Humanitarian Disarmament Sees Win at NPT: Nuclear Arms Control Remains in Peril

Ray Acheson, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

United Nations during NPT PrepCom.
Credit: Bonnie Docherty, 2019.

The outcome of the Third Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was a surprising upset in favour of humanitarian disarmament. Despite pressure from a handful of states with extremist pro-nuclear weapon views, the chair of the meeting, Ambassador Syed Hussin of Malaysia, tabled a document that reflects the majority of NPT states parties’ perspectives on the urgency of nuclear disarmament. Not surprisingly, the draft recommendations, which were meant to be sent on to the 2020 NPT Review Conference, could not be adopted by consensus. But the act of putting forward the majority view instead of following the usual process of watering outcome documents down into weak sauce and still failing to adopt them by consensus is a strong signal that two years after the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons the non-nuclear-armed majority is still willing to stand strong for principle and for the protection of international law.

Here’s the story. First, this meeting was taking place against a pretty bleak backdrop. Over the past year, the United States had withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and suspended the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. In addition, the United States and all of the other nuclear-armed countries have been actively investing billions of dollars into further developing or “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals. They have also been continuing to conduct military preparations and exercises to use nuclear weapons, as well as testing nuclear weapon delivery systems. During the PrepCom, the United States tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Furthermore, the commitments that the NPT nuclear-armed states have made to nuclear disarmament over the past 50 years since the treaty’s entry into force have languished, resigned to being words on paper. First there is Article VI of the NPT itself, which binds the nuclear-armed states to negotiating multilateral nuclear disarmament. The International Court of Justice, in a 1996 advisory opinion, agreed that the article meant these states had to achieve the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Yet the agreements made since 1970 to work towards this end are flailing in the wind. The commitments made in exchange for extending the treaty indefinitely in 1995 were not fulfilled by 2000, but the nuclear-armed states nevertheless agreed to 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament, which came to form the backbone of commitments over the next twenty years. Despite rolling back on some of those and failing to implement the rest over the next ten years, they agreed to 22 disarmament actions in 2010. Five years after not complying with those, they walked away from the 2015 Review Conference without any new commitments but instead with vague assertions that all of the previous commitments were aspirational and certainly not timebound.

Now, a year out from the 2020 Review Conference, one of the nuclear-armed states (the United States) has asserted that all of these past commitments are out of date and out of step with today’s “international security environment”—this apparently being a specific, discrete artifact that is unconnected from this state’s own behavior and entirely related to the poor behavior of others. In October 2018, the United States described the agreements made since 1995 as being from “a different time and a different security environment than we currently face.” And, as if to rub salt in the wound, China informed the PrepCom that the five NPT nuclear-armed states have been working hard to update their “glossary of key nuclear terms”—which they have now spent nearly ten years working on despite it not being a commitment anyone made anywhere and that it seems to be distracting from actual work on, say, disarmament.

So here we are in 2019, looking at piles of commitments made over many years, variously termed the step-by-step approach, the building blocks approach, the progressive approach, (very briefly) the full spectrum-approach, and now apparently stepping stones. Meanwhile the United States has introduced the concept of creating conditions, now the environment, for nuclear disarmament, which is focused not on what the United States can do for nuclear disarmament but what the rest of the world can do for the United States in order to make it, as the most heavily militarized country in the world, feel “safer.” Since April last year, the US government has been peddling the various versions of this concept, which demands that the international community should focus on “the underlying security concerns that led to their [nuclear weapons’] production in the first place”—as if nuclear weapons were created by some higher being and bestowed upon certain chosen governments, rather than having been created by the United States first and foremost to incinerate Japanese civilians and soldiers alike during World War II.

Implementation of the NPT, including Article VI, has never been predicated on first establishing conditions or an environment deemed appropriate by the nuclear-armed states. The leap backwards from decades of agreed commitments is an affront to all of the efforts made over the years in the NPT, and to the United States’ own allies that support the step-by-step approach. Like Lucy constantly moving the football whenever Charlie Brown tries to kick it, the nuclear-armed states keep changing their mind about what they are willing to do, and blaming everyone else for it.

