Once more unto the breach


States need to reflect carefully on the impacts on the health of the NPT if current levels of dissatisfaction over the implementation of article VI are left to fester.

By Tim Caughley

The NPT Review Conference has moved into its final fortnight after two weeks devoted to set-piece national and group statements uttered largely as expressions of their formal, public position on key issues of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. That phase has given way to one in which flexibility on those matters is being teased out in more intensive, interactive sessions mainly closed to the public. The objectives of the chairs of those meetings are to broker compromise and deliver consensus—i.e., unobjectionable—outcomes.

The extent to which talking past one another is gradually being replaced by dialogue and genuine engagement amongst delegations remains to be seen. If there is to be a real meeting of minds, particularly on nuclear disarmament issues, a number of mixed messages from the set piece segment will first have to be unscrambled.

One example is the meaning of effective measures for nuclear disarmament (as required by article VI of the NPT). Many nations regard it as the duty of all parties to the treaty to negotiate and achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons as a collective endeavour. Nuclear weapon states, however, interpret the obligation differently. ‘Effective measures’ to them cover steps they have already taken or partially taken. These include unilateral or bilateral reductions (e.g., new START) as well as multilateral steps such as the CTBT that they have signed but, in the case of China and the US, so far failed to ratify.

Nuclear weapon states insist on their current flexible, or ‘step-by-step’, approach towards nuclear disarmament. They prefer an á la carte menu to a fixed price one. They fear that the meal of the day may be indigestible if its main course entails all states sitting down together to develop legally binding parameters, including timelines, for the elimination of nuclear arsenals. Even more unpalatable to them would be a fixed menu first course that sought a ban on nuclear weapons as an initial step towards abolition of nuclear weapons. Such a prospect might not even bring them to the table.

The problem with a ‘step-by-step’ approach is not so much the categorisation of effectiveness of individual steps. Rather it relates to the implementation of the steps. Unilateral and bilateral reductions are undoubtedly effective steps (or ‘building blocks’) towards the common goal of elimination of nuclear arsenals. But obstacles remain—such as the need for entry into force of the CTBT and for mandates on a fissile material ban, nuclear disarmament and security assurances in the CD.

Progress on all these fronts will be needed if the step-by-step approach favoured by nuclear weapon states and their alliance partners is to develop enough critical mass and momentum to forestall alternative steps for giving effect to widespread levels of dissatisfaction over the rate of nuclear disarmament and the integrity of the NPT. Yet at the Review Conference to date there has been too much focus on the symptoms of that disenchantment (including the promotion of humanitarian concerns, risks of accidents with nuclear weapons, etc) and not enough on cures, e.g., developing a multilaterally agreed framework of the measures needed to ensure the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Those states that are defending their continued possession of nuclear weapons are prone to assert that the world is not safe enough for them to relinquish their arsenals.

The absence even of any exploratory moves by the Review Conference towards such a framework is salient to another example of mixed messages. It stems from the debate over the relevance of the international security environment to the pace of nuclear disarmament—an issue that acts as a brake on forging practical ways for progress. Those states that are defending their continued possession of nuclear weapons are prone to assert that the world is not safe enough for them to relinquish their arsenals. This seems to be code for saying that at the current time they do not trust their fellow possessors to abide by an agreement to eliminate nuclear armaments. Non-nuclear states contend, however, that it is the very existence of so many nuclear weapons that contributes to global insecurity. Worse, the association of nuclear weapons and national security is the antithesis of the non-proliferation objective of the NPT.

These philosophical differences are considerable, but they ought not to be unbridgeable. After all, the goal of a nuclear weapon free world is common to all states. The repetitive airing of these differences, however, is no more conducive to progress than rehearsing respective points of view over what constitutes an effective measure.

The best way to replace rhetoric with results is to provide practical opportunities for exploring the scope for middle ground. The chair of Subsidiary Body 1 at the Review Conference has clearly recognised the growing clamour for progress to that end. The elaboration of ‘draft substantive elements’ drawn from discussions in that forum (an offshoot of the main nuclear disarmament committee) contains a practical call to action: all states are encouraged to ‘engage, without delay, within the framework of the United Nations disarmament machinery, in an inclusive process to identify and elaborate the legal provisions required for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons’.

Three such provisions are identified [see the ILPI-UNIDIR NPT series for more detailed discussion of the options]:

  • a stand-alone instrument in the form of a nuclear-weapons-ban treaty,
  • a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention containing a phased programme for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified timeframe (as per A/RES/68/32),
  • a framework agreement comprising mutually supporting instruments that would establish the key prohibitions, obligations and arrangements for time-bound, irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament.

States are only ‘encouraged’ to pursue this practical call to action. Many of them may not need much encouragement—despite substantial reductions of nuclear weapons holdings since the end of the cold war, impatience with the recent slow-down is palpable. States, however, that do need encouragement should think beyond invoking the consensus rule to sideline practical approaches such as that of the Subsidiary Body chair. They should reflect very carefully on the impacts on the health of the NPT if current levels of dissatisfaction over the implementation of article VI are left to fester, if the outcome of the Review Conference is devoid of practical consequence, if a vacuum is left when the conference concludes on 22 May.