The Monstrous Game of Nuclear Annihilation

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

This editorial originally ran in Reaching Critical Will’s NPT News in Review. For more reporting on the Tenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), see other issues of the NPT News in Review.

Igor Vishnevetskii, Deputy Head of the Russian Delegation, addresses the general debate of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Credit: UN Photo
Digital Asset Management System, 2022

Late on Friday, August 26, 2022, the Russian delegation blocked the adoption of the conclusions and recommendations of the Tenth NPT Review Conference final document. It gave many explanations for this choice, number one among them that it believed other states, opposed to its war against Ukraine, had taken the Review Conference “politically hostage.” It accused those states of ensuring their priorities and perspectives were reflected in the outcome while working to ensure that the views of their opponents were not reflected. 

This is not entirely wrong. The Review Conference was “taken hostage.” But Russia was not a victim of this behavior—it was one of the perpetrators, along with the other nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies. Similarly, the accusations by some delegations that that Russia was solely to blame for the failure of this Conference to reach consensus on an outcome does not hold up to the reality of the past month—or the past twelve years, since the NPT’s states parties last agreed on substantive commitments in 2010. The problem lies not with one state or group of states but with all the governments that prioritize their perception of power through violence over collective peace and well-being. These states are all collectively putting the planet in grave peril—and it’s up to the rest of the world to stop them.

Friday Night Fights

Reportedly, Russia’s key objections to the final document were the references to the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant. While civil society was not allowed into the negotiations over the draft documents this past week, we know from previous open meetings that Russia wanted Ukraine to be named as the perpetrator of these attacks. In the drafts, no one is named, not even Russia, but given its repeated comments that the draft outcome does not reflect reality, this was likely still one of its concerns. Also possible is that it wanted to remove the reference to Ukraine’s “internationally recognized borders” mentioned in paragraph 187.95, and/or the reference that states parties might be warranted to take “appropriate action” under the UN Charter in paragraph 100. In its remarks to the final plenary, the Russian delegation indicated that it had amendments it wanted to make to five paragraphs but did not specify at that time what those were. (For more details on the nature of the references to Zaporizhzya in the draft final document, see the article “Overview of the Unadopted Outcome” in this edition.)

While Russia accused the “Western states” of politicizing the Review Conference, many of these states—including the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—accused Russia of being solely responsible for the failure of the Review Conference to achieve consensus on its outcome document. These delegations expressed regret that a state party would wage an illegal war against and occupy another country in contravention of international law and to the detriment of international peace and security. They did not, however, offer any reflection upon their own past such behavior, including the illegal war of aggression against Iraq.

The Context of War

During the closing remarks on Friday, France delivered a joint statement on behalf of 55 states and the European Union that rightfully condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine and deplored its nuclear threats and its seizure of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. Without a doubt, Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, its threats to use nuclear weapons, its decision to raise the alert status of its nuclear forces, and its occupation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants run counter to its NPT obligations and gravely impacted the credibility of the Treaty and the work of this Review Conference. 

But Russia was not alone in derailing this Conference. Despite all the divergences among those playing at geopolitics, Russia was fully aligned with the other NPT nuclear-armed states in actively preventing any meaningful commitment to advance nuclear disarmament, stop nuclear threats, or reduce nuclear risks from being included in the outcome document. While the five NPT nuclear-armed states may not be a monolith, they can certainly agree on a few things: they want to continue to possess and modernize their nuclear arsenals, they do not believe they are legally obligated to eliminate their nuclear weapons, and they really, really hate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). 

Furthermore, the nuclear allies, including those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, to varying degrees support the perpetuation of nuclear weapons and the dangerous doctrine of nuclear deterrence. They made this very clear by refusing to allow even an acknowledgement that some states that include nuclear weapons in the security doctrines have a responsibility to reduce the roles of those weapons.

A Disappointing Document

Because of the dissatisfaction expressed by many states throughout the Conference with the failures on nuclear disarmament, Russia asserted that other states also opposed the outcome document. But of all the other delegations that took the floor on Friday night, only Syria was supportive of Russia’s position. Iran expressed its dissatisfaction with multiple aspects of the text and the drafting process, notably in relation to the Middle East, but did not say whether or not it would have accepted it. The majority of delegations that spoke—including those of the Non-Aligned Movement, the New Agenda Coalition, and states parties of the TPNW—said they would have accepted the final document. They expressed profound regret at the Conference’s failure—not because they thought the document was good in itself, but for the loss of multilateral agreement at a time of grave nuclear risk and rhetoric. 

“In truth, the document was well below our expectations, falling short on concrete measures to advance us toward nuclear disarmament,” said Costa Rica. “However, we felt it was necessary for the NPT states parties to meet the current moment, with the nuclear risks higher than they have been in decades, and together reaffirm our determination to uphold international law in pursuit of our common goal.”

For everyone except the nuclear-armed states and their allies, the final draft document was a profound disappointment. Throughout the Conference, said Malaysia, it became “evidently clear that there is absolutely no desire on the part of a handful of States Parties to fulfill their disarmament obligations.” The New Agenda Coalition noted its concern with the “fractious relationship” among the nuclear-armed states, warning that their “policies, pronouncements, and actions are retrogressing from the goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”

This is not to say there were no positive elements in the draft document. Some of the best advances were perhaps in relation to gender, diversity, and inclusion. While not going nearly far enough to effect meaningful change, the recognition that work is needed in relation to gender diversity and perspectives, education and empowerment, and civil society inclusion is new for the NPT review process. In addition, the references to the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons were significantly improved from past NPT draft documents from the last two review cycles, and this should be taken forward. There are other elements where states came together constructively to find agreement, some of which are outlined in the next article in this edition. But the positive parts of the draft document do not make up for the abject failure to implement the Treaty’s core obligations on nuclear disarmament. Instead, they only risk providing cover for the continued implementation failures. 

