The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference: An Interview with Ambassador Eric Danon

Also published here.

Ambassador Eric Danon, Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament, speaks at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Forty years ago, one of the most important treaties in recent history went into effect: the The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the NPT. This treaty has been ratified by 190 countries, with the main objective being to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon-related technology, while providing a framework for the peaceful, civilian use of nuclear energy.

Every five years, an international conference is held to review the treaty; the NPT Review Conference, or “RevCon”, as it has been nicknamed, lasts for a month. All state parties of the NPT attend the conference, as well as a variety of non-governmental organizations. You can read more about it here, here, and here.

The 2010 NPT RevCon started on May 3, and will end on May 28. As President Obama said:

Over the coming weeks, each of our nations will have the opportunity to show where we stand. Will we meet our responsibilities or shirk them? Will we ensure the rights of nations or undermine them? In short, do we seek a 21st century of more nuclear weapons or a world without them?

It’s important to recognize that the atmosphere of global cooperation has changed significantly since the last NPT RevCon, in 2005. It’s also important to recognize that the conference is essentially a month of carefully orchestrated negotiations, a dance of diplomacy between allies and opponents, with the outcome yet to be seen.

In this spirit of international communication, I had the opportunity to interview Ambassador Eric Danon, who is the Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. This interview took place via email, over the past two weeks. My questions are in bold, and his replies follow. I’ve inserted links where appropriate.

Could you very briefly introduce yourself, and explain your role at the NPT Review Conference?

I am a career diplomat, ambassador in Geneva in charge of multilateral negotiations on disarmament. I have worked on security issues for many years. I originally studied physics, specializing in nuclear physics. I am here in New York to lead the French delegation at the NPT Review Conference. My role is to promote French positions and work hard with other countries to find a successful outcome to the Conference.

We believe that the NPT faces unprecedented challenges which require a collective response from the international community. We must work equally on all three pillars of the Treaty : promoting disarmament, pushing for stronger non-proliferation policies and develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

In general, how would you characterize the overall atmosphere of the NPT Review Conference, compared to 2005? Do you predict a more constructive, positive outcome, or not? Why or why not?

So far the atmosphere has been good. Compared to the last RevCon in 2005 which ended with no final outcome, we are more likely to succeed. Why is that? Many things have happened in the last five years. There has been some political impetus on the disarmament front, two non-proliferation crises today are clearly identified, and we are witness to a new momentum – indeed a “renaissance” – in the field of civil nuclear energy. So we hope we can reach a balanced outcome for the conference.

Some of the biggest news coming out of the conference so far concerns the proposal for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone. This is a very complicated issue, especially since one of the main proliferation concerns are Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, as well as Israel’s undeclared nuclear program. Given all of these issues, can you explain (briefly) how this new proposal might work?

This is the most sensitive issue of the conference. We hope to find avenues for the implementation of the resolution that was adopted at the 1995 review Conference calling for a WMD-free zone — not just nuclear weapons-free — in the Middle East. Israel is not party to the NPT. Iran violates the NPT, its commitments towards the IAEA and Security Council resolutions. A new proposal was put forward over a year ago, which consists in setting up a conference that would discuss the objective of the 1995 resolution. Now we have on-going discussions on such a conference: how many meetings, what sort of decision process, what participation, etc. These are preliminary discussions, and the atmosphere has been positive.

I understand that Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone is a sensitive issue, but I’m sure our readers are going to have more questions about it. How can you work toward a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone when one of the countries (Israel) in that zone has nuclear weapons? Just because they are not a party to the NPT shouldn’t exempt them from scrutiny and discussion, should it?

France is fully committed to the implementation of the 1995 resolution which calls for the establishment of a Zone free of Weapons of mass destruction – not just nuclear – in the Middle East. We hope that a process can be started to that effect, in which all countries in the region should participate. This is what we’re striving to achieve in this conference, an agreement by all countries in the region to sit around the table in the near future and discuss the matter.

Another interesting piece of news was the US revelation of the exact number of warheads in our arsenal. I’ve been watching comments on Twitter, and I saw this one, from The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation: “Lots of states calling for transparency and reporting on nuclear arsenals.”

