Royal Flush


Nuclear disarmament: Is it time to agree on the key parameters of the process ahead?

Tim Caughley

This year’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly’s (first) committee on ‘disarmament and international security’ gave an extra spark to the UN’s 70th birthday. Enlivening the usually lack-lustre First Committee agenda this October were several new and contentious resolutions. They served to give an unparalleled profile to nuclear disarmament, for reasons that bear reflection.

A quick look first at some statistics: Fifty-eight resolutions were tabled during the session. Almost half of them (28) dealt in one way or another with nuclear disarmament (one was withdrawn before coming up for decision). Six months ago, the 5-yearly review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended without agreement just as it had 10 years ago in 2005. By comparison, in that year, the First Committee dealt with 62 resolutions, 18 of which—just less than a third—were on nuclear disarmament (one of the three pillars of the NPT).

It would be mistaken to ascribe the considerable increase this year in resolutions on nuclear disarmament (both in percentage and numerical terms) solely to the growth of interest in the humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons. It’s not all one-way traffic. A divergence of views over the direction and consequences of the humanitarian approach has itself contributed to the further raising of the profile for nuclear disarmament. But so too has the rhetoric about possible preparation for deployment and even use of tactical nuclear weapons in ongoing regional conflicts including Central Europe and South Asia.

International security is not well served by such rhetoric. Nor, of course, will it be stabilized by any number of First Committee resolutions. But that doesn’t mean that states shouldn’t listen to one another in that forum as elsewhere. Sometimes, hints—even in statements in explanation of vote—can be intriguing.

In explaining their opposition to a resolution that proposed the convening of an open-ended working group (OEWG) to ‘address concrete effective legal measures [needed] to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons’, five nuclear-weapons possessors made a potentially significant joint statement. China, France, Russia, the UK and US opposed the proposal because the OEWG would operate as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly, agreeing its recommendations by UNGA voting rules rather than by consensus (i.e., without formal objection).

The five states (‘NPT5’, all party to the NPT and incidentally also permanent members of the Security Council) added: ‘The NPT and the existing machinery set out in the Final Document of SSOD-1 have proven to be a solid framework to advance nuclear disarmament and provide all opportunities for launching a constructive and mutually respectful dialogue. However, we remain open to other channels of discussion, not excluding an appropriately-mandated OEWG, provided that they are conducive to a constructive dialogue. Productive results can only be ensured through a consensus-based approach’.

Their reference to the first Special Session of the UNGA on Disarmament (SSOD-1) draws attention, in effect, to the 1978 General Assembly’s view that while disarmament is the responsibility of all States, ‘the nuclear-weapon States have the primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament … It is therefore important to secure their active participation’.

Continuing their explanation of vote, the NPT5 concluded: ‘To ensure [that] such an approach [i.e., a consensus-based one] is genuinely inclusive and fully anchored in the security context, States must agree in advance on the key parameters of the process ahead (emphasis added).’

References to SSOD-1 and to the ‘security context’ break no new ground, but the phrase ‘key parameters of the process ahead’ perhaps does so

References to SSOD-1 and to the ‘security context’ break no new ground, but the phrase ‘key parameters of the process ahead’ perhaps does so. It can, of course, be regarded as a reiteration of the ‘step-by-step’ approach to nuclear disarmament that they favour, although that term is already specifically used in the statement, synonymously with ‘framework’. It is at least arguable, therefore, that reaching agreement on the parameters of the process ahead is being offered as a topic for mutual exploration—as the very basis of the readiness of the five states to ‘remain open to other channels of discussion’ and ‘constructive dialogue’.

An alternative interpretation is that, with all its provisos, the statement amounts to a steely reminder that these five states hold all the cards; that the status quo is impenetrable except on their terms. The notion of a ban on nuclear weapons—an approach favoured by those who see it as a means of circumnavigating the deadlocked status quo for progress towards nuclear disarmament—is explicitly rejected by the five states in their explanation of vote.

The uncompromising nature of such an interpretation of the NPT5’s statement would not sit comfortably with their confirmation that they ‘remain steadfast in [their] commitment to seeking a safer world for all and achieving a world without nuclear weapons.’ It is tempting, therefore, to read something more into the meaning of ‘key parameters’ at a time of high controversy over progress on nuclear disarmament.

Could a constructive dialogue identify with greater clarity than currently exists the range of effective measures (‘parameters’) that would be needed to achieve the ‘world without nuclear weapons’, the one objective on which all sides seem to be agreed? Are the NPT5 signaling their receptivity to a discussion in which views are shared on the elements—multilateral and otherwise—that will be required to underpin progression towards nuclear disarmament? Do they envisage as a confidence building measure, perhaps, the taking of a preliminary step towards developing a process for negotiations on the complex issues of substance involved?

Whether these questions are implied by the NPT5, and whether, if so, they would be enough to trump the humanitarian approach, they warrant testing. That’s what multilateral diplomacy is all about—finding the means for constructive engagement to achieve a safer world. They are questions that could have been explored in the OEWG. It seems, however, as though ‘other channels of discussion’ will need to be found.

In any event, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they are questions on which progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament may well depend and with it the future of the NPT with its almost universally supported pillars on non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. They are questions in which everyone has a stake.