Notes from the Wilton Park non-proliferation conference

Dec 20 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
David Cliff, London
Last week, VERTIC’s Andreas Persbo and David Cliff attended the annual December conference on nuclear non-proliferation at Wilton Park in West Sussex. The meeting, which brought together more than 70 diplomats, commentators, academics and think-tankers to discuss a broad range of current issues in the world of nuclear arms control—from the state of progress under the ‘action plan’ agreed at the 2010 NPT review conference, to nuclear security, ‘latent’ proliferation, the prospect of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, US nuclear policy in the run-up to the 2015 conference, and many other topics besides.
Some of the most interesting and lively discussions—all of which were held under Chatham House rules—centred on the recent decision to postpone a conference that was due to be held this month in Helsinki on the establishment of the aforementioned Middle East WMD-free zone. The decision to hold such a conference formed a key part of the 2010 review conference final document and its postponement (which one closely involved participant noted at Wilton Park as being a simple ‘readjustment of timelines’; and certainly not a cancellation) is seen by some as representing a blow to the robustness of the NPT regime as a whole.
While at Wilton Park, we heard Arab frustration at not just the postponement of the conference but also the manner in which the postponement was handled by the co-convenors of the conference (the US, UK and Russia), the United Nations (under whose auspices it was being held) and Finland (the conference facilitator)—each of whom presented different, varying statements explaining the reasons for putting the meeting off. The situation may cause the Arab world to turn away from regional cooperation and towards focusing more on their own security, it was argued. Were that to happen, of course, it could entail serious consequences for the long-term integrity of the NPT in the Middle Eastern region as well as beyond it.
More positively, we also heard commitments from those involved in what has become known as the ‘Helsinki process’ that this process remained very much ongoing—hence the stressing that postponement does not amount to cancellation—and hopes, bordering on optimism, that continued diplomatic efforts would lead to the conference being held in the early part of 2013. Making this conference a reality has never been closer, a representative of one of the co-convenors noted, and to give up or ease off now in efforts to ensure that it goes ahead soon would be a huge mistake.
Predictably enough, Iran and its nuclear programme was also a key talking point among participants, as was North Korea, which last week successfully launched a long-range rocket that perhaps one day might be able to carry one of the country’s nuclear explosive devices. On ‘red lines’, of which there has been much talk in recent months with regard to Iran, it was noted by one participant that for all the talk of using such lines—whatever they may be—to set limits on Iran, North Korea has been getting away with, benefitting from, and forcing the constant readjustment of, the red lines and dire warnings of the international community for years.
In terms of verification and monitoring, getting a better look at North Korea’s nuclear programme remains off the table, for now at least, but in Iran there remains hope that the country’s rulers will ratify and begin implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. If that Protocol was in force in Iran, IAEA inspectors would have a far greater ability to verify Iranian claims that its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful in nature and intention—with the Protocol therefore standing as one of the best ways for Iran to address international concerns over its nuclear activities (fissile material production in particular). The conference heard, though, that an Additional Protocol wouldn’t represent a cure-all to suspicions over Iran and that verification measures going beyond those contained in the Protocol would probably be necessary to satisfy international concerns—a kind of ‘Additional Protocol plus’ specifically tailored to the Iranian case.
This post, of course, merely offers a brief flavour of the arguments, concerns and opinions expressed at Wilton Park last week. If it is possible to provide a general overview in just a few words, it would be to say that what was said was for the most part forward-looking towards what might come, and what might be done, in 2013 and beyond. The preparatory process for the 2015 NPT review conference is now underway—the first of three annual ‘PrepCom’ meetings was held earlier this year in Vienna—and there seems to be a sense among the nuclear arms control community that time is passing quicker now and that the next review conference, which has a high bar to meet after the widely-considered success of 2010, will be here in next to no time at all.


Last changed: Dec 20 2012 at 12:10 PM