In your opinion, how likely is it that other countries will follow the US example and increase transparency regarding their nuclear arsenals?

We are delighted that the US has given a precise figure on part of their arsenal. We’re not in a beauty contest here, but may I remind you that two years ago France made public the total number (less than 300) of all its nuclear weapons, not just the active warheads. In any case we’re happy that the US has decided to follow France’s lead! Transparency is a critical aspect of confidence, and hence a critical aspect of disarmament.

Regarding France’s arsenal, I have the same question that I’d ask of the UK, as the other EU country with strategic nuclear weapons. The supposed reason for maintaining these arsenals is deterrence. My question is simple but direct: who is being deterred?

France does not have enemies. As a result deterrence is not targeted at any particular country. It conveys a message for all: if our vital interests are not threatened by an attack, we shall not use the atomic bomb. We have not defined what “vital interests” entail, and it is left for the President of the Republic to decide. This is how deterrence can work. If we define our vital interests, a country would know where the threshold of our vital interests lies and could attack accordingly. Ambiguity on the definition is a critical component of deterrence.

What sort of discussions have taken place (if any) regarding NATO and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons? Has there been a call for transparency (reporting of numbers, etc.) with respect to those weapons?

We haven’t had in-depth discussions on this precise topic in the framework of the NPT. This is dealt with by NATO and Russia. Having said that, generally speaking, all countries call for continuing disarmament between Russia and the United States. There hasn’t been a specific call for transparency on tactical nuclear weapons but a general call for transparency on all nuclear weapons, a transparency which we fully support. As for France, we do not have any tactical weapons any more, ever since we did away with the Pluton and Hadès missiles at the end of the Cold War.

What would you like to see come out of the NPT Review Conference? In other words, in your opinion, what would constitute “success”, when everything comes to a close at the end of May?

We would like the Conference to adopt a final document containing a political chapeau recalling the commitments of the State parties, three action plans dealing with the three pillars of the NPT – disarmament, non proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy -, and elements on the Middle East with concrete actions to implement the resolution of 1995.

We would also like some legal aspects to be addressed, the so-called “institutional aspects” of the Treaty, particularly regarding the question of withdrawal from the Treaty. After North Korea expressed its willingness to withdraw in 2003, it appeared to State parties that it was necessary to work on the consequences of a country’s withdrawal. We cannot allow a country that decides to withdraw from the Treaty to dodge its responsibilities regarding nuclear non proliferation.

If we could have all this in the final document, it would offer a balanced package which could boost the NPT and move on after the failure of the 2005 RevCon.

Let’s talk about the emphasis on peaceful pursuit of nuclear power. You said one of the goals of RevCon involves “pushing for stronger non-proliferation policies and develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy”. What, specifically, is being discussed (or will be discussed) regarding the assurance that civilian nuclear energy programs do not have the potential to be dual use? For example, there are uranium enrichment methods employing the use of lasers that have been cause for concern, because they’re potentially much easier to conceal than more traditional uranium enrichment methods, etc.

France is one of the very few countries that have mastered the full cycle of civilian nuclear energy. Our know-how reinforces our conviction that it is essential to have the highest standards in terms of safety, security and non-proliferation. There are risks linked to civilian nuclear “renaissance” that must be addressed: how to make sure terrorists won’t get hold of fissile material, how to control the transfer of sensitive technology, how to manage waste… We hope that the conference will recognize these risks and reaffirm that while the right of all countries to peaceful uses of nuclear energy is inalienable, it must be exercised responsibly, i.e. it must respect the highest standards in terms of safety, security and sustainable development.

What impact will the new UN Security Council Iran sanctions have on the NPT Review Conference?

Nobody can tell what will happen in the coming days. The sanctions currently being discussed at the Security Council are the direct result of Iran’s non-compliance with the Non Proliferation Treaty. This non-compliance is extremely worrisome for the international community. At this stage, the Review Conference has not been affected by the work of the Security Council.

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