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Final Edition, Vol. 13, No. 17

Editorial: Uprising
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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A certain restiveness could be felt Friday evening at the United Nations at the close of the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The draft outcome document was not adopted, though it was not this fact that seemed to bother most. The content of the final draft was unacceptably weak on disarmament, as the majority of those taking the floor lamented in their closing remarks, and the process to develop it was extremely problematic. The discontent was rather about why it had been rejected. Three states parties blocked its adoption behalf of Israel, a non-state party possessing nuclear weapons. If the month-long review of the Treaty’s implementation and attempts to develop actions for moving forward had not already sufficiently underscored the depth of the Treaty’s discriminatory orientation privileging nuclear-armed states, the Conference’s conclusion certainly did.

“The failure on the Middle East leaves us in a perverse situation,” said South Africa, in which “a state that is outside of the Treaty has expectations of us and expects us to play by rules it will not play by and be subjected to scrutiny it will not subject itself to.” This could describe not simply Israel’s influence over the Review Conference outcome, but also the NPT nuclear-armed states’ attitude towards the rest of the Treaty’s membership. The engagement by the nuclear-armed delegations over the course of the month was at times hostile, at times ridiculing, towards non-nuclear-armed states that were calling for concrete measures to ensure implementation of disarmament obligations and commitments. Their legal status as “nuclear weapon states” under the Treaty “is routinely translated into a language of permanent entitlement, legal rights, and international political legitimacy,” as Dr. Nick Ritchie of University of York writes.

But the Conference has ended, leaving interested states now with the chance to pursue effective measures for nuclear disarmament. Instead of a text that moves backwards in some areas from previous commitments and threatened to stall progress for another five years, states parties can continue to rely on the outcomes from 1995, 2000, and 2010 to guide their actions in terms of Treaty implementation. And in the meantime, there is also space for what the Washington Post describes as “an uprising” of 107 states and civil society groups. These states are “seeking to reframe the disarmament debate as an urgent matter of safety, morality and humanitarian law,” and have pledged to fill the gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

When Austria first issued this pledge in its national capacity at the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it might not have realised how much support it would garner only a few months later. The current pledge endorsers come from all regions of the world and include some of the most populous nations on earth. These states now also have the support of no less than the UN Secretary-General, who has expressed hope “that the growing awareness of the devastating humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons continues to compel urgent actions for effective measures leading to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

These governments pledging to fill the legal gap will not be alone. Civil society, from the broad-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to the Transform Now Plowshares activists recently released from US prison for their nonviolent direct actions against the nuclear weapon establishment, many civil society groups, academics, artists, and others are demanding tangible progress on nuclear disarmament and fulfillment of the article VI legal obligation to eliminate all nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Many of these actors have argued that the most feasible and practical action in the current context is the negotiation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. There is currently no comprehensive explicit prohibition against the use, deployment, or possession of nuclear weapons. ICAN and its partners believe that filling the legal gap requires a legally-binding international instrument that clearly prohibits nuclear weapons based on their unacceptable consequences. This would put nuclear weapons on the same footing as the other weapons of mass destruction, which are subject to prohibition through specific treaties. A treaty banning nuclear weapons would build on existing norms and reinforce existing legal instruments. It would also close loopholes in the current legal regime that enable some states to engage in nuclear weapon activities while clearly codifying the illegitimacy of possession.

A nuclear weapon ban treaty would strip nuclear weapons “of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons.” This “shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism” in at least some of the nuclear-armed states, argues Dr. Ritchie. This culture is what has led to the growing divide over what nuclear disarmament should be mean. It has led to what Austria and 48 other countries speaking collectively in the closing of the Review Conference identified as “a reality gap, a credibility gap, a confidence gap and a moral gap.”

Rather than “compelling urgent action for disarmament” as the investigation of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons seeks to do, the NPT seems to have been misused as shield against transparency and concerted action to fulfill the Treaty’s objectives. It is this that South Africa referred to when it said, “There is a sense that the NPT has degenerated into minority rule, similar to what we had in South Africa under apartheid,” in which “the will of the few will prevail, regardless of whether it makes moral sense.”

The only credible way to fill the gaps identified by Austria and others is through a prohibition treaty that helps establish a framework for elimination of nuclear weapons. Perhaps most simply, the ban treaty is an instrument that can be negotiated now, even without the nuclear-armed states, with great practical and normative implications. And as Palau said in its closing remarks, the Humanitarian Pledge “provides a strong foundation from which to launch negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons.”

All that is left now is for governments to find what South Africa called “moral courage” in order to begin a process to prohibit nuclear weapons. In so doing, they will be acting as part of a broader movement of governments and civil societies seeking to build world that is does not rely on violence as the currency of power, but rather on cooperation, peace, and justice. “Despite what has happened at this Review Conference, there is no force can stop the steady march of those who believe in human security, democracy and international law,” said Costa Rica forcefully in its closing remarks. “History honors only the brave, those who have the courage to think differently and dream of a better future for all.”

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