Where are we on effective measures, and where are we going?

Humanitarian Initiative, NPT

One positive outcome of the NPT Review Conference was the strengthened support for the humanitarian pledge. But what will this now lead to in terms of effective nuclear disarmament measures?

By John Borrie, Tim Caughley, Magnus Løvold and Torbjørn Graff Hugo

A month after the NPT Review Conference’s collapse, and on the cusp of the summer break in the Northern hemisphere, we consider the state of efforts on achieving further effective measures on nuclear disarmament.

Despite the five-yearly Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) failing to achieve consensus on a final outcome document in New York in late May, many commentators concluded that one significant development during the meeting was massive expansion in support for an Austrian-instigated ‘humanitarian pledge’. This pledge, which began as an Austrian national statement announced at the conclusion of the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons last December, now has 110 endorsing countries. A key element of the document is its commitment to ‘fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons’, noting that other categories of weapons of mass destruction have been banned.

It’s worth reflecting just how far the discourse on achieving nuclear disarmament has evolved since the first mention of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in the NPT Action Plan in 2010. Over those five years, the world has seen continued deadlock in the standing multilateral disarmament machinery, impasse deepen on further bilateral nuclear weapons reductions between the United States and Russia, increased international tensions following the latter’s annexation of Crimea, warfare in Eastern Ukraine, and nuclear sabre-rattling that has invited countries like France to insist on the necessity of their own nuclear arsenals (seemingly oblivious to the message this send to all of the nuclear have-nots). There have been further North Korean nuclear testing (2013), and protracted nuclear negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme that have not yet successfully concluded. Relations remain tense between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan (not NPT members) in South Asia. Rising China’s muscle-flexing in East Asia poses new security dilemmas for the United States and its allies in the region. One could be forgiven for frustration or even despondency.

Yet there is an increasingly widespread sense that there is a need to think anew if efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons are ever to be achieved.

Yet there is an increasingly widespread sense that there is a need to think anew if efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons are ever to be achieved. The humanitarian consequences initiative has provided a vehicle for this, one that has become increasingly appealing over time to a wider number of states and to the public. While the tendency of policy practitioners is to focus on the tangible milestones of this initiative—the three conferences in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna respectively, the succession of joint-statements in various multilateral forums—its real achievement has been to change the way a lot of states think about nuclear weapons, and their own roles in achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. For many non-nuclear-weapon states, the realization appears to have sunk in that ‘help is not coming’ as Wildfire, an acerbic commentator of multilateral nuclear diplomacy put it, and that they cannot remain passengers if they want nukes eliminated. They must do more to bring about the change they wish to see, constructively, and through their own policies and behaviour. The NPT review meeting failure in 2015 has merely confirmed this.

Evidence about the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in populated areas, and of persistent (and, in certain instances, increasing) sources of risk of use (whether deliberate or inadvertently caused) have been key to the humanitarian initiative. At the 2015 NPT review meeting, denials by some nuclear-weapon states that they had learned anything new in this regard was curious, and—let’s be in no doubt on this point—disingenuous. Before the presentation of new research such as climate studies of the after-affects of a limited nuclear war, or UNIDIR’s study into the challenges of humanitarian coordination and response, one could guess the consequences would be bad. But now we have a much more concrete idea of what these consequences will be, and some practical issues these raise that needed to be looked at. This is new knowledge.

The facts-based discourse encouraged by the humanitarian initiative has also exposed glaring inconsistencies and wishful thinking of those who insist that nuclear weapons are useful precisely because their awful humanitarian consequences deter use—at the same time as they refuse to acknowledge that this is playing with fire. A recent Rolling Stone feature article, writing of failures in nuclear weapons safeguards, observed that ‘Over the years, safeguards have failed so spectacularly that even an atheist might suspect divine intervention’ that has prevented an inadvertent nuclear weapon detonation or nuclear war. Command and Control author Eric Schlosser put it more strongly, calling continued nuclear arsenals on high alert ‘humanity’s collective death wish’.

The humanitarian initiative has clearly spotlighted the political problem too: nuclear disarmament efforts remain stuck. Just as we are almost out of the mire, there is always some new concern—Ukraine, ballistic missile defence concerns, the rise of China—to push it back into that political-procedural quagmire. And for the passengers, it’s not altogether clear that the coachmen of the apocalypse outside are really trying that hard to get us all back on the road to elimination. So, it looks like a push is needed from the non-nuclear-weapon states themselves.

for the passengers, it’s not altogether clear that the coachmen of the apocalypse outside are really trying that hard to get us all back on the road to elimination.

This is a difficult choice to make. It involves political opportunity-costs and risks. But if the NPT Review Conference underlined anything, it’s that the treaty regime is in dire need of help if nuclear weapons are to be curbed in the 21st century. As we’ve noted before on this blog, in the longer run non-proliferation efforts cannot succeed without progress on disarmament. An already asymmetrical regime of nuclear haves and have-nots will eventually topple over and collapse. With two of the last three NPT Review Conference having failed, we are now closer to such a scenario than ever.

So, there is a clear need to act. But do what exactly? Since late 2014, that is by-and-large what effectivemeasures.org has discussed, alongside our analyses produced as briefing papers for delegates at the NPT review meeting and other outputs. Indeed, there was some discussion of ‘effective measures’ in Main Committee I and subsidiary body talks at that meeting, largely based on the New Agenda coalition’s working paper 8. But these talks were cursory, non-inclusive of non-NPT members or civil society, and flowed along the familiar groove of glib promises by the nuclear-weapon states and their allies, or just blunt dismissals. And, all of this was with a view to the drafting of a procedural document—not actually initiating further legally binding actions. The world deserves better, and the humanitarian pledge reveals that the majority of states increasingly expect better too.

As researchers—and not advocates—we strive to base our findings on evidence and rational argument, and to go where they lead. We have thus come to see the idea of a nuclear weapon ban treaty as one of the most promising potential avenues for the effective measures for nuclear disarmament, although of course not without its risks and drawbacks. Over the coming months, we’ll reflect further on the pros and cons of such an approach, and we’ll be presenting our analysis later in 2015, both on this blog and in other products. How strong really are the arguments for such a treaty, and how serious are the counter-arguments against it given the range of realistic alternatives? For that matter, how realistic is such a treaty in the current international security environment—what would its value be? What could its legal architecture look like? And how would states get there?

With respect to this last question, many are looking to South Africa, the incoming New Agenda coalition coordinator and, separately, a leading humanitarian pledge country. South Africa spoke in strong and eloquent terms at the NPT’s end for the need for progress on effective measures on nuclear disarmament. As a country that gave up its nuclear weapon programme it certainly has moral high ground.

Any announcement of a further conference will probably meet with the disapproval of some, if not all, of the NPT nuclear-weapon states. It would be a further challenge to their habitual monopolization of the multilateral nuclear disarmament agenda. As the NPT nuclear-weapon states’ shunning of the first two humanitarian conferences and even the 2013 Open-Ended Working Group showed, their engagement cannot be assured (although subsequently the United Kingdom and United States did participate in the Vienna conference). But disapproval from a few states should not deter the rest of the international community from confronting a nuclear-weapons threat that affects the security of all of us.

Tune in for fresh insights after the summer.