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Russia blocks outcome of nuclear treaty conference

After four weeks, a crucial session to shore up the world's nuclear arms control regime ended without agreement when Russia rejected a reference to Ukraine.

Canadian bunker to house key government and military officials in the event of a nuclear attack is now a museum
Canada's "Diefenbunker," completed in 1961 to house key government and military officials in the event of a nuclear attack

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — After four weeks of negotations, a crucial session among 151 nations aimed at curbing the nuclear arms race ended without a final outcome document on late Friday when Russia rejected a portion of the text that referred to its control of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia power plant.

It was only the 10th conference to be held so diplomats could review the world's progress under the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, which requires signatory nations not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment by nuclear powers to progress towards nuclear disarmament.

The 52-year-old treaty also says that nations without nuclear weapons will be guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear technology for generating electricity.

Even though the draft outcome document was "significantly weakened throughout the negotiations," Russia refused to accept the proposed final version because it mentioned the nuclear power station in southern Ukraine," said the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN.

The draft document, which needed consensus approval from all countries attending the conference, expressed "grave concern" for the plant's safety and said it was of "paramount importance" to ensure that Ukrainian authorities control the nation's nuclear facilities, including Zaporizhzhia. Experts have pointed to serious risks that continued shelling near the facility could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.

Igor Vishnevetsky, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department, said “unfortunately there is no consensus on this document” and that other countries along with Russia objected to a "host of issues" in the draft outcome document.

Argentine Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, who presided over the 10th NPT Review Conference, said the draft document was a compromise meant to address a world "increasingly wracked by conflicts, and, most alarmingly, the ever growing prospect of the unthinkable nuclear war.”

NPT review conferences are supposed to be held every five years, but this one — originally scheduled for 2020 — was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The previous one in 2015 also ended without a final outcome document because of disagreement over a proposed Middle East zone without weapons of mass destruction.

'NPT is in crisis'

Geneva-based ICAN also faulted the conference for not taking Russia to task over its threats to use nuclear weapons since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

"The document had many problems," ICAN said. "In a year when a nuclear-armed state invaded a non-nuclear armed state, a meeting of nearly all countries in the world failed to condemn Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of its invasion, and failed to take any steps that would advance nuclear disarmament. It has failed to address the urgency of the moment."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war has sparked worldwide concern though he told the NPT Review Conference in a letter that nuclear wars should never begin, because they are unwinnable.

ICAN credited another, more recent accord — the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW — with having achieved "concrete steps to advance disarmament, help victims of nuclear use and testing, commit to inclusion and progressive steps on gender and disarmament."

Negotiators met in Vienna in late June to adopt a joint declaration and action plan for the TPNW, which entered into force early last year. It is the first legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons, though it lacks support from the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations, raising questions about its effectiveness. ICAN won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work pushing the treaty to passage.

"Faced with an unacceptable dangerous global situation, states parties to the TPNW did in three days what the NPT failed to do in one month: adopt a credible plan to advance disarmament, help victims of nuclear use and testing, and condemn any and all threats to use nuclear weapons," ICAN said.

"The NPT is in crisis, but the TPNW is already starting to carry out its role of implementing the nuclear disarmament obligations of the NPT," it said. "All other NPT states parties that have failed to make progress during the NPT Review Conference should join this work too."