Why so surprised?

Comments, Humanitarian Initiative

It is over 45 years since the NPT was agreed. The pursuit of negotiations by its parties on effective measures for nuclear disarmament—a central obligation of that treaty—has yet to leave the starting blocks.  In the face of this protracted delay and a growing lack of confidence in current disarmament forums, is it any wonder that new ways of seeking progress are afoot?

Whether the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is fit for purpose 45 years after its entry into force will be tested at the forthcoming Review Conference in May 2015. The preamble to the Treaty sets out the joint objectives of the 190 states that are legally bound by the NPT. The first goal is to make every effort to avert the danger of a nuclear war. The rationale is ‘the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war’—that is, its humanitarian consequences.

The second goal stems from the belief of the NPT parties—as stated in the treaty preamble—‘that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war’. These first two aims—humanitarian and non-proliferation—provide a rationale for a further objective: the ‘intention to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament’ (emphasis added).

Evidence of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, illuminated by the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna, underpins—in NPT preamble terms—the case for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is curious, therefore, to witness the allergic reaction of some nuclear weapon states to the humanitarian approach. I’ll come back shortly to these opening comments.

The preferred route of the nuclear-weapon states towards nuclear disarmament is via a ‘step-by-step’ process. This is code for proceeding at their pace in ways that they control either under consensus decision-making rules (as in the Conference on Disarmament (CD)) or outside of multilateral mechanisms (such as bilateral agreements, or unilateral initiatives). Obviously, elimination of nuclear weapons will ultimately require the active involvement of all the possessors of nuclear weapons. Thus the last ‘step’ will be the demonstrable proof, verified internationally, that those weapons, like their chemical and biological counterparts, no longer exist. The participation of the nuclear-weapon states in this final act is axiomatic.

In the meantime, the steps to which nuclear-weapon-possessors and their allies most frequently refer are the entry into force of the CTBT and the negotiation of a prohibition on the production of fissile material, a central component of nuclear weapons. These steps are fine in theory, but are currently unrealisable. Their eventual attainment is in the hands of the very states that possess nuclear weapons. It is a surprise therefore that nuclear-weapon states profess to be shocked by the emergence of an alternative step towards nuclear disarmament, a step increasingly favoured in the international community and backed keenly in civil society.

That step is the negotiation of a prohibition on nuclear weapons. Such a ban would do more than simply re-enforce the legal duty of NPT parties not to receive or control such weapons or manufacture or otherwise acquire them. It would also—on the coat tails of growing concerns about humanitarian impacts—strengthen norms against the use and possession of nuclear weapons.

Given their concerted efforts to prevent other states developing or acquiring nuclear weapons, why should this normative impact cause discomfort to the states that already possess these armaments? Answer: because in the case of the NPT5 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States, it turns up the heat on their nuclear disarmament commitments under the NPT to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament’. That consideration is inapplicable to the non-NPT nuclear-weapon-possessors—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Israel and Pakistan—for which the emergence of a ban process may produce a range of reactions that aren’t explored here.

In any event, none of the nine nuclear-weapon-possessing states or any other adherents to the ‘step-by-step’ approach has shown any signs to date of conceding that the development of a prohibition on nuclear weapons can be viewed as just another step towards nuclear disarmament. There is a reason for this. Although the negotiation of a ban process has yet to advance beyond a mere concept, its champions do not envisage that decisions made as a result of it would be confined solely to the consensus rule like the one that operates in the CD as a de facto veto. Rather, as in the anti-personnel landmine and cluster munition processes, there would be an emphasis on like-mindedness. Recourse to voting, if any, would be confined, as in the NPT, to situations in which all efforts to achieve consensus had been exhausted (although in the NPT in practice such efforts are seemingly inexhaustible).

In the event, then, that a ban process gets underway, it is unlikely to offer nuclear weapon states the comfort of being able to control outcomes, something to which they have become accustomed in relevant multilateral forums. They may try to apply the brakes elsewhere. In this regard, mention needs to be made of a further joint objective under the NPT. Several of the NPT5 are prone to justifying their retention of nuclear arsenals on arguments derived from another goal set out in the NPT’s preamble. The objective of facilitating the ‘elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery’ is qualified by the words, ‘pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control’.

In essence, those states contend that the act of eliminating nuclear weapons is required only in the negotiation of an agreement that provides also for the elimination of conventional weapons beyond those needed for self-defence. Nothing prevents each objective being pursued separately. Nor is either step contingent on the establishment of global peace and security. Nor, in any event, does this consideration trump the ‘unequivocal undertaking’ given at the NPT Review Conference in 2000 by the NPT5 ‘to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI’. Reductions, however, will need to be verifiable (a reality noted earlier).

Equally unsustainable is the often-heard argument that the current security situation is not conducive to further reductions in nuclear arms. This is to put the cart before the horse. The further ‘easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons’, as sought in the preamble to the NPT, will remain elusive for as long as nuclear weapon states pursue an approach that, in the words of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, ‘consists of an open-ended list of conditions’ that must exist before actual disarmament activities can be undertaken. Advocating this approach, Ms Kane observed, has not helped build consensus. Instead, it has contributed to chronic impasse and would be likely to continue to do so unless an alternative path was taken.

The possessors of nuclear weapons also argue that the threat of use of their arsenals deters adversaries from actual aggression. That is, without their nuclear weapons the global security environment would be even more unstable (an instability that many regard as attributable to the existence of nuclear weapons rather than any deterrent effect they may be thought to exert). Belief in deterrence carries with it very high stakes. It cannot—as a belief system—be a watertight guarantee. The halo effect that has been constructed round the deterrence doctrine is illusory given the inevitable risk associated with nuclear weapons, for instance from accidents, human perversity or cyber-attack, triggering an unwarranted, calamitous ‘response’ against a presumed adversary.

Which brings us back to humanitarian considerations and non-proliferation. In 2008, the UN Secretary-General said this:

‘Unfortunately, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence has proven to be contagious. This has made non-proliferation more difficult, which in turn raises new risks that nuclear weapons will be used.’

The evidence of the humanitarian consequences of such use, as laid bare by the Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna meetings, is a stark reminder of the folly envisaged by the architects of the NPT of a future in which more states would develop nuclear weapons for their own security—a future that could bring down on all of us the global consequences to which the Secretary-General was referring and which humanity must avert.

Tim Caughley