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All that glitters is not gold

May 19, 2015

Reductions in nuclear weapons are not the same as nuclear disarmament

On the plane over here, I read an essay in the Financial Times in which the author asks whether there is such a thing as an Obama Doctrine in foreign policy. The criticism of the US President is that he has mistaken declaratory speeches – like the one in Prague in 2009 – for a strategy. Actually, his main goal in the area of foreign policy was to reduce military costs to pay for sorely needed reforms in domestic policies, such as the health care plan. At least with the nuclear weapons budget, he has failed spectacularly.

Indeed, here at the NPT Review Conference in New York, it would seem that the shine has worn off the glittering promises of unequivocal undertakings to eliminate nuclear weapons and replaced by weakened language on reductions and the presentation of a glossy glossary of nuclear terms that the P5 were able to agree on after five years of meetings. The mask is being torn off the benign nuclear “protectors” of this world to reveal a group of bullies that insist on retaining their nuclear weapons, while cynically talking about “undiminished security for all” and actually meaning for themselves and at the cost of the security of all the non-nuclear weapon states. They state in no uncertain terms: No, we won’t accept any language on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons anywhere but in a preamble; no, we won’t accept any mention of a ban; no, the risk of nuclear use has not grown; there is no new information on the humanitarian effects; we cannot rule out the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances, no, no, no.

Compare this negative and arrogant rhetoric with the carefully-crafted speeches of Austria and South Africa, for example. The statement South Africa made on May 13 went to the very heart of the controversy between nuclear and non-nuclear states. Ambassador Minty explained why reductions in nuclear weapons do not constitute nuclear disarmament, since reductions are principally made to get rid of unnecessary or redundant weapons. Disarmament must advance the concept of elimination. Ambassador Minty (and Ambassador Kmentt of Austria) asked the nuclear weapon states: if they are unwilling to rule out the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances, then they should be clear about what circumstances they envisage actually using nuclear weapons. He also discussed the meaning of security and whether security for nuclear weapon states can be imposed on the rest of the world, that do not rely on nuclear weapons for their security. You can’t have it both ways: either states need nuclear weapons for their security or they don’t, so should everyone have a right to possess nuclear weapons? What makes these five countries so different that it is imperative to remain the only ones that possess nuclear weapons while all others do without? Surely it is better that everyone should do without?

On the question of how fast implementation of the treaty is progressing, opinions were also sharply divided. South Africa was dismayed that twenty years after the indefinite extension of the NPT, no real progress has been achieved, other than the P5 meeting with each other and agreeing on common terms. Russia simply claimed that the pace was not too slow. France urged us all to live in the “real world”. Fast or slow, however, are subjective perceptions, whereas Austria’s Ambassador Kmentt explained that it is normal for benchmarks and timelines to be set to quantitatively measure the success of the implementation of a treaty. In the current drafting language on nuclear disarmament benchmarks and timelines are missing.

The interpretation of article VI has always been contentious but this time the non-nuclear weapon states spoke with one voice. The International Court of Justice advisory opinion clearly states that there exists an obligation “to bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear’ disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control”. The discussion about what constitute “effective measures” centres around three interpretations: legal measures (that might include a ban, convention or framework), practical measures (aka building blocks, the favourite toy of the NPDI) and step-by-step approach (favoured by the nuclear weapons states). A group of middle-ground countries including Australia, the Netherlands and Germany emerged with the proposal that all three approaches to disarmament should be included in any outcome document. The question remains to be seen whether they can produce consensus language for the drafting committee that begins today, Main Committee 1 having failed to reach consensus on a report yesterday afternoon.

Noone seriously questions that nuclear weapons can have humanitarian consequences, but there is disagreement as to whether this is severe or catastrophic, whether the risk of a nuclear detonation has increased and whether a “nuclear conflagration” (a term that NAC seeks definitions for, as they are not familiar with it) is necessary before the effects are truly problematic. Clearly, the level of awareness in the room depended on whether one had done the course on humanitarian impact by attending the the three excellent fact-based conferences on the subject. The overwhelming majority, however, are clear on the matter – a single detonation is sufficient for catastrophic humanitarian consequences to occur.

One only has to read the report by Trident whistleblower William McNeilley to see how the risk of a nuclear accident has increased. It is not just the horrific physical state of the submarines themselves that could lead to an accident either affecting the missiles or the nuclear reactors on board. It is also the lack of security and safety measures and the state of the crews. Is there any reason to believe that the systems in any of the other nuclear weapons states are in better repair or better guarded? Many reports of drug and alcohol abuse or negligence in the US have been published. Similar problems in Russia and China probably simply go unreported.

The fact that there have not yet been any actual negotiations on nuclear disarmament but only repetitive statements on insertions, deletions and reinsertions in the draft document from MC1 indicates that there will not be enough time to reach consensus on a final outcome document by Friday. Without consensus on nuclear disarmament there will be no consensus on non-proliferation. In my view, this is a good outcome. A group of 159 states has coalesced around the defence of a strong and evidence-based humanitarian initiative, of which more than 90 states – nearly half of the NPT states parties – support a treaty of some kind to ban and/or eliminate nuclear weapons. These non-nuclear weapons states are feeling empowered by their unity and standing ground on principles they have repeatedly given way on in the past in order to achieve consensus. As Mexico stated yesterday: “Everything is on the table for change, except for our principles”. Since most of the points of controversy are about principle, that leaves very little room for negotiation. The UK said that the call for a ban treaty “is nothing more than a referendum on the NPT”. In actual fact, the referendum is on NPT compliance by the nuclear weapon states. As Alexander Kmentt says: The humanitarian initiative challenges the legitimacy of the nuclear deterrence doctrine and should be embraced, to shore up the NPT.

At the end of the day, Austria surprised the conference with a new announcement. The Austrian Pledge has gone international and has been renamed the Humanitarian Pledge to reflect the support of close to 100 countries. This kind of support shows that the conference will have an outcome, not in the form of a wishy-washy document full of unfulfilled promises, but a resolute will to close the legal gap and implement article VI by banning nuclear weapons, whether the nuclear weapon states like it or not.

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  1. All that’s gold doesn’t glitter | IPPNW peace and health blog

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