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12 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 8

Editorial: How to be unacceptable in an NPT outcome document
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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In their reactions to the draft text from Subsidiary Body 1 (SB 1) on forward-looking commitments for nuclear disarmament, most of the NPT nuclear-armed states argued that the text was “unacceptable”. They demanded that the entire text be scrapped and that the outcome from Main Committee I (MC I) draw exclusively on a revised version of the MC I draft. This is an unacceptable approach to this Review Conference outcome. The overwhelming majority of states parties have demanded further, faster, more concrete, more transparent, verifiable, irreversible, and time-bound actions on nuclear disarmament. To reject everything in SB 1, which is already a weak text, is a straightforward assertion of power by a few states over the rest of the world.

During the public meeting of MC I on Monday afternoon, France, the UK, and the US all said SB 1 does not provide a basis for consensus. China and Russia spoke out against this draft as well. These states, as wielders of nuclear weapons, clearly do not want to accept any language suggesting that their weapons are unacceptable or that exposes their failure to fulfill the legal obligation to eliminate them.

The nuclear-armed states all rejected the notion that they are not in compliance with their article VI obligations, highlighting their arsenal reductions over the years. This argument conveniently ignores the plans and programmes for nuclear weapon modernisation ongoing in all of their countries. France and Russia also rejected the notion that the pace of disarmament is too slow—even though this has been lamented even by the staunchest nuclear-dependent allies. Ambassador Simon-Michel seemed to think this was absurd, wishing that efforts to combat climate change or tax evasion were going as well as nuclear disarmament.

More broadly, there was push back against the language on new legal instruments. During the debate on effective measures on Friday, the US firmly argued that there is no legal gap in the NPT and that effective measures are not limited to multilateral, legally-binding actions. Instead, the US argued, effective implementation of article VI should be achieved through what the 1995 outcome described as “systematic and progressive efforts” by the nuclear-armed states with the “ultimate goal” of elimination. “We can accept that the final phase in the nuclear disarmament process should be pursued within an agreed legal framework,” conceded Ambassador Wood. But “nothing in Article VI requires time frames or specific requirements for achieving the final elimination of nuclear weapons.” The US reiterated this view in its statement in MC I on Monday, where it, and France, rejected any attempts to include timeframes for disarmament in the outcome document.

The majority of delegations, however, seemed to find the nuclear-armed states’ approach to this document unacceptable. Most states argued that the outcome text on disarmament would have to reflect most if not all of the existing SB 1 text, and that the commitments contained within this draft document should be strengthened. There were calls for explicit language challenging nuclear sharing arrangements, modernisation, the slow pace of disarmament, and the distinct lack of timeframes contained in the draft. Costa Rica, calling for the reference to the “slow pace” of nuclear disarmament to be changed to “lack” of disarmament, also emphasised that the outcome must highlight the legal gap with respect to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear-armed states also pushed back against the idea that any new evidence has been presented on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, or that the risk of the accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons has increased. This is an interesting assertion, given that only two of them attended one of the three conferences. In an attempt to delink the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons from the demand for disarmament, the nuclear-armed states called for the paragraphs on the humanitarian impact to be moved from the disarmament-related portion of the outcome document to a more general chapeau.

The Austrian delegation welcomed the suggestion of including the humanitarian considerations in the outcome’s chapeau, in addition to its retention in the disarmament portion of the text. Ambassador Kmentt pointed out that the only reason to reject the idea that there is new evidence or increasing risks is because it entails policy implications—which is exactly why these considerations must be discussed in the context of disarmament. “If we have a security system based on nuclear deterrence,” argued Austria, "this becomes a suicidal, irresponsible position in light of the global consequences and risks."

The division between those with nuclear weapons and those without has never been more stark. The idea that the SB 1’s minimalist and at times unhelpful language is “unacceptable” to the nuclear-armed states highlights this acutely.

What is truly unacceptable is the idea that five countries can dictate to the rest of the world what is “acceptable” when it comes to nuclear weapons. What is truly unacceptable is the reality of the humanitarian and environmental consequences caused by the use, testing, and production of nuclear weapons. What is truly unacceptable is the risk of the deliberate use of nuclear weapons or the risk of potential accidents or mishaps that result in the detonation of a nuclear weapon. The threat of use of nuclear weapons is also unacceptable, dependent as it is on the willingness to inflict massive nuclear violence against the rest of the world.

It is clear that, as in 2010, the nuclear-armed states will reject anything resembling an effective measure for nuclear disarmament in the NPT outcome document. Thus non-nuclear-armed states that are truly committed to achieving a nuclear weapon free world must consider how best to reach that goal in this context.

The US delegation argued that that the “history of nuclear disarmament shows that each step we take helps to create the conditions and opportunities for subsequent steps,” and that these conditions and opportunities are the products of “vision and realism”. The commitment to pursue effective measures for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, which has been endorsed by over 80 states in the pledge from the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, is just such an opportunity. Endorsing the pledge and negotiating a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons is a realistic step that can be achieved (because it doesn't rely on the willful intransigence of the nuclear-armed states) and that would help create the conditions for elimination. It is 70 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is 45 years since the entry into force of the NPT. Failure to move forward to negotiations on a ban is unacceptable.

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