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Blog: 50 years of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

As 2020 drew to a close, Wilton Park convened a very different version of our annual nuclear non-proliferation conference which has taken place each December since 1996.

Instead of the 100 participants who squeezed into our Conference Room in 2019, a smaller invited group of 17 participants, mostly government officials charged with diplomacy running up to and at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) rescheduled Review Conference (RevCon), convened virtually. Our goal was to assess how to make the best of the hiatus between now and when the Review takes place in (we hope) August 2021.

More on that in a moment. Firstly, as we move out of 2020, let’s recall that the year of COVID-19 was also a year of anniversaries for the NPT. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Treaty’s entry into force as the world’s tool against the spread of nuclear weapons, and the 25th anniversary of indefinite extension of the Treaty when it became a permanent part of the international architecture governing nuclear weapons and energy.

A view of the United Nations General Assembly during the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The 2015 Review Conference at the United Nations General Assembly Hall

Entry into force came at the beginning of a period of significant achievement for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament; indefinite extension, conversely, came at what now looks like a high water mark for treaty-based bilateral and multilateral approaches to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

A year after that extension, we convened their first nuclear non-proliferation conference (informally known as ‘Nukes at Christmas’) in the format that is now so familiar: a week long meeting in December with the unique occasion of the final night with a carol service and singing.

Wilton Park in the snow
Wilton Park in winter

If you track the history of the conference, you’ll follow the post-extension achievements and travails of the Treaty. The time specific issues that rose and fell in prominence, along with those permanent (and, it seems, permanently intractable) topics on which managing irreconcilable views often seems to be the best that can be hoped for, are all there.

The 2020 iteration convened last month in a unique format. Representatives from the NPT Bureau, coordinators of the key NPT regional and thematic groupings, as well as several non-government experts, met virtually for the Wilton Park programme. We looked towards the rescheduled NPT Review, and upon the postponement as an opportunity to work towards success. The outcomes were captured in a report prepared by Erin Connolly and Julia Masterson.


A photo of female participants at the 2019 nuclear non-proliferation conference at Wilton Park.

The changing face of the NPT conference

From 12% female participation in 2016 to 50% in 2019, a reflection of how the NPT community has evolved over the years.


For now, we will continue to support a positive outcome at the Review virtually, with a planned sequence of virtual meetings this year prior to the RevCon in August. And at the close of the year, we look forward to ‘the Big One’: an in-person Nukes at Christmas, this year marking its own anniversary of 25 years. We’ll be convening in the wake of the Review, and while I’m not given to making predictions, I feel confident in offering just one: there’ll be a lot to talk about. Meantime, happy 50th, NPT!

Dr Mark Smith, Programme Director


Find out more

Listen to the series of podcasts recorded at Wilton Park’s annual nuclear non-proliferation conference in 2019.