Assured negative security


NNWS should stop begging NAS for negative security assurances and instead focus on measures that will actually have an effect on disarmament.

By Torbjørn Graff Hugo

Towards the end of the second week of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the issue of negative security assurances (NSAs) came up in Main Committee I—again. These curious ‘guarantees’ have been on the NPT agenda since before the text of the Treaty was even finalized. During the negotiations in the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) between 1965 and 1968, a number of the non-nuclear-weapon states demanded that NSAs be included in the treaty text. And India, for one, signaled early on that it would not sign a treaty that did not include adequate security guarantees.[1]

These curious ‘guarantees’ have been on the NPT agenda since before the text of the Treaty was even finalized.

The compromise solution during the NPT negotiations was that the P5 would accept a United Nations Security Council resolution on the issue of NSAs, which was indeed adopted right after the NPT negotiations had concluded. The problem, though, was that the resolutions did little more than to reaffirm the obligations all states already had under the UN Charter. As an additional NSA measure, it was pointless.

So what? As Germany pointed out during the NPT-debate on May 7, the ‘the breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum vis-a-vis Ukraine has cast a shadow on the status of the value of NSAs.’ But the ‘Budabreach’ is not the only reason to doubt the value of NSAs. The Ukraine case just goes to show how useless NSAs are as a concept. For at least three reasons:

  1. Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, which would not be contained either in space or time. In other words, if France decides to blow London to pieces, the fallout and the effects of that attack could impact the whole European continent, if not the whole world. So what does it matter if Belgium were given negative security assurances in advance?
  2. There are no compliance measures for NSAs. There is no way to verify compliance until the agreement is breached. And there are no legal remedies for affected parties, though that (victim assistance and reparations) could possibly be included in the NSA treaty that a number of states are calling for. The question is whether a separate instrument is needed just for that purpose.
  3. Perhaps the most important argument against NSAs is that they actually serve to legitimize the continued possession of nuclear weapons. By begging the nuclear-armed states (NAS) for assurances, the non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) implicitly recognize that the NAS have a right to have these weapons (for some unspecified duration of time), and even though this is presented as an intermediate step pending the total elimination of nuclear weapons, in practice it risks slowing down the pace of disarmament.

If the NNWS are truly committed to nuclear disarmament, they should reconsider their desperate calls for negative security assurances from the NAS, whether in the form of an international treaty, Security Council resolutions or the ratification of relevant NWFZ protocols. The drugs won’t work.

Instead, NNWS should focus on fulfilling their own role in the nuclear disarmament puzzle, namely to create the incentives that will make the NAS decide to move towards full elimination.

[1] See E. B. Firmage , ‘The treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons’, American Journal of International Law 63 (4) (1969), 711–46