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Monday, April 6, 2020
VIENNA, Mar 12 2020 (IPS) - This year marks the 50th anniversary of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and coincidentally the tenth quinquennial (five yearly) review conference is scheduled to be held at the United Nations in New York from 27 April to 22 May.
With 191 States parties, the NPT is the cornerstone of the global regime for nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
An unexpected complication is that of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on the NPT review conference – thus far, there is an inexplicable thundering silence from the UN regarding the postponement of the conference.
Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 to be a global pandemic affecting more than 114 countries with 118,000 people infected, 4,291 fatalities and many thousands more fighting for their lives in hospitals.
The WHO stated that this is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus and that never before has there been a pandemic that can be controlled.
In the United States, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total number of cases as of 11 March is 938, total deaths 29, in 38 states and the District of Columbia). The New York State Department of Health is reporting 52 cases in New York City and 164 in the State.
Thus, it is clear that New York City is affected by COVID-19 and there is a high risk of the further spread of the virus. Add to this, the expected arrival of more than 400 delegates from all parts of the world, to attend the NPT conference, including obviously from countries and regions already afflicted with the corononavirus.
Should this transpire, it would not take a virologist or a rocket scientist to predict a rapid transmission of the virus to many of the delegates all concentrated in the UN General Assembly chamber for several days and in other large meeting rooms for another three weeks.
Furthermore, the US may restrict entry to delegates coming from countries afflicted with coronavirus and either deny visas or place them under quarantine for two weeks or more? In fact, President Donald Trump already has suspended all travel from mainland Europe for 30 days starting on Friday.
So, why has not the UN ordered the postponement of all large conferences till the virus infections subside and the environment is safe again for large and small congregations of people drawn from all corners of the world?
And, why have not the diplomats accredited to the UN in New York, from States parties to the NPT, already decided to postpone the NPT review conference? What is it about COVID-19 that they do not understand and why are they delaying taking the common sense decision to postpone the event?
The UN Secretary-General’s “Message on COVID 19” is limited to bulleted points such as, “All of us face a common threat – the coronavirus – COVID 19. Today’s declaration of a pandemic is a call to action – for everyone, everywhere”, which is not reassuring!
UN General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, on the other hand, has stated that the coronavirus will only be tackled “through a multilateral response” in which the UN “must lead by example” and that the UN should take a “coordinated and coherent approach” regarding decisions on whether major meetings can go ahead.
He added that at the UN Secretariat “we have started the process looking at scaling down, postponing and/or cancelling meetings, as appropriate”. Well, it’s high time to do so – the sooner the better!
Options for the NPT Review Conference
Reportedly, “options” are being considered but no decision has been taken as yet. One option seemingly gathering support, and reportedly pushed by some States, is to convene the NPT Review Conference as scheduled on 27th April but then to immediately prorogue (or adjourn) it to August or later this year after possibly adopting a statement or declaration commemorating 50 years of the NPT.
The stated rationale being that the NPT conference is a scheduled quinquennial event according to the Treaty and therefore must be convened – if only for a day under present circumstances – going from the sublime to the ridiculous!
The logic of such a bizarre “option” can only emanate from New York and capitals, as oftentimes they tend to be oblivious to the calendars of events and meetings in other UN capitals that deal with nuclear matters, namely Vienna (Austria) and Geneva (Switzerland).
Not surprisingly, the reaction in Vienna and Geneva has tended to be one of shock and disbelief. What were these diplomats/officials thinking? Are they not aware that the third session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is scheduled for 3 August to 18 September?
And, do they not realize that in Western Europe the civilized practice of annual vacation in August is nearly sacrosanct! Just because in the United States the concept of taking an annual vacation is generally frowned upon is no reason to subject others to this stress of giving up their vacation time.
Postpone to 2021 and Convene in Vienna
As I have recommended earlier this month, there is only one sound course of action: that to postpone the NPT review conference to 2021 (possibly 26 April to 21 May) and to convene it from then on in Vienna. The following are the reasons for my recommendation, which is beginning to get some traction:
The longer this decision is delayed to move the NPT review conference to 2021 in Vienna, the higher the costs incurred this year in cancelling New York flights and hotel rooms. While government delegates may well be able to afford such penalties as tax dollars pay for their expenses, for civil society participants cancellation costs would be onerous and unaffordable as they either self-finance or rely on charitable donations.
Thus, as I have described in some detail above, there are no compelling reasons at all to convene the presently scheduled NPT review conference in New York this year. It makes eminent common and fiscal sense to convene it next year in April-May and to hold it in Vienna – the historic capital location of important conferences for more than two centuries and imbued with the intangible “spirit of Vienna” that encourages harmony and compromise.
* Tariq Rauf has attended all nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings since 1987 as a delegate, including as senior adviser to the chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) in 2015 and to the chair of the 2014 preparatory committee; as alternate head of the International Atomic Energy Agency delegation to the NPT; and as a non-proliferation expert with the Canadian delegation from 1987. Personal views are expressed here.
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