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Commentary | 5 July 2024

Preparing for the 2026 Review Conference: Pragmatic steps toward an improved NPT Review Cycle

The failure of the 2015 and 2022 Review Cycle to agree on a final document and the lack of an agreed substantial outcome of the 2023 Session of the Preparatory Committee demonstrates that the Review Cycle of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), as it exists, is in grave danger of becoming altogether dysfunctional in terms of its core task to “consider principles, objectives, and full implementation of the Treaty” (NPT/Conf.1995/32 (Part1), Annex). This is particularly alarming as the NPT is considered the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Looking forward to the 2026 Review Conference, and unless urgent mitigating action is taken, the most likely scenario is that both simply conducting business as usual in the NPT framework and the ongoing deterioration of the international security environment might compromise a success well in advance.

As things currently stand, given the ongoing modernisation of nuclear arsenals and expansion by some nuclear weapon states (NWS), the continued or increased salience of nuclear weapons in NWS’ security policies means that real progress in nuclear disarmament seems out of reach. With regards to non-proliferation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal, the ongoing Iranian nuclear programme, the contentious issue of the implementation of the resolution on the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, as well as possible new proliferation scenarios, will most likely overshadow the current review cycle.

The picture also looks bleak when turning to the international security environment. The re-emergence of great power competition; the concurrent pressure on multilateralism and nuclear arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation architecture; offensive nuclear rhetoric and the behaviour of certain political leaders intended for military coercion, intimidation or blackmail; a perceived lowered threshold for the use of nuclear weapons (e.g. non-strategic nuclear weapons); persistent regional crises and the emergence of new regional crises scenarios, with global political and economic implications will most likely persist until the 2026 Review Conference.

In addition, the NPT must decide how to position itself in the debate on how to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and consequently, as called for by a considerable number of NPT States Parties, the complete ban of nuclear weapons.

Against this backdrop, and given the failure of the 2022 Review Conference to agree on recommendations that would improve the effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, coordination and continuity of the review process of the Treaty (NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/CRP.2/Rev.1 and  NPT/CONF.2026/PC.I/6), a number of pragmatic steps are called for to help foster a meaningful review cycle and a realistic definition of what a successful 2026 Review Conference can accomplish, beyond a final outcome document adopted by consensus. Given that only Review Conferences are habilitated to take decisions, options should be explored and implemented in the current review cycle.


During the last two review cycles, consensus proved elusive due to fault lines in substance among States Parties and the fact that, in specific circumstances, only very few States Parties did not align themselves with the more significant majority. This begs the question of whether NPT documents should not be negotiated more flexibly.

Decision making: Chairperson’s/President’s document

The NPT Rules of Procedure customarily include provisions that allow for voting on decisions after all efforts to achieve consensus have been exhausted. In light of the high sensitivity of such voting, this rule has never been invoked. Given that, at the 2015 and 2022 Review Conferences, consensus on a widely accepted draft final document failed due to disagreement on particular text passages, options should be explored on how to salvage the rest of the text.

This could include a document from the Chairperson/President that clearly delineates the areas of consensus and passages where disagreements persisted. Michael Biontino

This could include a document from the Chairperson/President that clearly delineates the areas of consensus and passages where disagreements persisted. Alternatively, non-consensual issues could be reflected in footnotes, interpretative declarations, or explanations of positions to be included in final documents.

Such a document would be tabled very early in the proceedings following the general debate. The Chairperson/President, or an eminent person with proper delegation of authority, would seek consensus on this document in informal consultations with regional and cross-regional groups (e.g., the Non-Aligned Movement, the Stockholm Initiative, the New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative), as well as specific states parties.

If consensus cannot be reached, the Chairperson/President could seek alignment with this document by the greatest number of states parties possible and thereby summarise the proceedings.

To enhance continuity throughout the review cycle, these Chairperson’s documents would build on each other from one preparatory committee to the next, leading to the “President’s document” of the Review Conference.

Topical discussions

One of the major shortcomings of the established NPT procedures is the lack of focused, interactive discussions on salient issues that are balanced among the three pillars of the NPT.

In terms of substance, these issues could comprise, as a matter of priority, the implementation of disarmament commitments and transparency, nuclear risk reduction, current non-proliferation concerns, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, negative security assurances, including in the context of nuclear-weapon-free zones, peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, and nuclear safety and security during armed conflict.

Given the urgency for action concerning these issues and the lack of established intersessional process to address them, informal venues should be sought. In light of the breadth and depth of the task, civil society, research centres, and academia should be allowed to play an active role and engage with the incoming Chairs of the Preparatory Committees, the President of the 2026 Review Conferences, and interested States Parties in a series of informal open-ended consultations. This could include thematic and regional conferences (in person or virtual) co-organised by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and other institutions, such as SIPRI, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Monterey Institute, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and Wilton Park, among others. Such conferences could lay the groundwork for a meaningful and substantive exchange of views in dedicated meetings at the Preparatory Committees and the Review Conference.

Preparatory activities

In addition, the Chairs of the Preparatory Committees and the President of the Review Conference should continue to enhance regional consultations on salient NPT issues to better prepare for difficult negotiations expected at the Preparatory Committees and the Review Conference. As was successfully practised in the run-up to the 2022 Review Conference, this could include virtual informal consultations with all States Parties or in-person informal consultations (in New York, Geneva and Vienna), including with the NPT regional groups, and meetings with different groupings of States Parties, such as the New Agenda Coalition, the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, the Stockholm Initiative and others.

Friends of the Chairperson/President

To enhance the chances for success, informally assembling a group of “Friends” of the Chairperson or President should be considered. This group should be carefully selected to ensure a balanced representation and enable the Chairperson or President to overcome differences and produce language that could reach consensus for the Chairperson’s or President’s document, or at least alignment with this document by the greatest number of states parties possible.

Although it would be the prerogative of each Chairperson or President to decide on the composition of this group, continuity throughout the review cycle should be prioritised as it would enhance the effectiveness and functionality of the Chairperson or President. This group should include eminent persons from previous review cycles (e.g., Chairpersons /Presidents) to ensure continuity and institutional memory. This has proven beneficial in other fora where there have been representatives of established institutions, such as SIPRI, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Monterey Institute, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and Wilton Park.

These steps, which do not require changes in the Rules of Procedure and solely require decisive action by each Chairperson or President, should be considered to overcome the current dysfunctional proceedings of the NPT Review Cycle.

The European Leadership Network itself as an institution holds no formal policy positions. The opinions articulated above represent the views of the authors rather than the European Leadership Network or its members. The ELN aims to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time, to further its charitable purposes.

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