Nuclear Ban Daily, Vol. 2, No. 10

Dealing with disarmament in the prohibition treaty
29 June 2017

Ray Acheson

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Wednesday’s negotiating sessions were off-the-record, so the Nuclear Ban Daily will not be reporting on those discussions. Instead, we offer some thoughts about the challenges being faced in the development of articles 2–5 of the draft treaty. These articles deal with nuclear-armed states and the elimination of their weapons and weapon programmes. They also address safeguards against the reconstitution of these weapons and against possible proliferation by non-nuclear-armed states that become parties to the treaty.

There are many pathways to a nuclear weapon free world, as explored by the International Panel on Fissile Materials in a 2009 report on this subject. The paths—and their end result—are distinguished by how transparent they are, and how irreversible they are. Nuclear ban negotiators need to decide what this treaty can do to best facilitate the achievement of the total elimination of nuclear weapon programmes in all their aspects, keeping in mind these principles of transparency and irreversibility.

As we wrote yesterday, there are significant problems with the current draft provisions dealing with these issues. As drafted, states parties can join the treaty with nuclear weapons and programmes intact, needing only to agree to “destroy as soon as possible” their nuclear weapons and to submit a plan to eliminate their weapon programmes.

While we want the treaty to be open to all states equally, we do not want to create a situation described by New Zealand during an open plenary meeting on Tuesday whereby states joining with nuclear weapons would be permitted to be in contravention with the treaty’s prohibitions on the possession of nuclear weapons. In the current drafting, such states would be free to interpret “as soon as possible” to mean “we can take as long as we want” and to interpret “destroy” their weapons as loosely as they wish.  

As currently drafted, the treaty also would permit a state to get rid of its nuclear arsenal before joining. It can eliminate its weapons on its terms, using whatever criteria it sees fit. The draft treaty only requires such a state subsequently to cooperate with the IAEA in regards to accounting for its nuclear material inventory. It has no obligations concerning the rest of its nuclear weapon programme.

One approach to dealing with these challenges is to continue working on articles 2–4 to make sure they are clear, internally consistent, and strong enough to deal with current and future situations. In this case, there must be a clear alignment of the declarations in article 2 with the prohibitions in article 1 and with obligations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapon programmes in article 4. There must also be a clear provision of safeguards that does not lock us into a minimum standard and that ensures safeguards are mandatory for all states parties.

The alternative approach is to not try to deal with parameters for nuclear disarmament in this treaty. Instead, the text could empower meetings of states parties to agree upon time-bound, verifiable, and irreversible plans for the elimination of nuclear weapon programmes in all their aspects with interested nuclear-armed states.

In either case, we need an approach that ensures states parties are in compliance with their obligations under the treaty. Hosting states will need to remove these weapons; armed states will need to destroy their programmes. This treaty can facilitate that, but states must take care not to inadvertently impede such processes or create weak provisions that can be exploited further down the road.

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