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4 May 2012, No. 4

“Creating conditions” for nuclear disarmament
Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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As the general debate concluded, discussion under Cluster 1 on disarmament started on Thursday morning. Several states took the opportunity discuss implementation of article VI, the 13 steps, and the disarmament-related actions of the 2010 action plan. Most non-nuclear weapon states noted that while recent reductions of arsenals are welcomed, failure to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, no progress on the operational status of warheads, ongoing modernization of nuclear arsenals, and the continued placement of nuclear weapons outside nuclear weapon states’ territories means that disarmament obligations are not fulfilled. Such statements are supported by Reaching Critical Will’s research report on the implementation of the 2010 NPT action plan, which concluded that only five out of the 22 actions on disarmament can be considered implemented at this point.

The nuclear weapon states did not discuss the level of implementation on specific actions. However, a joint P5 statement was “pleased to recall” that the group met in July 2011 “with a view to considering progress on the commitments made” at the 2010 Review Conference and specifically highlighted a working group on nuclear terminology and progress on the protocol of the Bangkok treaty as recent accomplishments. In individual statements, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States reported on their disarmament-related efforts over the last decade and argued that these undertakings are clear evidence of their implementation of disarmament obligations.  

But despite lists of past achievements from nuclear weapon states, approximately 19,500 warheads remain today and continue to play a central role in national security doctrines of the nuclear weapon states. In addition, modernization programmes are underway in all five nuclear weapon states. As the 16 nations statement on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences noted on Wednesday, the horrendous effects of any use of nuclear weapons such as immeasurable suffering, environmental disaster, and global famine makes it difficult to see how any use could be considered compatible with the rules of law. It is clear that the use of nuclear weapons would violate international law, such as the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. As the ambassador of New Zealand noted, that the testimonies of hibakusha at the NPT PrepCom should “leave us in no doubt that the use of nuclear weapons would be unconscionable.”

Perhaps as a response to the recent high-level attention to the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons, such as the resolution of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the announcement of a conference on the topic by Norway, and the 16 nations statement yesterday, both the United Kingdom and France used their cluster one statements to address this issue. The UK stated that since “the threshold for the legitimate use of nuclear weapons” is extremely high, it would only consider using such weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defense, including defense of NATO allies. Also France stated that its deterrence policy is in line with international law, and both states argued that the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion in 1996 rejected the argument that use of nuclear weapons would necessarily be unlawful in all circumstances.

That nuclear weapon states feel the need to respond to the arguments regarding catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and international law is in fact a positive sign. Just as the work of civil society and many states during the last review cycle successfully mainstreamed the idea of a nuclear weapons convention, the increased attention around the catastrophic humanitarian consequences has placed this issue firmly on the agenda of civil society and governments.

This is a clear signal that the debate on nuclear weapons is shifting focus, away from traditional concepts such as deterrence and national security to a broader discussion of utility, consequences, and environmental aspects from a global perspective. By continuing such debates and focusing on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law, we can truly create conditions for nuclear disarmament.

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