For the most part, NPT states parties are upset about the continued backslide from past agreements. The New Agenda Coalition (NAC) warned that NPT commitments are not to be reinterpreted, rolled back, or conditioned in any form, noting that the imposition of conditions on any treaty obligation would undermine credibility of the NPT. This cross-regional grouping of states emphasized that upholding and preserving the NPT in today’s security environment requires the complete and unequivocal implementation of disarmament obligations that underpin the regime. “The value of all legally-binding instruments, including the NPT, lies in the certainty given their Parties as to what their rights are and what their obligations are,” warned Ambassador Dell Higgie of New Zealand on May 2. “A treaty will come to have little value if its terms are re-interpreted, overlooked, or deferred.”

Ray Acheson during negotiations of nuclear ban treaty.
Credit: ICAN, 2017.

Traditional allies of the nuclear-armed states also expressed concern with the new rhetoric about the security environment. Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström noted that while the security environment is probably the worst it has been since the end of the Cold War, this is at least in part because nuclear disarmament is being replaced by nuclear weapon modernization, leaving key international treaties hollow and increasing mutual distrust. The representative of Latvia also turned the security tables, pointing out that every commitment states make under the NPT or other nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements strengthens international security, while Switzerland stressed that all past commitments remain valid regardless of the evolution of the security environment.

And so, after a week and a half of deliberations at the PrepCom, the chair and his team released a set of recommendations meant to be forwarded to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. No one was really happy with the first draft, which leaned towards accommodating the views of the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies but did not quite go as far in endorsing the continued retention of nuclear weapons as they would have liked. In the second draft, the chair and his team decided instead to reflect the perspectives of the majority of the NPT’s membership: that nuclear disarmament is an imperative objective and urgent necessity requiring reaffirmation of past commitments and new concrete advancement towards this end. Four of the five NPT nuclear-armed states unleashed their fury, with the United States, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom vehemently criticizing the revised draft. The United States and France in particular accused the chair of moving away from consensus and including elements in the recommendations that “undermine the NPT.” But rather than caving to pressure, the chair simply turned the recommendations into a working paper. This will be forwarded to the 2020 Review Conference and can provide a basis of work there if states want.

The majority of states taking the floor made it clear that this is exactly what they want. For most delegations, the revised draft is the most balanced NPT document they have seen since 2010. It actually reflects the views of the entire membership of the NPT rather than just the nuclear-armed and nuclear-endorsing states parties. Standing by these recommendations rather than watering them down to appease the nuclear-armed minority was a brave act, one that should give heart to the international community at a time when belligerence and bullying are the tune of the day. This is an important development for humanitarian disarmament: it shows that even while the nuclear-armed states burn down the multilateral and bilateral architecture that has for decades regulated and limited the nuclear arms race, the majority of governments are willing to stand together to fight for international law and the prevention of nuclear war.

This majority, lamentably, still does not include the nuclear-endorsing states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and others that have an “extended nuclear deterrence” relationship with the United States. A number of these states, such as Australia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Republic of Korea, undertook to protect the nuclear-armed states’ position against the revised recommendations. Using very similar language to each other, they said the draft “drifted away from consensus.” Several admitted that the second draft improved the text related to some of their key priority issues, including risk reduction, transparency and reporting, gender, and more. Yet they asked the chair to revert to his first draft—which would mean forsaking these improvements—because the second draft was further away from the US, UK, and French positions.

This will continue to be a key problem at the 2020 Review Conference. As discomfort grows with the direction the United States, Russia, and the other nuclear-armed countries are heading in, their allies have a responsibility to stand up for fifty years of international law and agreed commitments. The entire world has a stake in preventing nuclear war, ending the arms race, and achieving nuclear disarmament. They also have a say. They do not have to remain silent as treaties are thrown in the trash. Just as the majority of governments, working with activists and the International Committee of the Red Cross, demonstrated by banning nuclear weapons, we are not beholden to power. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change,” said Angela Davis. “I am changing the things I cannot accept.” This is the spirit in which non-nuclear-armed states parties need to approach the 2020 Review Conference: a spirit that builds on the courage of the Malaysians to issue a balanced document at this PrepCom, a spirit that honors the work that so many have done over so many years to protect future generations from the scourge of nuclear war. Regardless of what we think is possible next year, we have the duty, and the right, to try to achieve that to which we have all agreed: total nuclear disarmament.