Another Gap


The parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) were unable to reach any agreement at their month-long 2015 Review Conference ostensibly because of Middle-East politics. The parties were also far apart on how to deal with nuclear disarmament.  In the Humanitarian Pledge, a new dynamic has emerged.

By Tim Caughley

‘The whole plan to have the non-nuclear-weapons powers accept responsibility for preventing the destruction of mankind by renouncing nuclear arms is in disarray’. So said Alva Myrdal (Swedish minister for disarmament during the NPT negotiations and former Nobel Peace Prize winner) in 1976. The recent five-year review of that treaty has done little to dispel that conclusion.

But one thing has changed. The word ‘gap’ has become embedded in the NPT lexicon. (It is unlikely, however, to find its way into the ‘glossary’ of the nuclear weapon states (NPT5), a new contribution to the disarmament debate in the Review Conference.) ‘Gap’ was widely used by non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) to draw attention to the anomaly that among weapons of mass destruction the most deadly – nuclear weapons – have not yet been prohibited by international law.

The 2015 Review Conference, however, could not agree to develop any process for addressing that gap, as pointed out by Austria on behalf of 49 states during the meeting’s concluding session.

 “There is a reality gap, a credibility gap, a confidence gap and a moral gap. ” – Austria

In failing to decide such a process, the conference also demonstrated the chasm that exists between the treaty parties about the capacity of the NPT to serve as a credible vehicle for nuclear disarmament. Hopes of the NNWS that the treaty, now 45 years in force, would not only prevent further nuclear weapon proliferation but also secure the elimination of existing arsenals have been severely shaken. The emptiness of the ‘unequivocal undertaking’ to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons given by the possessing states in 2000 and reaffirmed in 2010—again without timelines—has become increasingly apparent.

If the mantra that the NPT is the ‘cornerstone’ of the international non-proliferation system now sounds hollow, what are the implications of this state of affairs? First, as the treaty parties begin the new 5-year review cycle, consideration needs to be given to replacing pointless rituals of the cycle itself. What is the value of two preparatory meetings every cycle that have little or no influence on a third such meeting let alone on the culminating Review Conference? Drafting outcome documents that either fail to achieve consensus as in the 2005 and 2015 Reviews or the implementation of which is sporadic at best, as in 1995, 2000 and 2010, hardly instils confidence in the treaty.

The entire review process is little less than bankrupt in its current unproductive state. Addressing this sobering reality must be a priority for the parties when they next meet in 2017 to begin preparations for the 2020 Review Conference. Otherwise it is difficult to imagine that states will give priority to attending that meeting, especially if alternative channels for nuclear disarmament are opened up in the meantime.

Second, ultimately, dealing effectively with nuclear disarmament needs to recognize that there are nuclear-weapon-possessing states beyond the parties to the NPT. The Achilles heel of this treaty—its universality denied by DPRK, India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan, the majority nuclear-armed—has to be reckoned with sooner or later: there is simply no prospect that a nuclear-weapon-free-world can be achieved solely through the NPT.

Thirdly, if nature abhors a vacuum then it is evident from the 2015 review conference that as far as nuclear disarmament is concerned the supporters of the newly emerged Humanitarian Pledge have designs for filling that void. The essential element of the Pledge is to ‘identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’. With over half of the parties to the NPT already adhering to the Pledge, the pursuit of nuclear disarmament in earnest, in ways comparable to those undertaken to outlaw biological and chemical weapons, may emerge during the next year or so, a period in which the NPT is in any event in recess.

Given the lack of cohesion among the parties to the NPT and the chronic blockage of nuclear disarmament in the CD, it is perhaps inevitable that something had to give. The Humanitarian Pledge may, like the NPT itself, fall short of universal adherence, but its objective is of a more modest scale. The goals are to rescue nuclear disarmament from the perpetual state of rhetoric that surrounds it in the NPT and to begin to sharpen the focus on the actualities of eliminating nuclear weapons or—depending on whom one heeds—banning them at least.

The first step is to identify effective measures for securing these objectives. Surely, the initiation of a debate to that practical end is not beyond the scope of modern multilateralism. If the NPT is to be rescued from Alva Myrdal’s ‘disarray’, those states that continue to believe that the Treaty really is, as they claim, a ‘cornerstone’ will begin urgently erecting the scaffolding from which to patch up its crumbling edifice. Listing possible effective measures without prejudice to eventual pursuit of them seems to be the obvious place to begin.