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7 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 5

Editorial: Taking article VI seriously
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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The heat is turning up at the NPT on discussions about effective measures, legal gaps, and the ban treaty. An increasing number of governments are firm in their conviction that now is the time to take concerted action, to try something new, and to achieve real progress for a nuclear weapon free world. There are of course a vocal minority trying desperately to hold onto their favoured discourse of “strategic stability,” “state security,” and “nuclear deterrence”. But most are demanding a “credible process to identify and pursue effective measures for nuclear disarmament” at this Review Conference.

The effective measures discussion has been on the rise since 2013 and is coming to a head this month. Through a series of working papers from the New Agenda Coalition as well as the Austrian Pledge—the latter of which has been endorsed by 80 states so far—the focus has become not if, but which, legally-binding treaty will best fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Apparently not everyone believes there are gaps. Saying that article VI should be “taken seriously,” the Netherlands said, “We do not agree that there is a ‘legal gap’ with regard to this article.”

This is a surprising claim. There are legal gaps. Significant ones.

Some have been highlighted at this Review Conference. Austria and the New Agenda Coalition noted there is no comprehensive universal norm prohibiting use, transfer, or possession of nuclear weapons. There are other gaps as well—related to nuclear weapon development, production, and manufacture; testing; transfer or acquisition; transit; stockpiling; stationing; deployment; use or threat of use; and financing.

CELAC and South Africa highlighted the anomaly that nuclear weapons are the only WMD that have yet to be subjected to a comprehensive, global prohibition. This represents a broader gap in international law, where as Costa Rica noted, “weapons with unacceptable humanitarian consequences, such as biological and chemical weapons, preceded their prohibition and eventual elimination.”

These states—and all those others that have endorsed the Pledge, called for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, and requested focused discussions on effective measures at this Review Conference—are taking article VI seriously. Very seriously. “Addressing those calls for action is not only highly recommended but it is a logical imperative for this Review Conference,” said Thailand, “which can only serve to strengthen the work of the NPT and the implementation of the instrument itself.”

The problem is that article VI is not taken seriously by the nuclear-armed states or their nuclear-dependent allies. The former seem to see it as a mere suggestion; the latter as an eventual, ultimate objective. They seem more interested in pursuing other “gaps” they have identified, such as a fissile material cut-off treaty, even though most of the nuclear-armed states are no longer producing fissile materials for weapon purposes.

But as the evidence on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and the risks of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons show, there is no time to waste on making real progress for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. There is no time to “rely on some kind of grace and favour” of bilateral reductions by the nuclear-armed states, declared Ireland. “All of our citizens have a stake in this.”

“If these weapons are judged by the vast majority to be berefit of moral justification and utilitarian value,” asked Ireland, “if they have been shown to have appalling and indiscriminate destructive capacity to which the Hibakusha testify including at this Review Conference; why is there a reluctance to discuss legal pathways to eliminate them, as all States are obliged to do under the Treaty?”

Subsidiary body 1 is scheduled to hold focused discussions on effective measures for nuclear disarmament on Friday. States should focus on which legal instrument would best fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. And all states must take these discussions very seriously.

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