Will the NPT face the facts?
When the 2015 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) opens in New York next week, the 190 member states will have to come to terms with some hard facts.
The NPT is 45 years old, and while most observers agree that it has worked reasonably well over that time to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that did not have them in 1970, it has not achieved its most important goal—a world in which no countries have nuclear weapons.
There are still more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine states, three of which have never joined the NPT. Despite reductions from Cold War levels, the US and Russia have more than 90% of that total between them, and the prospects for negotiating deeper bilateral reductions while NATO and Russia glare at each other from opposite sides of Ukraine look dim.
While giving lip service to the goal of nuclear disarmament, all nine nuclear-armed states—the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—are modernizing their warheads, delivery systems, and infrastructure. India and Pakistan, which are not NPT members, are engaged in a nuclear arms race reminiscent of the Cold War. In the always tense Middle East, a nuclear-armed Israel is making a precarious agreement with a not-yet-nuclear-armed Iran even more precarious.
With the risks increasing that nuclear weapons could be used in warfare for the first time since the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago, nuclear disarmament takes on added urgency. The NPT is supposed to be the most effective tool the world has for producing a world without nuclear weapons. So how is it doing on the eve of another five-year review? Not so well.
At the last NPT Review Conference in 2010, the Member States adopted a 64-point action plan. The first 22 actions, pertaining to nuclear disarmament and Article VI of the treaty, were largely recycled priorities that have been on the table for a decade or two.
According to a report prepared by Reaching Critical Will, progress has been made on only five of the 22 disarmament actions. Four of the five relate to maintaining the existing nuclear testing moratorium and strengthening support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and its technical infrastructure, and were happening anyway. The US and Russia ratified New START, but have engaged in no further disarmament negotiations since then. Worse, they have undermined a modest set of reductions through provocative and expensive modernization of the weapon systems they have retained. If 60% is an “F,” then the grade for this part of the action plan is much further down the alphabet.
The NPT is stuck in quicksand. Elsewhere, however, there has been a seismic shift in the political and diplomatic landscape regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament. Scientific evidence about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW), presented at a series of three groundbreaking international conferences, has put the dangers into chilling context. The evidence was summed up this way at the third conference, held in Vienna in December 2014 and attended by 158 states, along with many international organizations and civil society groups:
“The impact of a nuclear weapon detonation, irrespective of the cause, would not be constrained by national borders and could have regional and even global consequences, causing destruction, death and displacement as well as profound and long-term damage to the environment, climate, human health and well-being, socioeconomic development, social order and could even threaten the survival of humankind.”
Put another way, a single nuclear weapon can destroy a city; as few as 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs, used in a limited, regional nuclear war, would disrupt the global climate so severely that at least two billion people—more than a quarter of the world’s population—would face starvation from a “nuclear famine”; a nuclear war between the US and Russia, each with thousands of warheads, would shut down the Earth’s life-sustaining ecosystems, bringing an end to humanity itself.
From this perspective, to use American slang, the NPT needs a real kick in the pants. That kick is about to be delivered at the 2015 Review Conference in the form of the Austrian Pledge. At the conclusion of the Vienna HINW conference, Austria pledged that it would “cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, States, international organisations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”
The first step identified in the Pledge was to bring the evidence from the three HINW conferences into the NPT Review and to challenge the member states “to renew their commitment to the urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI, and to this end, to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”
The Pledge has been adopted by 69 states during the run-up to the NPT Review, and more endorsements are expected during and after the month-long conference.
The Austrian Pledge is a gift to the NPT member states—a way out of the malaise that has prevented the treaty from delivering on its promise of a nuclear-weapons-free world for 45 years. Should the NPT fail to make the most of this gift at the upcoming Review, the time will have arrived to look for a more effective means to close the legal gap and to prohibit and eliminate weapons that threaten each and every one of us with extinction.