A wide view of the general debate of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Credit: UN Photo Digital Asset Management System, 2022

Monster Mash

In this sense, the unadopted outcome of this Tenth NPT Review Conference is perhaps best described as Frankenstein’s Creature, crafted from the body parts of cadavers and reanimated through an unknown process that transforms inanimate matter into (somewhat) living tissue. The refusal of the nuclear-armed states to implement the NPT’s disarmament provisions are arguably turning the treaty itself into a zombie, an undead thing that keeps on moving, deteriorating further and further as the nuclear-armed states fail to implement it, putting everyone in constant danger. One could also argue that it is more like Gollum’s precious ring, which extended his life far beyond natural limits and twisted his body and mind until he “loved and hated [the Ring], as he loved and hated himself?”

Whichever monster metaphor you prefer, and regardless of the fact that it was not adopted, the draft outcome of this Review Conference is a dangerous disappointment.

It was not an agreement that would have saved humanity. It was not a reflection of the world we live in. It contained zero ambition to address the “grave concerns” expressed repeatedly in the document—about the catastrophic impacts of nuclear weapons, about the lack of tangible progress on nuclear disarmament, about ongoing arms racing and nuclear threat-making.

The final draft contained 59 reaffirmations. To what end? How long do we keep reaffirming things that the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies seem intent to violate year after year after year? Is that the point of a five-year review cycle: to reaffirm commitments from five, ten, twenty years ago? If each Review Conference is simply a reaffirmation of the last one, what is the point of the exercise? Do we just reaffirm reaffirmations each time, looping ourselves into a meaningless spiral?

And what are the actions, the commitments, that are made in this document in relation to nuclear disarmament? They are for dialogue. They are agreements to talk about further talks. This does not count as “every effort,” as stipulated in Article VI. This does not count as action.

What Does Maintaining Multilateralism Require?

South Africa warned that the failure of this Review Conference, following the failure in 2015, is a stark reminder of the length that the nuclear-armed states are willing to go to continue to possess nuclear weapons. It accused these states and their nuclear-supportive allies of putting their own selfish interests above the world’s collective well-being. “Reliance on nuclear deterrence at the end of the day means the readiness to inflict global catastrophic consequences also on states and populations that have little to do with and are not responsible for the geopolitical tensions,” said Austria. “This is unacceptable.”

Even if this document had been adopted by consensus, but what does consensus mean in this context? It means the vast majority of governments in the world have been bullied into submission by the nuclear-armed states and their allies once again. Most countries put multilateral interests above their own and were clearly willing to do so again here. But at what point does going along for the sake of signalling “the collective cooperation so sorely needed at this time of global uncertainty and insecurity,” as New Zealand put it, become no longer tenable? At what point do states parties need to change the way the NPT review process is conducted, or how non-compliance with its disarmament provisions is addressed? As [Reaching Critical Will] has written about in relation to this and many other disarmament forums, interpreting consensus as unanimity is dangerous for the integrity and effectiveness of a treaty or process.

Fifty-two years after the NPT’s adoption nuclear weapons still exist, and the nuclear-armed states are clearly upgrading and modernizing them with the intention of indefinite possession. This situation cannot persist; otherwise, are we really protecting the multilateral spirit, collective security, or international law—or are we just protecting the nuclear-armed states, double standards, and global inequalities? 

Finding the Light and Working for Change

The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference helped provide momentum for the negotiation in 2017 of the TPNW. The 122 states voting for its adoption, and the increasing number of its states parties and signatories now, signalled their intention to take matters into their own hands. Instead of being supplicants before the nuclear-armed states, those that have already rejected the myths and dangers of nuclear deterrence created new law to promote a nuclear free world. 

Just a few months ago, they adopted a strong declaration and ambitious action plan—which France and others would not even allowed to be mentioned in the NPT Review Conference final document. This is where the work clearly lies over the next few years. This is where it is possible to build a world free of nuclear weapons and address past and ongoing nuclear harm. 

In a sense, said Austria, these past four weeks have been a validation of and promotion for the TPNW. Austria noted that its delegations and those of other TPNW supporters tried hard at this Review Conference to achieve progress in the NPT, “but we see once again how little is possible. The status quo is simply not an option. We cannot prepare for nuclear catastrophe. What we cannot prepare for we must prevent. We cannot afford to wait.” In this context, Austria called “on all states who want to achieve actual progress on Article VI of the NPT to join the TPNW.”

One of the lessons learned from the process to ban nuclear weapons is that we cannot look to leadership from the nuclear-armed states to make the world safer. They will in fact do whatever they can to prevent this. Their fierce and relentless objections to the prohibition of a weapon of mass destruction shows exactly what orientation these states have towards peace, security, and care; appealing to their “better nature” is not leading to any real progress. Leadership, and courage, will come from elsewhere—as it already has.

States parties and signatories to the TPNW also issued a joint statement on Friday night. They reiterated their support for the NPT and its full implementation, but they also expressed dismay that the risks of nuclear weapon use have been used at this Conference as a reason to work “against the urgently needed progress on nuclear disarmament, and to uphold an approach to security based on the fallacy of nuclear deterrence.” The TPNW states explained that while they have no illusions about the challenges and obstacles, they seek to move ahead with optimism and resolve:

In the face of the catastrophic risks posed by nuclear weapons and in the interest of the very survival of humanity, we cannot do otherwise. We will take every path that is open to us, and work persistently to open those that are still closed. We will not rest until the last state has joined the TPNW, the last warhead has been irreversibly dismantled and destroyed and nuclear weapons have been totally eliminated from the Earth.

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