19 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 13

Editorial: The humanitarian pledge
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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As the final week of the NPT Review Conference gets underway, the heat on the nuclear-armed states is being turned up by those fed up with the obstinance and arrogance of the five. The nuclear-armed states delivered statements railing against the humanitarian initiative and the demand for a legally-binding instrument to fill the legal gap on nuclear weapons. The majority of others speaking replied with critiques of the pace of disarmament, the lack of timelines and benchmarks in the latest draft text, the weak language on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, and the refusal of the nuclear-armed to compromise. And in a clear demonstration of what Ireland has called “the new reality,” Austria announced that the pledge it issued at the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW)—which has been endorsed by 84 states with more on the way—has been “internationalised” and is now the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear-armed states are certainly highlighting just how effective a measure an international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would be. The UK’s blanket statement that it would not accept an outcome document that leaves the door open to a ban treaty does more to signal that future treaty’s threat to the nuclear weapon establishments than it does deter other states from supporting such a treaty. Russia’s refusal to agree to timelines or a concrete programme for disarmament does the same. The US delegation’s assertion that the NPT is not a disarmament regime and its bizarre tirade against “referendums” and “political agendas” also feeds the frustration and sense of injustice at this Review Conference.

If the ban treaty is a referendum on the NPT, then it is only so in relation to an NPT as interpreted by the nuclear-armed states. It is only a referendum on the idea that five countries can continue to possess nuclear weapons (and share them with a handful of others). The US describes this as populist. But should not the majority of states parties be the ones to determine the direction and pace for fulfilling the objectives to which everyone has ostensibly agreed? Or is the US arguing that it knows best and the rest of the world should just let it run the show?

The nuclear-armed states pushed back against the idea that the “majority” supports the humanitarian initiative or condemns nuclear weapons. France argued that most of the world’s population lives in nuclear-armed states and therefore the “majority” receives security benefits from these weapons of terror. But the NPT is a treaty body of states, each of which, according to the UN Charter, is equal, regardless of size. With 96% of non-nuclear-armed NPT states parties expressing concern at the HINW and nearly half endorsing the Humanitarian Pledge, how can five countries assert their security concerns over the rest? For countries that are usually tightly wedded to the concept of sovereignty and the nation state, it is an unusual assertion to make that world population should determine the outcome of negotiations between states.

The nuclear-armed speak about “undiminished security for all,” but seem to expect their perceived security interests to override the security of the vast majority of states. This only serves to underscore the injustice of working within their framing of reality. And it is precisely this sense of injustice—and the sense of distance that the five are generating between themselves and the rest of the world—that fuels the courageous statements from so many non-nuclear-armed states at this Conference.

“Five years after the adoption of the 2010 Action Plan, it appears that the greatest achievements of this Review Conference are to legitimize the step-by-step approach, to mistakenly reinterpret Article VI of the Treaty and to request ‘reductions’ when Article VI is clear in the goal of total elimination of nuclear weapons,” argued Costa Rica. It and the Marshall Islands said the conference should stop patting the nuclear-armed states on the back and demand that they fulfill their legal obligations.

The idea that there are conditions on nuclear disarmament is contrary to the NPT, as Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Sweden, and others argued. Algeria, Austria, and many others rejected the assertion that the step-by-step approach is the only “practical” way forward or that benchmarks and timelines are “unacceptable” or “unhelpful”. The Philippines, Costa Rica, and others pointed out that the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent states’ emphasis on the “security benefits” of nuclear weapons only promotes proliferation.

What is happening at this Review Conference is not a referendum on the NPT, but it can and should be seen as a referendum on nuclear weapons—and even more pointedly, on the nuclear-armed states’ behaviour. The majority of states have rejected nuclear weapons since their development. But they have gone along over the years with whatever outcomes could be generated at NPT meetings in the interests of hopefully one day achieving nuclear disarmament as promised by the Treaty. This promise no longer holds water. The nuclear-armed states have severely undermined their credibility, and thus that of the Treaty, by consistently failing to implement their legal obligations and refusing to engage in any good faith efforts to remedy this situation. The majority of other states parties are now saying enough is enough.

Austria highlighted the crux of the issue when it critiqued the insistence of the nuclear-armed states to continue advocating a security concept that is “increasingly seen as illegitimate by the vast majority of States.” It is not so much the legality, but rather the legitimacy of nuclear weapons that is so profoundly challenged by the HINW initiative, argued Austria. “Nuclear weapons have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, their possession carries unacceptable risks, their use would be illegal—except maybe for a small range of largely hypothetical scenarios—and the combination of these factors together with the underlying readiness to commit mass destruction make them immoral.”

The nuclear-armed states say the HINW approach and the pursuit of legal measures to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons is divisive. It is nuclear weapons that constitute the greatest instrument of division. After all this time, 45 years since the Treaty’s entry into force, the refusal of the nuclear-armed states to take concrete measures for nuclear disarmament is unacceptable to the majority of states parties.

Ireland was clear that it cannot accept an outcome from this Review Conference that closes off any options for elaborating effective measures for nuclear disarmament before they have been discussed. Thailand, Brazil, and many others emphasised the importance of starting negotiations on legal measures to fill the legal gap now. If such a process is not endorsed by the NPT Review Conference, it only reinforces the idea that this Treaty has been misappropriated by the nuclear-armed states against the interests of the majority of states parties. As South Africa put it, only a few can reject an NPT outcome at any cost, so the Treaty is in danger of becoming a treaty of the nuclear-armed states.

What does belong to the majority (or will as more states sign up in the next few days) is the Humanitarian Pledge. Four days are left in this Review Conference, but this Pledge is a living document that will carry forward the momentum, the will, and the explicit commitment to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. There is no excuse for any state truly committed to nuclear disarmament not to join this international pledge. Now is the time to say “enough” to the nuclear-armed states.

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