The great NPT pillar fight: Round 2

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High Stakes for the 2015 NPT Review Conference: Pillar One v. Pillar Two

By Tim Caughley

This is the second part of a posting on tensions in the NPT review process between pillar one (nuclear disarmament) and pillar two (non-proliferation). The previous posting on this issue concluded by noting that a prominent element in the political mix in next month’s NPT Review Conference will be the growth in profile during the current review cycle of the humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons.

The concern of NPT state parties about the ‘catastrophic humanitarian consequences’ of nuclear weapons, as reflected in the agreed outcome of the 2010 Review Conference, has snowballed for several reasons. The evidence of such consequences has been so effectively pulled together—in a series of meetings held in Oslo (March 2013), Nayarit (February 2014) and Vienna (December 2014)—that the third of these events attracted attendance by 159 nations including at least four of the nine states that possess nuclear weapons. This high level of participation reflects not only intensified anxieties about the risks of use of nuclear arms but also dissatisfaction with the passivity if not obstruction by nuclear weapon states towards the initiation of multilateral negotiations for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Amongst parties to the NPT especially non-nuclear-weapon states parties, the level of dissatisfaction is running high. Consensus outcomes of review conferences have a habit of sinking quickly into the sands of time. This applies even to the most unambiguous outcomes, witness the ‘unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals’ under Article VI of the treaty—a solemn promise made not once but twice (in 2000 and 2010).

In the absence of any lasting commitment to these undertakings or of any timeframe or process for their fulfilment, it is not surprising that a new dynamic has emerged. The significance of the humanitarian approach rests not only in the growth of support for it, as voiced in the three conferences just mentioned and in the three most recent annual sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. It has also given rise to several other important developments. It has led one country—Austria—to announce a pledge to cooperate with states, international organizations, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, parliamentarians and civil society to ‘stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks’.

One entire regional group (CELAC) and a number of other states have already associated themselves with the Austrian Pledge. These 60 or so supporters include Ireland, which in 1958 was the initiator of a United Nations General Assembly resolution that led to the negotiation of the NPT. Ireland is also a member of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), a group best placed to provide a bridge at the upcoming Review Conference between opposing ends of the spectrum on nuclear disarmament. Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Charles Flanagan, in a recent statement to the Conference on Disarmament, announced that his government was ‘entirely at one’ with Austria in the aim of identifying and pursuing effective measures required by article VI of the NPT to bring about nuclear disarmament and an end to the nuclear arms race. The Minister noted that the Pledge left open the ‘precise legal pathway’ to be followed towards the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

That mention of the precise legal pathway harks back to options tabled by Ireland on behalf of the NAC during the last preparatory meeting of the NPT states in 2014 in the lead up to the Review Conference. Indeed, a second recent development of note is the increased discussion of the various options open to the international community through which to negotiate effective nuclear disarmament measures. A ‘comprehensive’ legal treaty such as the model convention first submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in 1997 by Costa Rica is one such option. Another legally binding measure of more limited scope is the option favoured widely in civil society under which nuclear weapons would be prohibited as a first, but discrete, step towards their eventual elimination.

A draft prohibition on the possession and use of nuclear weapons has yet to be tabled. It is an option to which nuclear-weapon states are opposed. The United Kingdom for one has made clear that its disagrees that a ban on those arms ‘is the right way to move us closer to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons’. The UK prefers ‘a practical step-by-step approach that includes all those who hold nuclear weapons’. The problem with this third option—the ‘step-by-step approach— is that recent and projected new steps—the entry into force of the CTBT and the negotiation of a prohibition on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons—are both being stymied in large part by states which advocate this approach or actually possess nuclear weapons. This is more than a matter of irony: it is damaging to the credibility of those nations that are promoting it while at the same time it is causing non-nuclear-weapon states to sharpen their focus on options one and two. This is so, in the case of the second option, even if nuclear-weapon states choose not to participate in a ban process.

To return to the starting point for these comments, that is, to the difference of view between the relative emphasis to be placed on pillar one or pillar two. As mentioned in the first of these two posts, in the 2005 Review Conference that divergence played itself out as a stalemate. On the one hand there are those for whom an increased rate of nuclear disarmament is necessary both in itself and to help discourage further proliferation and is therefore more pressing than non-proliferation per se. On the other hand stand those for whom the retention of nuclear weapons is less significant in security terms than the emergence of new possessors of those armaments. Ten years later, with nuclear weapon states seemingly surprised if not unsettled by the growth of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, there is a risk that a similar dynamic will unfold.

This would be unfortunate. Moreover, as in 2005, it would be unproductive. As noted earlier, there is considerable overlap between the two pillars. They need to be seen for what they are—as two (of three) mutually reinforcing pillars on which the edifice of the NPT depends and in which all states parties have a fundamental interest in respecting and maintaining. This means more nuclear disarmament and no proliferation, horizontal or vertical. No equations in the realm of international security are simple, but the pillar one/pillar two balance need not be complicated. The extent to which states parties bicker over the comparative importance of these pillars at the coming Review Conference may well prove to be a true gauge of the solidity of the NPT’s much-vaunted role as the ‘cornerstone’ of international security. The stakes for the 2015 review are high not just for the Conference but also for the NPT regime itself.