The 2020 NPT Review Conference Starts Now: An interview with Argentine diplomat Rafael Mariano Grossi
The 10th review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will begin April 27, 2020, just weeks after the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force. Held every five years, the review conferences offer the treaty’s members a formal opportunity to assess the treaty’s implementation and its states-parties compliance. The conferences provide an opportunity to discuss and seek agreement on steps to advance common goals and objectives related to the three pillars of the agreement, which involve the interconnected obligations of states-parties on nuclear nonproliferation, peaceful uses, and disarmament.
NPT states-parties convened at the United Nations from April 29 to May 10 for the final preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 review conference. They agreed by an unusual mechanism to designate veteran Argentine diplomat Rafael Mariano Grossi as president of the review conference, effective in the last quarter of 2019. The decision empowers Grossi to begin immediate consultations with NPT member states to prepare for the potentially contentious review conference. Grossi is Argentina’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, where he previously served as assistant director-general for policy.
The ambassador spoke with Arms Control Today on Thursday, May 9 at UN headquarters to describe his plans for the next year.
Arms Control Today: What is the value of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its review process, and is the 2020 review conference more important because it marks the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force?
Rafael Mariano Grossi: The treaty is the most important piece of international law that we have had regulating the nuclear order for the past 50 years. The importance of this treaty cannot be overstated.
For me, the review process is an interesting feature of the treaty. It is rare in international law to have treaties reviewed in this thorough way, where the element of accountability enters into play.
The reviews are not always easy because every review is a result of circumstance and circumstances change with time, so what meant something at some point in time might have changed. There are different provisions in any piece of international law, some that are more permanent, and some others, including some in the NPT, that have been maybe superseded with time. For example, the NPT includes references to peaceful nuclear explosions, things that with time fell nicely with no conflict into oblivion because of their anachronistic nature.
But other provisions remain relevant, and in this sense, it is important to have this review. The review process itself is also subject to discussion.
As for the 50-year milestone, anniversaries can have a meaning for some people. For me, as in human life, they are a good opportunity to take stock. In this case, 50 years is a sizable chunk of time where you can assess the impact of the instrument on international life and maybe position it toward the future.
ACT: The preparatory committee has agreed with your selection as president of the 2020 review conference. What is your diplomatic game plan in the lead-up to the review conference? How will you engage key states in the coming months?
Grossi: For me, the review conference starts next Monday [May 13]. Until tomorrow, we are busy with the [preparatory committee]. But as of Monday, we need to start preparing for the review conference.
I plan an initiative that is commensurate with the gravity of the times. It is necessary to have a very thorough process. It is necessary for me and for states-parties to have an opportunity to discuss outside the limits of the formal meeting what is possible and what is feasible, and this requires time and effort.
I have announced a very ambitious program of regional conferences, consultations, workshops, and symposiums. The names of the meetings don’t matter too much; these are opportunities to meet and discuss the NPT in different forms and configurations. It has never been done before. I’m planning to have at least eight or nine of these, apart from the bilateral meetings that are always expected from the president to have with the P5 [the five recognized nuclear-weapon states under the NPT] and others.
There will be an effort on peaceful uses, a topic which I believe has been if not marginalized, then less looked into. It is area that means a lot for the vast majority of the membership. Of course, we are going to be discussing disarmament and nonproliferation too.
What starts now is a very intensive phase in the lead-up to the conference, which made it so important to confirm my review conference presidency. Now this is done, so I can start working and engaging countries with the necessary authority.
ACT: Can you describe your planned meetings in more detail?
Grossi: There are few things that are new in the process. The first is that I will have a bigger, larger, more inclusive table than we have seen before. I mean by this that I will be inviting technical support organizations, national regulators, scientists and technologists, and nuclear power plant operators. I will be inviting people that are active in nuclear applications in all these countries.
Why? Simply because I feel that discussions around the NPT have been limited to diplomats like me or practitioners in nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy. This is very important and will continue, but we were missing voices from the discussion, those who at the end of the day are benefiting from the system, from the framework, from the modus vivendi that the NPT has set up.
