Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT. The NPT stems from a worry about living in a world with many nuclear weapon states. After the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, first the Soviet Union, then the UK, France and lastly China acquired their own nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons testing, possession, and disarmament are regulated in a number of existing treaties. Additional treaties are negotiated to ensure future strengthening of disarmament mechanisms and arms control.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the most important and also the only multilateral treaty that calls for effective negotiations on nuclear disarmament. The NPT was introduced as international law in 1970.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated and adopted some 20 years into the nuclear age, when the international community feared that nuclear weapons would spread to many additional States, and that the Cold War nuclear arms race was spiralling out of control. The Cold War “balance of terror” between the US and the Soviet Union was placing the entire world in danger of a nuclear holocaust, and more actors with nuclear weapons would have multiplied the risks of use of nuclear weapons – intentionally or by mistake.

In 1958, the Foreign Minister of Ireland, Frank Aiken, suggested a treaty to ensure the non-proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons. The NPT was negotiated and opened for signature in 1968. Finland was the first country to sign, followed by a number of states during the first year. The NPT entered into force in 1970. Not until 1992, when France and China joined, had all five nuclear-weapon states defined by Article 9 of the treaty become Member States. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which joined the NPT in 1985, withdrew in 2003 and declared itself a nuclear-weapon state in 2009. As of July 2015, 190 states, not counting the DPRK, were party to the treaty. Most countries in the world are therefore NPT Member States, except for a few smaller island states, South Sudan, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Article 10 of the treaty mandated that a conference would be convened among States Parties after 25 years to decide whether to extend the NPT for a limited period of time or indefinitely. In 1995 States Parties met and took a controversial decision to extend the NPT indefinitely, while criticizing the slow pace of nuclear disarmament and calling for more effective measures to implement Article 6. The 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference also adopted a resolution calling for negotiations on a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Twenty years later, despite some aborted attempts, no progress has been made on the MEWMDFZ, and the 2015 NPT Review Conference failed because consensus could not be reached on how to break the deadlock.

To have or not to have nukes

The NPT identifies nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, and spells out their various obligations. Nuclear-weapon states, according to Article 9 of the NPT, were those that had “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.” When the NPT opened for accession in 1968, those were the US, the Soviet Union (today Russia), the UK, France, and China –the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. (France and China, as mentioned earlier, did not join the Treaty until 1992.) The issue of “haves” and “have-nots” has been controversial from the beginning.

All other Member States joined the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states. India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined the NPT, but have been urged by the Member States to give up their nuclear weapons and join the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states. The NPT gives Member States the right to withdraw from the treaty with three months notice, as North Korea chose to do in 2003, when it tested a nuclear device and later declared itself a nuclear-weapon state. No other state has withdrawn. Most countries wish to live in a world free from nuclear weapons and, at the present time, the NPT is the only international agreement in which that goal is formally articulated.

Regional groups (the Western Group, the Eastern European Group, and the largest group called the Non-Aligned Movement) have formed around issues of common concern. These regional groupings are a legacy from the Cold War divide into West, East and non-aligned states.

The NPT, in Article 6, gives all Member States the right and the obligation “to pursue negotiations in good faith” on effective measures to achieve nuclear disarmament, although it establishes no deadlines or timeframe for doing so. Beyond that, it imposes particular obligations on nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states:

  • Under Article 1, states possessing nuclear weapons may not transfer nuclear weapons to any recipient. They may not help or encourage non-nuclear-weapon states to develop nuclear weapons. All forms of trade in, or transfer of, nuclear weapons, parts of weapons, or technology and materials that make it possible for new states to produce nuclear weapons are strictly forbidden.
  • Under Articles 2, 3, and 4, non-nuclear-weapon states undertake not to obtain or manufacture nuclear weapons, and to accept safeguards, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to ensure that nuclear power reactors and supplies of fissionable materials cannot be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Three pillars

The NPT has three main objectives:

  • preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new states
  • eliminating existing nuclear arsenals
  • facilitating the right of all states to develop “peaceful” uses of nuclear power.

Different countries tend to emphasize one or more of these three “pillars.” The nuclear-weapon Member States are more interested in discussing the risk of nuclear-weapon proliferation to new states than they are in fulfilling their own disarmament obligations. These five States tend to express satisfaction with the pace of their disarmament undertakings, and assert that the focus must be on nonproliferation, which they see as the more important security issue.

Non-nuclear-weapon states, on the other hand, place greater emphasis on the need for complete elimination of nuclear arsenals. This, many States uphold, would contribute to an increase in international security and make nuclear weapons less attractive to other States. Disarmament of existing arsenals further reduces the risk of nuclear war – be it deliberate or by mistake.

