Emphasizing past nuclear disarmament accomplishments misses the point when the real issue is the persistent risk of nuclear weapon use, whether deliberately or inadvertently caused.
By John Borrie
Last month, the latest five-yearly Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) failed to achieve any result—except perhaps to exasperate multilateral diplomats, and further underline how serious the current lack of progress on achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world has become. Ostensibly, Middle East-related issues derailed consensus on the final outcome document, although widely perceived lack of nuclear disarmament progress was a major bone of contention. At the Review Conference, the New Agenda Coalition countries and other states as varied as Austria and Thailand tried to focus discussion on possible further ‘effective measures’ on nuclear disarmament. The line the five NPT nuclear-weapon states took is that they are doing enough on nuclear disarmament and that, despite their vaunted step-by-step approach being stalled, it remains the only viable option. In light of the unpropitious disarmament environment right now—as underlined by the Review Conference’s failure—it raises the question: why pursue effective measures at all?
One answer is because the threat nuclear weapons pose to humanity didn’t go away with the Cold War or even the significant bilateral nuclear reductions of Russia and the United States since its end. In fact, there’s evidence to indicate that the risk of nuclear weapon use may actually be elevated, for instance due to accidents, nuclear weapons in the hands of more actors, and the fact that low probability events like nuclear weapon detonations nevertheless happen sooner or later (and now it is getting later). In view of that, it’s vital to keep the momentum up toward elimination before the ‘unthinkable’ occurs. For those un-swayed by this, nuclear non-proliferation efforts ultimately cannot succeed without disarmament progress as we’ve pointed out before on this blog, and as Alexei Arbatov also recently observed.
The five NPT nuclear-weapon states have yet to really engage substantively with these concerns. At the NPT they and some of their military allies preferred to emphasize their accomplishments in reducing what were—and still are—bloated legacy nuclear arsenals. But this emphasis misses the point. The problem is not only one of overall nuclear weapon numbers, but of all the things that can and do go wrong with the complex systems for sustaining nuclear weapons, including the many still on launch-on-warning status. All of the nuclear-armed states have a long way to go before their assurances about the safety of their nuclear arsenals are supported by facts delivered through adequate transparency. Moreover, with modernization of nuclear capabilities and of strategic doctrines, there’s the prospect that not only will nukes stick around for the indefinite future in the arsenals of those that have them, nuclear deterrence itself is becoming more complicated and unstable, as Michael Krepon recently explained.
It’s in the face of this persistent risk that a wide range of actors—states, experts, and civil society—has been urging the pursuit of effective measures on nuclear disarmament. However cynical one might be tempted to feel about nuclear diplomacy following the NPT review meeting, a workshop I took part in, which was hosted by Chatham House and the Heinrich Böll Foundation last week in Istanbul, served to reinforce the urgency of pursuing and achieving these measures, even though it was focused on a rather more down-to-earth topic.
Being a Chatham House event, the Chatham House rule applied. So, without going into inappropriate detail, the workshop brought together a number of humanitarian organizations in Turkey and the broader Middle East region with a view to considering the challenges of mounting a humanitarian response to a nuclear weapon detonation event in the region, based in part on a simulated scenario. I was impressed by the way in which these practical, hands-on people assessed their prospects and the substantial challenges. In this, they drew on their experiences of recent mass human displacement and other humanitarian problems created by conflicts in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere, from an initial starting point of having not considered nuclear detonation issues before.
It was clear from the workshop that humanitarian workers ‘get it’: they’re accustomed to thinking about the consequences of conflict and trying to mitigate these in practical terms, and this extends to nuclear weapons use. To this end, it soon became apparent in our discussions that the challenges of mitigating the humanitarian impacts of a nuclear weapon detonation event in a populated area in the Middle East would be severe—whether to protect staff, assist the victims, or maintain continuity in other humanitarian operations (the Syrian conflict has displaced millions of Syrians across the Middle East). My firm impression was that workshop participants mostly came to view the prevention of nuclear weapons use as the only effective really plausible form of mitigation, in the knowledge that this is going to require international efforts to de-legitimize these arms in order to create the momentum toward eliminating them.
As representatives of likely humanitarian responders, the workshop participants seemed only too aware of the inadequacy of any response to a nuclear weapon detonation event after it has occurred. I, for one, was pleased to see this recognition. Last year, my colleague Tim Caughley and I produced a UNIDIR study entitled An Illusion of Safety that looks at the challenges for United Nations humanitarian coordination and response in the event of nuclear weapon detonation events in populated areas. In some cases, the response from diplomats and even United Nations colleagues was, ‘yeah, but it’ll never happen, right?’ In that regard, I was struck that there was no suspension of disbelief required for the humanitarian workers at the workshop. As several pointed out, they’re already dealing with the consequences of a conflict in Syria in which WMD—chemical weapons—are being used. Yet as appalling as this is, those humanitarian consequences would pale into comparison with even a single nuclear detonation in or near a city and refugee camps.
This brings me back to why we need effective measures on nuclear disarmament. In this, the Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna humanitarian conferences have upped interest, and usefully set out some of the facts about the consequences, from which all states—even those with nuclear arsenals—could learn an important thing or two. Meanwhile, after all of the diplomatic maneouvering at the NPT Review Conference over holding a Middle East WMD-free zone conference was done and an outcome scuppered, the region remains a dangerous place, with no regional mechanism for it to even begin to talk about mitigating the risks of use of nuclear weapons there. It wouldn’t hurt for more Middle Eastern nuclear policy makers to hear the kinds of perspective from humanitarian organizations working in the field that I was exposed to at the Istanbul workshop. It might help them to reassess, and reconsider.