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NPT News in Review, Vol. 14, No. 1

NPT 2017: Can we prevent catastrophe?
2 May 2017


Ray Acheson

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We are entering a new Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review cycle and the first step of any new cycle is usually taking stock of where we are. The picture is bleak.

The last nuclear NPT Review Conference, in 2015, ended without an outcome document. This on its own is a problem, but one that could be overcome with dedicated action towards fulfilling all of the Treaty’s objectives.

Unfortunately, there are signs that commitment to the disarmament aspects of the NPT is lacking more than ever. All of the nuclear-armed states have been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the so-called modernisation of their arsenals. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues to test nuclear explosive devices, and most of the others have continued to test nuclear weapon delivery systems and/or conduct non-explosive tests of their warheads. We are clearly in a new nuclear arms race, with more players and more money and more “kill power” than ever before.

Meanwhile, even rhetorical commitment to nuclear disarmament is wavering—if it still exists at all. The new regime in the United States has indicated that it may not believe nuclear disarmament is a “realistic objective” and there are warnings that it may resume explosive nuclear testing. The DPRK has threatened to use nuclear weapons if it feels threatened enough to do so—whatever that measure may be remains unclear. The current relationship between Russia and the United States is confusing at best. “Proxy wars”—which are not proxy for the people being slaughtered, tortured, raped, disappeared, or displaced—are increasing, both in number and in brutality. The level of unpredictability in the global “strategic stability” matrix is rising fast—and the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is rising with it.

Amidst all this negativity, the one bright light has been the initiative to ban nuclear weapons. The vast majority of NPT states parties are engaging constructively in this process, in part as a means of compliance with their article VI obligations to engage in effective measures for multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. The nuclear-armed states and their allies that support nuclear weapons have opted to boycott and in most cases condemn the efforts to ban nuclear weapons, possibly in contravention of article VI. The opposition from this minority of states, however, has been overwhelmed by the moral, ethical, legal, political, economic, environmental, and social arguments for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

There is very little else going on that seems like it could help facilitate nuclear disarmament at this time, though other initiatives on the table would compliment the ban nicely. The twenty-plus year process to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons continues to stagger along, with a new consensus-based working group of limited membership poised to meet for discussions over the next two years. If it were able to reach agreement to start negotiating a fissile materials treaty that also includes existing stockpiles of weapons-usable material, this would be instrumental to helping achieve and maintain a nuclear weapon free world. A working group on nuclear disarmament verification will start its work in 2018, which will hopefully help facilitate verification of disarmament undertakings compelled by the ban treaty.

There is clearly an appetite for work by the majority of countries on nuclear disarmament-related initiatives—even by some of those that continue to adhere to the misguided notion that nuclear weapons could provide them with any security. But the refusal of some states to join the most promising nuclear disarmament initiative in decades is not the best context for the start of this new NPT review cycle.

It will be up to those states boycotting the ban in particular to take strong, concrete action over the next few years to be more transparent about their relationship with nuclear weapons (particularly if they host others’ weapons on their territories), withdraw their support for deterrence and modernisation, and help compel their nuclear-armed allies to be serious about disarmament before it’s too late for us all. Achieving nuclear disarmament now, amidst rising tensions and increasingly belligerent use of force around the world, is more important than ever. It is every country’s right and responsibility to take concerted action now.

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