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Defining success: Why we need more than mere agreement

May 5, 2010

by Tim Wright

We have heard over the last two days the foreign ministers from numerous countries repeat the call for a “successful” Review Conference outcome. But what defines success? The Norwegian deputy foreign minister, Ms. Gry Larsen, said yesterday: “Our ambitions should be far higher than merely agreeing on a final document. We need an outcome document that makes a real difference.”

The Non-Aligned Movement has made it clear that movement towards a Nuclear Weapons Convention is “integral” to any agreed plan of action at the conference. Some European countries have also expressed support for an abolition-focused outcome. This Friday, Norway will co-sponsor an event with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons titled “Nuclear Weapons Convention: Now We Can”, which will explore the political and legal requirements of achieving zero.

China remains the only NPT nuclear-weapon state to have expressed its support for such an approach, although the United Kingdom has accepted that a convention will likely be necessary at some point in the future. The Chinese head of delegation, Mr. Li Baodong, argued yesterday that “[t]he international community should develop, at an appropriate time, a viable, long-term plan composed of phased actions, including a convention on the complete prohibition of nuclear weapons”.

The final government speaker on the second day of the conference was Mr. Nasser Bin Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar, who stressed that the Review Conference should adopt an action plan to eliminate nuclear weapons, and concluded on this optimistic note: “We hope that we will not wait long before we celebrate a universal treaty for disarmament and prohibition of nuclear weapons, for this has legal and political importance.”

Campaigners and diplomats met at lunchtime to examine ways to advance the idea of a Nuclear Weapons Convention at this Review Conference. The model convention developed by civil society was presented as a useful tool with which to stimulate debate. Ban Ki-moon described it in 2008 as a “good point of departure” for actual negotiations.

Ten key arguments for advancing a Nuclear Weapons Convention now are:

  1. The minimalist approach to nuclear disarmament has proven inadequate: It is time to move beyond nuclear arms control, and begin a process for nuclear abolition. The NPT has helped to prevent the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons, but governments will need to negotiate a complementary legal framework in order to achieve abolition.
  2. A Nuclear Weapons Convention would help to implement Article VI of the NPT: The negotiation of a convention is the most obvious and realistic way for states to fulfil their obligation to disarm. A convention would strengthen the NPT in the same way that other treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and US–Russian bilateral arms reduction treaties have also strengthened it.
  3. There is overwhelming support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention: In 2009, 124 states voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the immediate commencement of negotiations leading to a convention, and opinion polls in 21 countries show that, on average, 76% of people globally support the idea of a verifiable nuclear abolition treaty.
  4. There is a legal obligation to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention: In 1996, the International Court of Justice affirmed that all states, including those outside the NPT, have a legal obligation to pursue negotiations for nuclear disarmament and to achieve the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Like any legal obligation, it cannot be postponed indefinitely.
  5. A convention would bridge the disarmament–non-proliferation divide: The process of negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention would help to bridge the rift between non-proliferation-first and disarmament-first advocates by addressing both non-proliferation and disarmament simultaneously. It does so by adopting an abolition approach.
  6. A convention would facilitate the engagement of states outside the NPT: The general obligations contained in a Nuclear Weapons Convention would apply equally to all parties. In this respect, it would differ from the NPT, which establishes different standards for the five states that tested nuclear weapons before 1967.
  7. A convention is compatible with the advancement of intermediate steps: A convention would complement goals such as the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the negotiation of a fissile materials treaty, and the conclusion of a more comprehensive arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia. Negotiations for all of these could take place simultaneously.
  8. A Nuclear Weapons Convention would help to build trust among nations: It would promote greater transparency and accountability in the disarmament process by establishing the systems needed to verify the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Trust would develop over the course of the treaty’s implementation.
  9. Conventions have been negotiated to outlaw other categories of weapons: Biological and chemical arms, as well as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, have been banned through conventions. Nuclear weapons are the only “weapons of mass destruction” that have not yet been banned, despite the fact that their destructive potential is greater than that of any other weapon.
  10. The political climate is right to pursue the abolition of nuclear weapons: Some leaders have recently expressed support for the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world. However, without a clear roadmap to zero, this “vision” is unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future, if at all. At this Review Conference, governments must seize the historic opportunity to advance disarmament by agreeing to begin work on a convention.

Tim Wright is the ICAN – NWC Project Coordinator

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