliance did not guarantee support for indefinite extension: Papua New Guinea was a prominent member of the SPF which lobbied for a different option).

Certain NPT watchers (government and non-government) played the numbers game feverishly, concluding just before the Conference that there was a bare majority of commitments to indefinite extension. But from the beginning there was the shared understanding that a bare majority, though fulfilling the legal requirements, would not satisfy the political necessities. Treaties such as the NPT, with limited resources for verification, depend as much on the authority of international credibility as on their specific technical and legal provisions. The developing countries, grouped into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), had called for decision by consensus. Even the Westerners who argued that a majority was sufficient wanted the largest majority they could get, to confer legitimacy on the norm against nuclear proliferation which a permanent NPT sought to enshrine.

In a sudden fit of anxiety, it seemed, the nuclear-weapon states began pulling rabbits out of the hat in the days before the opening of the Conference on 17 April:

  • 4 April: UK announced withdrawal of WE-177 nuclear free fall bombs by end 1998;
  • 6 April: At the nuclear test ban talks in Geneva, France and the UK withdrew their proposal for safety tests to be exempted;
  • 6 April: France, Russia, the UK and the US issued a 'Joint Declaration in Connection with the NPT' in which they welcomed the cessation of the nuclear arms race, underlined the importance of harmonised security assurances, and solemnly reaffirmed their commitment to Article VI of the NPT;
  • 11 April: the UN Security Council unanimously adopted UNSC 984 (1995) which updated the 1968 positive security assurances in a common statement from China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.
Not quite a rabbit, as it emerged through multilateral negotiations, the 23 March agreement by the CD of a mandate to negotiate a ban of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes ('Fissban') should also be noted.

Many non-nuclear-weapon countries had reservations about indefinite extension because they considered that the five year reviews and a periodic extension decision provided their only leverage to ensure compliance by the nuclear-weapon states. But for most, a stable and long term - if not permanent - NPT was also vital for their own national security interests. The tool of leverage - the threat to pull out or topple the NPT - was something they simultaneously wanted and feared. The non-nuclear-weapon states of the Western and Eastern European States ended up supporting indefinite extension, though not all supported it 'unconditionally'.

The NAM group of NPT members, comprising more than a hundred, were divided by regional and economic interests and their relationships with one or more of the big powers. Many opposed indefinite extension, for a variety of reasons. But with only 60 countries worldwide with nuclear facilities and programmes, the issue was remote and academic for many others. They were happy to exact trading favours and aid in return for a promise to agree a permanent Treaty. For these reasons, it may never have been feasible for the NAM to develop a common position. A meeting of Foreign Ministers in Bandung was planned for 25-27 April but by that time it was far too late. As the Conference opened, there was no common strategy and no effective NAM organisation, and it showed.

The picture was different in the Middle East. Early in the year, Egypt began to push hard on regional security issues, particularly Israel's status as a non-NPT member with a nuclear arsenal believed to number around 200 warheads. Egypt argued that it could not back indefinite extension unless Israel joined the NPT, while Israel refused to commit itself until peace and stability were established in the region. The US employed shuttle diplomacy, with Vice President Al Gore taking a prominent role in trying to reassure Egypt. In the event, the Arab states entered the conference with a priority focus on universality. They withheld their support on extension to ensure that Israel's nuclear posture would be addressed.

With these features and a host of large and small policy considerations, the stage was set for 175 delegations to meet together to decide the fate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


The NPT was negotiated multilaterally, signed in 1968, and entered into force on 5 March 1970. To attract participation by non-nuclear-weapon states, the NPT enshrined two kinds of bargain: cooperation in developing nuclear energy in exchange for foregoing nuclear weapons; and nuclear disarmament in exchange for the renunciation of nuclear weapons. Alternatively, some parties refer to the Treaty's three pillars: nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear cooperation for non-military purposes, and nuclear disarmament.

To encourage non-proliferation, while recognising that five states - the 'P-5' permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: US, USSR/Russia, UK, France and China - already possessed nuclear weapons, the NPT described different obligations for non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-weapon states. The non-nuclear-weapon states parties undertake not to receive, acquire, control, or attempt to develop nuclear weapons (Article II). The nuclear-weapon state parties agree not to transfer, assist or induce any non-nuclear-weapon state to manufacture, acquire or control a nuclear weapon (Article I). Furthermore, the nuclear-weapon states undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race at an early date, with a commitment to nuclear disarmament, and to general and complete disarmament (Article VI). While the non-nuclear-weapon states also agree to conclude safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure their compliance with the Treaty (Article III), no specific verification is imposed on the nuclear-weapon states.

