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OEWG Report, Vol. 2, No. 9

Editorial: Transparency in the time of opacity
4 May 2016 


Ray Acheson

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The nuclearised states have come under intense pressure at the open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament (OEWG) for their continued failure to be transparent about their stationing of NATO nuclear weapons or measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their strategic doctrines. While they promote a series of measures on nuclear weapons that include transparency, these states are not themselves being transparent about their nuclear weapon-related activities or policies. This is a challenge to disarmament that they could help overcome if committed to their own “progressive approach”.

NATO nuclear weapons

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)’s security doctrine includes nuclear weapons for “deterrence” purposes. As unclassified reports and respected civil society sources such as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) have documented, five NATO countries host 160–200 US nuclear weapons on their territories: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These states neither confirm nor deny this fact.

“It is deeply regrettable that several of the states here today are unwilling even to confess that they host nuclear weapons on their soil,” lamented Linnet Ngayu on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). “They withhold that information not only from ordinary citizens, but also from lawmakers. What does that say about the strength of their democracies? What does it say about the state of our international disarmament regime?”

Despite the lack of official transparency about these nuclear weapons, some information is known about the arrangements. “Some of these weapons are stored at U.S. bases and would be delivered by U.S. aircraft,” FAS has found. “Others are stored at bases operated by the ‘host nation’ and would be delivered by that nation’s aircraft if NATO decided to employ nuclear weapons.”

As Susi Snyder on behalf of ICAN said in her intervention, such efforts by civil society to increase transparency about nuclear weapons is valuable, but it does not excuse the absence of official information. While Canada, Germany, and Norway indicated support for transparency and reporting, they have not supplied information about NATO nuclear weapons as requested by a rising chorus of non-nuclear-armed states. 

Suggestions for transparency

On Monday, Mexico asked the nuclearised states about their measures to ensure security of NATO nuclear weapons. On Tuesday, Mexico and Brazil asked them what measures they will take to increase transparency. They have not yet responded to these questions but others have given some suggestions.

Austria argued that the burden of proof for demonstrating that nuclear weapon control systems are safe is on those that possess or station these weapons. It called for five specific measures in this regard, including on failsafe mechanisms for false alarms and system failures; the record of system breakdowns and accidents; the design basis for threat assumptions; the scenarios that have been considered for regional and global food security, human health, psychological, and critical infrastructure implications of any detonation; and public education efforts regarding the dangers of risks of nuclear weapons and doctrines.

Ecuador called for transparency on the number and status of nuclear warheads on their territories; measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their military doctrines; measures to reduce and de-alert the operational systems of nuclear weapons; and the destructive capacity of the weapons.

Wildfire highlighted suggestions for transparency in OEWG working papers NGO.4 and NGO.8. Switzerland indicated support for NGO.8’s recommendations as a useful basis for work. ICAN suggested that nuclear weapon host states should provide information on:

  • Multilateral exercises preparing for the use of nuclear weapons;
  • The role of national militaries or other national agencies in targeting discussions;
  • The allocated budgets assigned by national governments to facilitate their national air force preparation for acceptance of the transfer of nuclear weapons;
  • Emergency response preparations for possible accidents with the weapons stationed on their territories, particularly around the Kleine Brogel, Volkel, Ghedi, Aviano, Buchel, and Incirlik bases; 
  • Studies about the impact of multiple weapons accidents, especially given the recent history of civilian break-ins at these facilities;
  • The specific costs host governments will have to pay to modify new aircraft to become dual capable to drop the nuclear;
  • Information about the budgets allocated for security of the facilities that hold the weapons; and
  • Ending the policies of neither confirming nor denying the public secret that they station nuclear weapons.

Transparency is not disarmament

If the nuclearised states were to take up these suggestions, it would indicate some sense of genuine commitment to pursue a nuclear weapon free world, which they claim to support.

However as Ambassador Dell Higgie of New Zealand cautioned, discussions about increasing transparency should not be divorced from reality. Increased transparency would be welcome, but as has been seen in the NPT context, there is “very little appetite on the part of the NWS for a renewal even of the elements of transparency and reporting that had been agreed upon at the 2010 RevCon,” she pointed out. “This same reluctance about transparency does seem also apparent on the part of host states with respect to holdings on their territories.”

It does seem disingenuous for nuclearised states to call for increased transparency as one of the most important “steps” for disarmament without being willing to increase the transparency around their own involvement in the maintenance, modernisation, stationing, or control over nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, as Haiti noted, transparency is important for trust and verification but is insufficient for dealing with the challenges of nuclear weapons. Referring to Dr. Patricia Lewis’ comments yesterday about the need to apply the precautionary principle to nuclear weapons, Haiti called for the negotiation of a legally binding instrument. ICAN similarly warned that while transparency is important, it is not itself disarmament. “Sharing information about one’s nuclear arsenal is not the same as consigning it to the dustbin of history.” Legal measures are also necessary, the most urgent—and feasible—of which is a ban treaty.

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