I see value in having this conversation, which has political significance. These people may be part of national delegations, and they should have a say in the sort of commitments, in the sort of compromise building that I am trying to strengthen at this moment. Later on will be a time for diplomatic negotiations and small groups and draftings and all of that, but you have to prepare the ground for that by trying to have this sort of wider conversation.
Another thing that will be new is a strong emphasis on reaching out, going out in the field. Meeting only in the UN hub cities of Vienna, New York, and Geneva give us a limited perspective of things. When we talk about proliferation or disarmament or how we use nuclear science technology or energy, it’s very different to have this discussion in North Africa or in Southeast Asia or in Central America than to have it here in New York. When you leave those hubs, everything changes, perspectives change, opinions change.
We are planning to have at least two conferences in Asia, three in Africa, at least two in Latin America, and maybe one or two for the Middle East, on top of the traditional meetings. This will be a very extensive exercise of preparation and consultation, which is badly needed.
Yet another new thing that I’m going to have is a cross-regional presence. When we go to Asia, I will have Africans and Europeans or Latin Americans coming as well, and vice versa. By showcasing lessons learned and successful partnerships, I want to demonstrate examples of things that can reinforce nonproliferation or show how things can be done in a way that is nonproliferation friendly.
ACT: How would you define a successful review conference? Is the ultimate goal to reach agreement on a final statement and an agreement on a forward-looking plan, or are there other possible outcomes, for example a high-level segment statement?
Grossi: Apart from my personal preferences aSwedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom announced at the preparatory committee that Sweden will host a June 11 ministerial meeting to discuss moving toward nuclear disarmament with a stepping-stone approach.
And inclinations, we have a mandate to conduct a full review, and this is what I’m going to do. I’m aware of viewpoints and analyses, some of them very interesting, that suggest that it would be better for me to try to cut corners and save ourselves the aggravation of discussions that some consider pointless by trying to go straight for a minimalistic sort of outcome: We agree to disagree, then go home.
I disagree completely with this. This is not the mandate; the mandate is different. What one has to strive for is to have a full review and an agreed document. This is what this is all about: agreement. That being said, the dynamic of a diplomatic negotiation may take you in directions that may be different, and I would never exclude those possibilities.
There is the example of the 1995 review and extension conference, where a set of important decisions were taken.2 Frankly speaking, few know that there was no final document. People didn’t care in the end because the weight of these decisions was so great and the significance for the treaty and the package of decisions arrived at as a whole was so important. In the end, there was very little time to finalize a final document, and no one was shedding a tear about it.
So, the aim is to have a full review but, of course, with the disposition to explore possibilities that may lend themselves to good agreement among states.
You mentioned a high-level segment. Let me say that I don’t believe in segments for this type of conference. This is more appropriate for other types of conferences, like ones that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been conducting on nuclear applications or nuclear security.
In this case, the presence and support of high-level leaders, heads of state, for example, is what you need. If you talk about a segment, you are bureaucratizing something that I don’t think is appropriate in the case of the 50th anniversary of the NPT. Starting with the P5 and others, I have begun asking them to try and persuade their political authorities at the highest possible level to come to the review conference and use their presence to show the importance they all attach to the NPT. We need the visibility brought by the presence of those who believe that this treaty is not something of the past, that this treaty is not an obsolete thing, but rather something that is worth sustaining and protecting.
When asked how I define success, normally I say that I don’t like the question. I don’t like this exercise because it presupposes a defeatist state of mind. It’s like I’m going to play tennis with Roger Federer and I ask, How do we define success? Maybe if I get a point against him, I can consider this a win? No, I think it shows a defensive attitude that presupposes success is going to be almost impossible. Some might say, for example, that if we agree to disagree, but we’re civil, we don’t throw rotten tomatoes at each other, that can be success. No.