As an inducement to non-nuclear-weapon states, the NPT not only declared the 'inalienable right' of states parties to develop nuclear energy, but also the right to participate in 'the fullest possible exchange' of equipment, materials and technology for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, qualifying these rights with reference to Articles I and II.

The nuclear-weapon states wanted the NPT to be of indefinite duration from the beginning, but several countries, notably Italy, Germany and Sweden, had reservations. They wanted to keep open a future possibility of developing nuclear weapons if, for example, the non-proliferation regime failed, and Kennedy's feared 20 or more states with nuclear weapons transpired. They wanted to be able to join the NPT in good faith, but have the right to assess its effectiveness and take account of future international security conditions. To meet these concerns, two unusual mechanisms were incorporated: five-yearly review conferences of states parties (Article VIII.3) and a limited duration of twenty-five years, after which an extension conference would decide on the Treaty's renewal (Article X.2).

Article X.2 states that:

Twenty five years after the entry into force of the Treaty, a conference shall be convened to decide whether the Treaty shall continue in force indefinitely, or shall be extended for an additional fixed period or periods. This decision shall be taken by a majority of the Parties to the Treaty

The Treaty did not specify how the decision should be taken nor how the different options would operate.

To comply with this requirement, the states parties decided to hold the Extension Conference in New York, in April-May 1995. To prepare for the Conference, they held four sessions of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) during 1993-95 to agree the agenda, structure, financing, provision and coverage of background documents, and rules of procedure for the Conference.

Countdown to April 1995

Four Preparatory Committees (PrepCom) were held during 1993-95 to agree the agenda, structure and rules of procedure for the Conference and the extension decision:

First PrepCom session, New York, 10-14 May 1993, chaired by Ambassador Jan Hoekema of the Netherlands

Second PrepCom session, New York, 17-21 January 1994, chaired by Ambassador André Erdös of Hungary

Third PrepCom session, Geneva, 12-16 September 1994, chaired by Ambassador Isaac Ayewah of Nigeria

Fourth PrepCom session, New York, 23-27 January 1995, chaired by Ambassador Pasi Patokallio of Finland

Altogether 154 states parties, eight non-party state observers and 91 NGOs have attended one or more of the PrepComs. The PrepComs agreed procedural matters, including the date and venue, participation, provisional agenda, organisation and chairing of committees, financing of the conference and background documentation. Two matters remained unresolved: whether there should be two final documents dealing separately with review of the Treaty and the extension decision, or one, covering both; and Rule 28 (3) of the rules of procedure, on taking the extension decision.

The Players

175 states parties to the NPT took part in the Conference. Of the 185 countries in the United Nations (UN), only a significant few are left outside the NPT, including Brazil, Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan. The last three may have been absent from the decision-making, but concerns about their nuclear programmes were strongly present in some of the debates and in the calculations of NPT members.

A remnant of the Cold War, the states are grouped according to whether they identify with the West - the Group of Western States and Others; former Eastern European and Soviet countries - the Group of Eastern European States; and those which identified themselves as independent from the Cold War blocs - the Non-Aligned Movement. During the Cold War, the system worked fairly well, facilitating communication and decision-making, and ensuring some equality of representation in key posts through a system of rotation and group-based appointments. During the NPT Conference (as is also increasingly manifest in the Conference on Disarmament (CD)) the weaknesses of the group system in this post-Cold War political climate were clearly exposed.

The Western Group, comprising around 25 countries from Western Europe - including the European Union (EU) - Australasia, Japan and North America, was coordinated by the UK for historical reasons. Since France held the presidency of the EU, and with the dominance of a huge US delegation on home territory, the Western Group was driven mainly by the nuclear-weapon states. Canada played a sheepdog role in gathering signatures for a resolution on indefinite extension, Australia made an effective contribution on security assurances and backed the Small Island States (AOSIS) on nuclear testing and nuclear transport, and Sweden (which left the NAM in 1993), Ireland and Austria caused a stir when they broke ranks with the EU, rejecting a complacent statement on nuclear disarmament.

The Eastern European Group, comprising about 20 countries, nominated candidates for posts, and otherwise seemed politically moribund. They often met jointly with Western Group members in meetings of the 'Mason Group'. Since many members of the Eastern European Group have applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and/or the EU, their lack of a distinct policy is unsurprising, but it added to the distortion of the group system.

