11 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 7

Editorial: Whose NPT?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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At the halfway mark of this Review Conference, the two draft texts on nuclear disarmament from Main Committee I (MC I) and its Subsidiary Body 1 (SB 1) clearly reflect the central role of the humanitarian dimension in the international debate on nuclear disarmament.[1] This is in line with the shift that has taken place during this NPT review cycle, refocusing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons as the fundamental basis for nuclear disarmament. Yet the forward-looking text from Subsidiary Body 1 falls far short in both urgency and direction of what is necessary to achieve meaningful progress in prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons.

The MC I report (by Ambassador Roman-Morey of Peru) welcomes the “extensive international discourse on the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons,” which has “deepened collective understanding of this matter.” It recalls the findings of the three conferences and stresses the urgency for nuclear disarmament that the risks and consequences generate. And the SB 1 text (by Ambassador Benno Laggner of Switzerland) agrees that this awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences should “compel urgent action for the full implementation of article VI” and “underpin and lend urgency to efforts by all States leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” Echoing the words of the joint statement by 159 states last week, the SB 1 text notes that “it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.”

Yet the operative calls in the text of SB 1 do not match up with this global shift towards acknowledgement with the evidence of the risks of use of nuclear weapons and of their impact on health, human society, and the environment. The text does not reflect the view of the majority of states that beginning negotiations on a legally-binding instrument is the logical next step flowing from acknowledgment of the evidence.

The draft reaffirms that “significant steps” toward nuclear disarmament by the NPT nuclear-armed states “should promote international stability, peace and security, and be based on the principle of increased and undiminished security for all.” This leaves space for the nuclear-armed states to argue, as they have many times, that the time is not ripe for disarmament because it would diminish their own security or the security of their allies. The draft also calls upon nuclear-armed states to ensure their policies “address fully all risks associated with nuclear weapons,” which could be read as suggesting that nuclear weapons can be made safe. This is inconsistent with the findings from the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that these weapons “pose an unacceptable risk, that this risk is higher than commonly understood and that it continues to increase over time,” and that “the only assurance against the risk of a nuclear weapon detonation is the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

The draft’s calls on the NPT nuclear-armed states for reductions and elimination of their nuclear weapons are vague and without timelines, though the NAM’s demand for timelines is recognised. The calls for cessation of modernisation do not suggest any practical actions for other states, such as divestment from nuclear weapon producing companies. The demand that states remove nuclear weapons from security doctrines by 2020 very unfortunately—inexplicably even—applies only to the first use of nuclear weapons. It calls on states to “intensify efforts towards the development of nuclear disarmament verification capabilities.”

And, perhaps most bizarrely, the text calls on the NPT nuclear-armed states to intensify their discussions on definitions and terminology. This codifies in the NPT context an action that the nuclear-armed were not obligated to undertake, but which they chose to work on instead of the commitments they actually made in 2010. It also suggests that five years was insufficient to define terms and more work on this needed, which detracts from practical actions that are necessary to achieve actual disarmament.

All of this is starkly at odds with the main direction of the discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which has been increasingly oriented towards taking effective measures for nuclear disarmament. The third humanitarian impact conference in Vienna concluded with a pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. So far 84 states have endorsed this pledge. This conclusion, rather than the vague or insufficient calls in the draft SB 1 text, is the logical extension of the humanitarian argument. Any credible conclusion of the NPT Review Conference will have to reflect that. While the draft elements for MC I rightly welcome the pledge, the actions represented in SB 1 fail to operationalise this call to fill the legal gap on nuclear weapons.

The MC I text notes that the reality of thousands of nuclear weapons, coupled with the high alert status of many of them, “does not ameliorate the environment of international peace and security and overwhelms the demands of the large majority of the States parties for achieving nuclear disarmament as required under Article VI of the Treaty.” The same could be said of the SB 1 text, which fails meaningfully to advance effective measures for nuclear disarmament as demanded by the majority of states parties.

Paragraph 17 of the SB 1 text does at least encourage all states “to identify and elaborate the legal provisions required for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.” It draws on the New Agenda Coalition paper outlining possible options for these legal provisions. But it does not reflect the overwhelming demand for negotiations to begin now.

The Review Conference is where discussions on effective measures should help shape a direction for moving forward. We have been meeting at the NPT, First Committee, the CD, and many other fora for decades. Now is the time for states that are no longer willing to accept the indefinite procrastination on disarmament to decide what, in the current context, is the most effective measure they can pursue, even if the nuclear-armed states remain recalcitrant in fulfilling their obligations.

Overall, these texts reflect the fundamental tensions between those who see the NPT as a vehicle for getting rid of nuclear weapons and those who see it as a way to maintain their possession and use of these weapons to promote what they perceive as their security interests. If the outcome of this Review Conference is to have any credibility it must decide whether the NPT is about preserving or eliminating nuclear weapons. If it is to be about eliminating nuclear weapons, it will have to support the negotiation of a new legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

[1] The text from MC I reflects progress or changes over the past review cycle while the SC 1 text look forward to new commitments and actions.


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