A successful outcome is something that might be difficult to define, but when you see it, you will recognize it. You will know that it is something that has strengthened the treaty as opposed to questioning it, challenging it, or diminishing it. That’s success for me.
ACT: If the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is terminated as expected and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is not extended or replaced before the review conference, do you expect that states will accuse the United States and Russia of noncompliance with their NPT-related disarmament commitments?
Grossi: With issues of state policy, we need to be careful about making assumptions of things that may or may not be there in 11 months. I think that some of these processes are quite open, initiatives are being mentioned in this area, and final policy decisions have not been made in some of them. To me, to pass judgment at this point is not a good idea because what we are going to be able to say will be a function of a circumstance and the circumstance may be different a year from now.
ACT: Do you see the deteriorating situation around the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), threatening to hijack other business at the review conference? How might states-parties respond to the possibility that Iran could pull out of the JCPOA and eventhe NPT?
Grossi: That would have a huge impact, of course. The so-called regional, or nonproliferation, cases or crises, however we wish to describe them, always influence discussions a lot. But it is too soon to assess them, again because situations can change. In 2016, for example, you would have had a very good or a relatively optimistic atmosphere on the JCPOA and a pessimistic one on North Korea perhaps. Now how do you see it? It’s different, isn’t it? In 2018, it would have been less positive with the JCPOA, better with North Korea. Now, it’s a bit uncertain with North Korea, but still with some hope, and the JCPOA seems to be suddenly deteriorating. In just two-and-a-half years, it’s been a bit kaleidoscopic the way in which each of these individual, singular situations have presented themselves in front of our eyes. So to start speculating about these things is to me a bit pointless, but we will, of course, be monitoring each and every one of those. They will very much be part of the debates.
ACT: How can you move forward the difficult debate on the zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, which has been a goal that NPT state-parties committed to try to advance beginning with the outcome of the 1995 review and extension conference? What are the main issues that need to be settled, and who needs to be involved in sorting them out?
Grossi: There are some new elements here, the first being the UN General Assembly decision to have a conference on the Middle East, which will take place November 18–22 here in New York.3 I have started consultations with the Arab Group and also with the presidency of that conference to indicate my disposition to listen and to prepare to establish the appropriate relationship between the November meeting and the NPT review conference. Some will believe there is no relation, others will pretend there must be a cause-and-effect relationship between them. What is clear, though, is that an ongoing, specific process does not mean the NPT review conference’s involvement has disappeared. On the contrary, just because you have another, specific process does not mean that we can say we have been unburdened from this responsibility. This is going to be a mutually reinforcing or otherwise process.
In terms of who participates, there is an internationally established definition of what countries are in the Middle East that comes from a listing agreed in Vienna, which includes a number of countries including Israel and Iran. It will be up to those organizing this conference to issue the invitations—I don’t think this has been done yet—and also the P5, of course, and agencies including the IAEA, probably the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, maybe the European Atomic Energy Community. This would be the first ring, I suppose, of participants in that exercise, but of course it is the sovereign decision of those who are organizing this effort.
ACT: How will you work to bridge divides on disarmament progress while still achieving a meaningful outcome?
Grossi: The first, perhaps more obvious role that I can see for the president of the NPT review conference is to remind everyone that there are expectations and obligations when it comes to disarmament. Again, to cite my example of success, you cannot have success without appropriate visions and decisions on disarmament. So, my role perhaps is to be a constant reminder to the powers that be that the mix indeed requires tangible, credible elements when it comes to disarmament. We do have a number of those described at previous conferences and other gatherings and meetings that may form the basis for that.
As I said in the beginning, the review is the result of circumstance. The review is not the treaty. What we need to have is the ability to extract from certain countries the willingness to do certain things.
I don’t intend to conduct a review of past reviews, even though there is always the temptation to do that. I don’t want to have an accountant’s approach to the review. We need to discuss these issues, but many of those commitments may have changed or might even require certain alterations when you look at the technical parts that are included. I would not like to tackle this review with a document in one hand and looking at countries A, B, and C and telling them, “Fifth line, you haven’t…; sixth line, you haven’t…; seventh line, you are ok.” That’s an accountant’s approach, and that’s not what we are required to do.