China is a Group of One, without rotational privileges in appointments. The Non-Aligned Movement - NAM - incorporated the rest. Coordinated by Indonesia, the key players within the NAM have also included Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, Venezuela and Iran (as well as non-NPT members India and Pakistan). At this conference, Mexico was visibly straitjacketed by the peso crisis and US squeeze; Nigeria became sidelined for reasons personal as well as political; Egypt concentrated all its energies on the universality issue and Israel; Iran played a shrewd game of poker - for reasons purely of national self interest; and Venezuela provided interesting ideas but lacked the political muscle, domestic backing and organisation to carry them further. Indonesia seemed preoccupied until the Bandung Conference, after which it marshalled its tattered forces, allying 14 'like-minded states' to salvage what it could from earlier hopes. Two NAM representatives, however, played starring roles. The Republic South Africa, new member of the NAM after Nelson Mandela became President in 1994, had joined the NPT in 1991 after dismantling its nuclear weapons. It provided the inspiration for the two substantive components of the extension package: strengthened review and principles for non-proliferation. The pivotal role undoubtedly went to Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, the NPT Conference President, whose intelligence and skill were widely credited with accomplishing a more positive outcome overall than many had thought possible.

Of the 100 plus NPT Parties in the NAM, some had already pledged themselves to indefinite and unconditional extension. Others backed indefinite extension, but outlined their agendas for further action, particularly on nuclear disarmament, and in some cases for better access to commercial uses of nuclear technology. Regional issues were uppermost in many cases. Some, for example the AOSIS had particular concerns, such as the transshipment and dumping of radioactive materials, which they wanted addressed. The African states agreed on the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, but little else. There were noticeable tensions between francophone and anglophone countries, and between Nigeria, which had long regarded itself as leader of the African nations, and the new South Africa, with emerging moral authority and political muscle. Fourteen Arab states successfully acted as a bloc to achieve the fourth resolution on the Middle East, but barely engaged on other issues.

The violations by Iraq and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) underlay many of the debates on the IAEA, safeguards and supply. Iraq stayed very low key. The DPRK attended, despite its self-declared 'special status' after having initiated (and suspended) withdrawal from the NPT in 1993. Having inserted objections on a variety of safeguards issues, the DPRK finally issued a statement on 9 May that it was withdrawing from participation in adopting decisions or documents. It did not, however, quit the Conference.

Despite the inadequacy of the group affiliations for managing or explaining some of the decisions taken at the NPT Conference, on substantive issues there were nevertheless some common positions. This included several position papers submitted on behalf of all members of the Non-Aligned Movement. For convenience, the report will use the acronym 'NAM' when referring in general to all, or a majority of, active non-nuclear-weapon states outside the former blocs. The term 'like-minded states' was coined by a particular group of NAM states which backed the original Bandung proposal. The report will refer to the 'Western Group' and 'Eastern European Group' where appropriate, but will also use the term 'Northern states' as shorthand for the prevailing weight of Western alliance and Eastern European interests. (During the 1995 NPT Conference, this generally incorporated Japan and such Southern Hemisphere nations as Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, while excluding NAM-identified countries located in the Northern Hemisphere.)

Rules of Procedure

Of the 44 rules governing the NPT Conference procedure, all had been agreed by the Fourth PrepCom, except Rule 28 (3) on taking the extension decision. Iran had raised a series of questions during the Third PrepCom on how the extension decision would be taken, the order for considering proposals if several extension options were separately tabled, the relationship between consensus and majority voting, and so on. Iran's questions were legitimate, although the Western Group resisted them, not wanting to give credence to the idea of several valid extension options. Following the failure of the Fourth PrepCom to get agreement on voting, it was decided to hold an intersessional meeting on 14-15 April, on the eve of the NPT Conference in New York.

The intersessional meeting, chaired by Antti Sierla of Finland, was not a success. The proximity of the Conference was clearly felt as procedural issues became tools for digging in political agendas. The major issue became whether the ballot should be open or secret. The Northern states proposed a roll-call vote, arguing for accountability. The majority of the NAM supported a secret ballot. Citing the 'strong arm' tactics exerted on governments by the US, France, Australia and others, they argued that the vote should be secret, to protect states and their representatives from undue pressure. Various compromises were attempted, such as publicising only the final vote if several ballots were required (with the Secretariat maintaining confidentiality on previous ballots). Nothing could be agreed. At one point some NAM delegates suggested voting on whether the ballot should be open or secret. The Northern states refused.

