The perfect storm

Comments, OEWG, Prohibition/Ban

The 71st United Nations General Assembly will provide a test of leadership over the future of a new initiative for nuclear disarmament

By Tim Caughley

‘Sadly, many countries continue to include nuclear deterrence in their security doctrines. But recent developments have shown that nuclear weapons do not ensure peace and security. Rather, their development and possession has become a major source of international tension.’

Those are the words expressed last week by the United Nations Secretary-General on the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. On the same day, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Kim Won-soo, counselled a High-level meeting of the UN General Assembly that:

‘Progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons requires a positive “perfect storm” of three powerful forces working together. Government coalitions can bring diplomatic pressure. Civil society groups can rouse public opinion and remind officials of the need to advance real public interests. Visionary leaders must lead from the top down. We cannot afford to fail in this endeavour.’

As the Assembly turns its attention over the next few weeks to its nuclear disarmament agenda, these urgings are likely to resonate strongly. For instance, when the UN General Assembly reviews the report of one of its subsidiary bodies, the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) set up a year ago for ‘taking nuclear disarmament forward’, the tension to which the Secretary-General referred will be clearly evident. This is essentially an argument between two points of view. On one side, there are nuclear-weapon possessor states and military allies for which deterrence extended by the former is seen as providing their security. On the other side, there are non-nuclear states that have foresworn reliance on nuclear weapons and instead depend for their security on international cooperation and comity and their own conventional armed forces.

This divide could be characterised as one between national security on the one hand and on the other the broader concept of safeguarding ‘the security of peoples’ from the ‘devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war’, to use the term in the opening preambular paragraph of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In heeding the High Representative’s call for working together to bridge this divergence, the universal interest in preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons should offer common ground. To be effective, however, such a starting point will require greater pressure on states that have nuclear arsenals to continue to reduce their arsenals and cease plans to modernise and strengthen them.

In this regard, the High Representative’s notion of three powerful forces pulling together is a highly topical one. This year’s General Assembly will also have to grapple with an initiative that stems from at least two of the forces mentioned by Mr Kim:

  • A coalition of governments will propose that the Assembly agree to ‘convene a United Nations conference in 2017, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination’, a proposal that had found favour with the majority of states that participated in the 2016 OEWG;
  • This initiative is bolstered by numerous civil society organisations, and is in certain respects reminiscent of humanitarian-centred coalitions that drove prohibitions on cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines.

But if two of the three necessary forces for nuclear disarmament are in alignment, the question arises whether the third, namely visionary leadership, can be said to be fully present. There is no shortage of highly placed leaders and former leaders committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. But the absence (by choice) of the nuclear weapons-possessing states from the recent OEWG raises a question over this third element. So too does the dissent registered by some of their allies in the vote on the adoption of the OEWG’s report recommending the negotiation of a prohibition on nuclear weapons.

In the traditional forums for nuclear disarmament—the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and NPT—there have been few lasting initiatives and even fewer signs of leadership for many years. A new review cycle of the NPT will begin next May when the first preparatory committee (PrepCom) meets in Vienna. A challenge for the leaders of the prohibition initiative will be to convince other NPT parties that a nuclear weapon ban will complement the objectives of that Treaty rather than compromise them.

Advocates of a prohibition maintain that it will reinforce the legal and political norm against the use and possession of nuclear armaments. They assert that a ban will underpin the NPT’s non-proliferation imperative and build momentum, long stifled in multilateral arenas, towards the ultimate negotiation of verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. To date, nuclear weapon states party to the NPT and nuclear-aligned parties dispute these claims. They prefer an incremental or ‘step-by-step’ approach to nuclear disarmament. The credibility of adherents to that approach will depend on their ability to demonstrate both that their own commitments to the implementation of the NPT are beyond reproach and that they have concrete proposals for progress on that front.

Whatever the relative merits of the prohibition and step-by-step approaches (and by the way they are not mutually exclusive), they have served to narrow the focus on the best ways to take nuclear disarmament forward. The current UN General Assembly provides the stage for that debate on these fundamental issues. It also provides an immediate test of leadership, a test that will no doubt spill into the NPT PrepCom in May.

Despite—or maybe because of—underlying tensions, true leadership will need to recognise and be founded upon matters of commonality and especially a mutual interest in non-proliferation. But if such visionary leadership is truly to manifest itself, it will require actions, not words. As a first step, as President Obama acknowledged in Prague in 2009, the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies needs to be reduced. The Secretary-General has stressed that recent regional disputes have demonstrated that nuclear weapons do not ensure peace and security. Indeed the opposite is closer to the truth.

Inspired leadership can be difficult to sustain, but has seldom been more sorely needed.