From non-proliferation to a total ban on nukes
At the beginning of March, the Norwegian government hosted a landmark conference in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the inability of relief agencies to respond effectively in the event of a nuclear attack. More than 120 governments, the Red Cross and several UN agencies participated. Their message came through loud and clear: The only way to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again is to outlaw and eliminate them without further delay.
This unprecedented gathering of diplomats, experts and civil society actors was part of a new humanitarian-based approach to nuclear disarmament, which evolved out of the final document adopted in 2010 at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. There, the 189 parties to the treaty, including nuclear-armed Russia, the United States, Britain, China and France, had expressed their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”
The NPT parties gather again in Geneva for a 12-day meeting beginning today to prepare the ground for the 2015 review conference. Those that are genuinely interested in advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda will view this meeting as an opportunity to build on the momentum generated in Oslo, and to garner support for the follow-up conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to be hosted by Mexico later this year or early in 2014. Many governments will also call for negotiations to begin on a universal treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.
The governments of Norway, Switzerland, Austria, South Africa and Mexico, among others, have been vocal in their support for a humanitarian-based approach to nuclear disarmament, arguing that the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons on our health, societies and the environment should be at the center of all debates about these weapons. The global Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons have also sought to emphasize the humanitarian impact.
Remarkably, for the first time in the 68-year history of the nuclear age that governments had come together at the Oslo conference to address the problem of nuclear weapons purely from a humanitarian lens. Disarmament and non-proliferation discussions have traditionally focused on geopolitical and national security concerns. But as the processes that led to bans on landmines and cluster munitions demonstrated, adopting a humanitarian discourse is an important first step: New political coalitions can be formed and longstanding deadlocks overcome.
Of the nine nuclear-armed states, only two — India and Pakistan — attended the Oslo conference. The permanent five members of the UN Security Council jointly boycotted the meeting, claiming that an emphasis on humanitarian consequences somehow diverted attention from the existing “step-by-step approach” to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. But multilateral treaty negotiations to advance a nuclear-weapon-free world have been at a standstill for more than a decade and a half. The last major accomplishment in this field was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, which has still not entered into force.
Today the negotiating priority for the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament — often described as the sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum — is a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons (although this is a non-proliferation measure, not a disarmament measure). In general, the nuclear-armed states have been unwilling to make legally binding commitments to reduce their nuclear arsenals. However, Russia and the United States have agreed bilaterally to limit the number of deployed nuclear warheads in their forces.
The NPT review meetings remain the main diplomatic forum for disarmament and non-proliferation discussions, despite four of the nine nuclear-armed states not being involved — India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The other five nuclear states have consistently refused to accept any timelines in relation to meeting their Article VI disarmament obligations. While paying lip service to the idea of a “world without nuclear weapons,” they invest tens of billions of dollars modernizing their nuclear forces with the clear intention of retaining them for many decades to come.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits the 184 states without nuclear weapons from ever acquiring the bomb. In this sense, the treaty serves as a partial ban on nuclear weapons, complemented by several regional nuclear-weapon-free zones. However, the NPT does not expressly prohibit the use of nuclear weapons, or their possession by the P5 nuclear-weapon states. Rather, it imposes an obligation on all states to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament.
Despite this disarmament provision, the nuclear-weapon states promote the view that retaining and modernizing their nuclear forces is entirely legitimate. They describe the attainment of a nuclear-weapon-free world as a centuries-long proposition. The negotiation of a nuclear weapons ban treaty, led by non-nuclear-weapon states, would powerfully challenge this status quo. It would delegitimize nuclear weapons for all states and help speed up the disarmament process.
Even without the support of the nuclear-weapon states, the benefits of a ban would be considerable. For example, it would strengthen the case against British renewal of its nuclear-armed submarines. It would put pressure on the five NATO states that host US nuclear weapons — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey — to end this practice. It would force countries such as Australia and Japan to rethink their participation in extended nuclear deterrence. And it would encourage banks around the world to stop financing companies that manufacture nuclear arms.
Conventions already exist to prohibit chemical and biological weapons, anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions. All of these treaties have been influential in greatly reducing the stockpiles of such weapons. It is beyond time that nuclear weapons be prohibited also. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu remarked during the Oslo conference, “nuclear weapons are abhorrent and a grave danger no matter who possesses them … threatening a city with radioactive incineration is intolerable no matter the nationality or religion of its inhabitants.”
This article was written for In-DepthNews.