Order of Voting

Two further issues were resolved: deadlines for proposals; and simultaneous voting on all proposals on one ballot, so that the order of submission would have no relevance. A great deal of discussion was expended on whether to begin eliminating the proposal with the fewest votes after the first or second ballot. The significance of this would have been to allow states which advocated indefinite extension to switch their votes to a 25 year rolling extension (for example) if indefinite did not win on the first ballot. There was concern to avoid the early elimination of the 25 year rolling extension, assumed to be many countries' fallback - but not first - choice. The discussions worked round, but failed to resolve, complex scenarios on deciding democratically between three conceptual options, two of which could additionally have a range of durations, and one of which - fixed periods - had at least two, and some would argue three, possible mechanisms, each with its own political implications. The permutations could be a procedural maze, and observers stretched their brains working out the optimum voting procedures to accommodate a party which favoured, say, a 25 year rolling extension but, failing that, would prefer a long fixed period rather than a series of shorter periods.

Open or Secret

The question of whether the ballot should be secret or open seemed so important at the start of the Conference that US Vice President Al Gore addressed it in his speech to the NPT plenary. 'Any suggestion that this decision might be made through a secret ballot undermines the democratic spirit of that process', he argued: 'We must expect to take responsibility for our actions.' Russia wanted to prevent the rules being adopted until all had been agreed, which would have prevented the Conference from getting underway. In Russia's view, this would bring the secret ballot supporters to heel, but most Northern states feared the heavy-handed tactic could backfire badly, and persuaded Russia to back down.

When the Conference opened on 17 April, it quickly agreed to apply provisionally the rules of procedure, with the exception of rule 28 (3) on voting. This permitted adoption of the agenda so that work could begin. The Conference President, Ambassador Dhanapala, was given until Wednesday 26 April to try to negotiate a solution. By the time that deadline came, the issue of voting procedures had become rather academic. Dhanapala was granted further time, during which he came up with the ingenious device of accepting without a vote that a majority for indefinite extension existed. The rules of procedure, with rule 28 (3)f providing that 'All proposals shall be voted on simultaneously by written ballot' were finally adopted on 10 May, by which time it was clear that no voting would take place.

Nevertheless, the debates around the rules of procedure were very revealing of underlying political drives. When Iran first raised its questions at the Third PrepCom, it was viewed by Western delegates as mischievous. Though the specific points Iran made on export controls were not shared by many of the NAM, they backed Iran on the procedural matters, which caught the Northern states unprepared. The Third PrepCom was a disaster as far as the Western Group was concerned, although it may have forced them to tighten their organisation and strategies, making them more effective in the run-up to the Conference.

The question of an open or secret ballot was one of the few ways left for members of the NAM to protest about the heavy pressure from the big powers to back indefinite extension. While Northern delegates underplayed the pressure, some capitals, including Cairo and Pretoria, had been the recipients of almost weekly demarches; others spoke of aid and trade sweeteners or threats; some ambassadors with long-standing reputations on nuclear issues, such as Miguel Marin Bosch of Mexico and Adolfo Taylhardat of Venezuela, had been personally squeezed as their governments adopted positions conforming to US interests. Holding out for a secret ballot was primarily a form of protest. At the same time, the reactions of some Northern countries revealed an interesting insecurity about what parties might choose, purely on the merits of the arguments, if they were free of other consequences. Did they really suspect ambassadors of desiring to vote personally against their own governments' wishes? Or did they rather fear that governments might switch from indefinite extension if the threats and sweeteners could not be so directly attached? Certainly, few Northern delegates wanted a vote to decide whether the ballot should be open or secret, for they were not entirely confident of winning.

Although inducements from the major powers may in this case have borne some resemblance to the blandishments from landlords and rural employers which had prompted the introduction of secret ballots in early democracies, the situation is of course different when representatives vote on behalf of their countries on an international treaty such as the NPT. Open voting is the norm in the UN and a secret ballot for the NPT would have created an unhealthy precedent. Recognising that feelings had run high during the intersessional talks and there was no certainty at that time that a vote would go their way, some Northern states began to express confidence that if a vote had had to be taken in the second or third week, the majority would have accepted open voting. However, speaking to the press on 26 April, the Conference President said that the position of the two groups was 'very strongly entrenched' and that no middle ground had emerged on the ballot question.

© 1995 The Acronym Institute.