The global disarmament movement has sharply criticized the third pillar on “peaceful use” of nuclear technology, claiming that nuclear power reactors inherently create a capacity for developing nuclear weapons. Used nuclear fuel contains plutonium that can be reprocessed into weapons material. The same facilities that are used for enriching uranium for power reactors can be used to enrich weapons-grade uranium. Others argue, however, that without this pillar the treaty would never have been able to enter into force. The NPT calls for IAEA inspections of nuclear facilities, but no inspections are required for nuclear weapons facilities or even nuclear power plants in nuclear-weapon states – a situation that many find untenable.

Review Conferences

Every five years the States Parties to the NPT meet for a Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty. The purpose of the RevCon is to assess the implementation of the NPT and to make decisions on how to more efficiently implement the undertakings of the Member States. The RevCon makes all its decisions by consensus, which means all Member States have to agree for a decision to be made. Member States take turns chairing the RevCons.

During the month-long five-year Review, delegations from all States Parties come together in a general debate. Each State gives a statement on disarmament undertakings and important issues. The general debate is often lengthy and predictable, as States often reiterate the same issues year after year. Parallel to the general debate, negotiations take place behind closed doors. During these negotiations, Member States try to agree on an agenda and a program of work for the conference.

After the general debate Member States conduct their work in three Main Committees, each with a number of subsidiary bodies. The Committees basically correspond to the three pillars of the NPT: nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The subsidiary bodies may deal with issues such as security assurances, the Middle East, or how to deal with withdrawal from the Treaty. Parallel with the Committees are meetings in so-called regional groups. By the end of the conference, all States Parties are expected to agree on a final document, which is considered binding for the Member States.

Member States, alone or in groups, may submit reports and working papers to the RevCon, that set the basis for the work of the Committees. Documents from Preparatory Committees are also used.

Preparatory Committees

Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) sessions are usually held once every year (except for the year immediately following a Review Conference). PrepComs last about 10 days and — like the Reviews —consist of general debates followed by work in committees, called Clusters. The three Clusters are divided long the lines of the three pillars of the NPT: nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

During the PrepComs, many working papers are tabled, and the Chair drafts a Final Summary statement, but none of these documents are binding. Rather, these statements, working papers, summaries, and reports are to be used as assessment tools at the Review Conference. Only the RevCons produce a consensus document.

The role of civil society


NGOs from around the world participate in PrepComs and RevCons. General debates in both meetings are open to accredited NGOs, while working meetings are held behind closed doors by Member States. Civil society is usually allotted one half-day session to present statements to the government representatives. Half a day is a small fraction of a month-long conference, where civil society presents its suggestions and recommendations.

Civil society – ranging from grassroots organizations and research institutes, to religious groups and academia – usually arranges a dense program of side events during the conference: seminars, lectures, debates, workshops, and briefings with government representatives.

Civil society’s participation in, monitoring of, and reporting from these events is an important part of disarmament work. It increases pressure on Member States to adhere to their undertakings under the Treaty. Civil society organizations often have knowledge and expertise in specific topics that may be useful for Member States.

Many NGOs find the implementation of the NPT too slow, particularly the undertaking of nuclear-weapon states to eliminate their arsenals. During the RevCons and PrepComs, States Parties and many NGOs discuss how the Treaty can be strengthened. Increased reporting on disarmament efforts, a strong verification regime to ensure that nuclear facilities in non-nuclear weapon states are used only for peaceful purposes and to ensure that nuclear-weapon states disarm, and a focused debate on tactical nuclear weapons currently not included in disarmament debates are a few examples of important ways Member States have attempted to strengthen the NPT.

The 2015 NPT Review

Although it failed over lack of consensus on the process for pursuing a nuclear-weapon and WMD-free zone in the Middle East, the 2015 NPT Review could be seen as a watershed in the effort to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. A significant—perhaps the dominant—focus of this Review was the evidence compiled over three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, submitted as a working paper that the Austrian delegation characterized as a “wakeup call.”

An updated “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons (HINW)” was endorsed by 160 member states— 10 times as many as signed the first version at the 2012 NPT PrepCom. These States insisted that “awareness of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons must underpin all approaches and efforts towards nuclear disarmament” and that “the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.” By the close of the Conference, the Humanitarian Pledge, launched by Austria at the conclusion of the Vienna HINW conference, had been joined by more than 100 States who signaled their willingness to work actively for a legal prohibition. Many States and their partners in civil society have now come to the conclusion that the most effective way to strengthen the NPT is to negotiate a new treaty that explicitly prohibits nuclear weapons and sets conditions and timelines for their elimination as called for in Article 6.


Last update: August 24, 2015