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6 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 4

Editorial: Filling gaps
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Subsidiary body 1 began its work yesterday, commencing the strange practice of restricting access to the meeting room to states parties only. This contradicts calls within NPT review process and within the UN system for increased transparency. It goes against the trend of increased participation for civil society in other forums addressing nuclear weapons, including First Committee, the open-ended working group, and the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. It also sadly undermines the sense highlighted by Costa Rica that democracy has finally come to nuclear disarmament. But it does not mean that civil society will cease to advocate or agitate for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Working paper 30 emphasises that “the consequences of nuclear weapon detonations and the risks associated with this weaponry concern the security of all humanity.” This is precisely why civil society should not be restricted from attending and participating in meetings about nuclear weapons. The nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies are gambling with our future on the basis of, as Austria said, “an illusion of safety and security”. And these same states suggest that the NPT allows them to possess nuclear weapons or to maintain other country’s nuclear weapons on their soil.

This suggests that the NPT was written to allow the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies to hold the rest of the world hostage through the loopholes and loose language around the Treaty’s provisions on disarmament and nuclear sharing.

The NPT is indeed a flawed document. But this interpretation that it is not really about disarmament or that it permits the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons must not prevail. The Treaty explicitly requires the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons and the total elimination of all stockpiles of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The illegitimacy of nuclear weapons is a foundation of the NPT.

Clearly, on its own, the Treaty is insufficient to achieve its stated objectives. There are various legal deficits in the regulation of nuclear weapon activities, including those regarding the development, production, testing, transfer, acquisi­tion, transit, stockpiling, deployment, threat of use or use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance, financing, encouragement, or inducement of these activities. As noted in the most recent publication from civil society groups Reaching Critical Will and Article 36, “The current international legal regulation of nuclear weapons is fragmentary, with several instruments covering only certain areas or activities. The legal gap also arises because the rules in the existing instruments on nuclear weapons apply to different states in different ways. Thus what is needed is a comprehensive instrument that prohibits all activities involving nuclear weapons in all circum­stances for all states parties.”

A treaty banning nuclear weapons, by categorically prohibiting nuclear weapons and establishing a framework and impetus for their elimination, would help fill these gaps. Such an instrument would build on existing norms and reinforce existing legal instruments, but it would also close loopholes in the current legal regime that enable states to engage in nuclear weapon activities or otherwise to claim perceived benefit from their continued possession and deployment while purport­ing to promote their elimination.

The New Agenda Coalition’s working paper 9 on article VI emphasises the normative impact that a nuclear weapon ban treaty would have in this regard, and points out that such an instrument would strengthen rather than undermine existing obligations of states. Such a treaty would also have practical effects, including on financing of nuclear weapons, the role of nuclear weapons in military alliances, and the development of national legislation against nuclear weapons.

There are many things that NPT states parties can do at this Review Conference to advance such an instrument. They should have focused discussions in subsidiary body 1 to explore and elaborate effective measures for nuclear disarmament. They should demand that the outcome document reflects concrete ways forward, such as through the negotiation of a nuclear weapon ban treaty.

At least 80 states have so far pledged to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. This is a commitment to action. Now is the time to advance that commitment in practical terms.

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