Of course, we will keep everything in mind, nothing is forgotten, nothing is hidden under the table, but the discussion must be efficient. The accountant may be right, but if you have the wrong conversation, you are wrong in the end.
ACT: There are some new disarmament-related proposals in the NPT context, including the new U.S. initiative titled “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.”4 Do you see NPT states-parties agreeing with the premise of this initiative? How will you take this into account in your consultations leading up to the review conference?
Grossi: I welcome this initiative. Everyone should welcome any initiative that has the objective of nuclear disarmament as a goal. I’ve seen the introductory notes and documents on the U.S. initiative, but I understand it is still a work in progress and the United States intends to have a process where working groups will be set up and a systematic discussion will take place.
I welcome that, much as I welcome any other disarmament-oriented initiative in the run-up to the conference. These are all elements that are bringing material that we can use. This is the clay that we are going to be using in 2020 to shape the consensus that we are going to strive for. To take an a priori approach to a particular initiative would be wrong.
ACT: The United States has apparently sent out a hold-the-date note for an early July meeting of the working group on the U.S. initiative to be held in Washington. There’s also a June 11 convocation of foreign ministers that Sweden has organized,5 so how do these fit into your overall game plan?
Grossi: My understanding is that the Swedish initiative is more oriented toward demonstrating high-level political support for disarmament. I see these as potentially complementary initiatives. As I understand it, the process on the U.S. initiative is meant to be a holistic discussion aimed at nuclear disarmament, whereas the Swedish initiative intends to look at ways in which high-level political support can be garnered and shored up with the 2020 review conference.
ACT: Another disarmament issue that will likely come up at the review conference is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)6. How will you seek to reconcile the views of states that believe the TPNW reinforces the NPT with those that say it creates a norm that is contrary to the NPT?
Grossi: There won’t be unanimity, and this is something we need to be very clear on. The NPT is a family of 190 countries, so such an impressive membership tells you immediately that it will be impossible to have a unanimous view on the TPNW approach. The TPNW is a very interesting new element in the disarmament landscape. It embodies a humanitarian approach, but many countries that have subscribed to this approach have not subscribed to the TPNW. To make these amalgamations is an exercise I would caution against. The humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, or any weapons of mass destruction for that matter, is very important, but try to channel that into one or the other instrument is something that is going to be nonconducive to progress because we will clash with hard national interests and the whole purpose of something as noble as the humanitarian awareness may be lost.
All these elements are an array of instruments, principles, and ideas that we will have to put together in the mixer and see what we can take out of them. To try and impose on a multipolar community a specific channel is not the best. I wouldn’t say it’s wrong, it’s just not the best approach.
It’s pointless to engage in a discussion whether there is complementarity between two instruments. Those who have subscribed to the norm, of course they will say that there is complementarity, otherwise they would not have done this. For others is the complete opposite. Other countries may be waiting, others may be assessing. My country is assessing, for example. Others have assessed already and have come to an opinion about it. But to try to corral countries is not conducive. This is about the NPT, and we need to care for it.
ACT: How can civil society contribute to a successful 2020 review conference?
Grossi: I’m very keen on having a number of discussions that are necessary with something like the NPT. One is, of course, with civil society. I had a first meeting with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) yesterday here in New York, and I intend to continue in that. There are lots of good ideas there. I am also hoping to have a better format for NGO interaction with delegations come 2020.
There is also the gender discussion, which is very close to my heart. There is a vast area there where improvements can be made, can be done, resulting in better diplomatic results. I think it is proven that an improved, balanced representation in delegations leads to better processes and better outcomes as well. It’s not only a matter of human justice, but also efficiency in the way we do business. We must include youth groups as well, and I am considering this. A good example already exists with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Youth Group; new generations are of the essence. At the end of the day, we do this for them, we want a better world for them.