Doctrines, deployments, and the political value attached to “nuclear deterrence” are being challenged at the NPT conference.  As 78 nations co-sponsor a growing “humanitarian initiative”, the five NPT nuclear-armed states and some of their “nuclear umbrella” allies like Japan, Australia and Germany are in denial. Rebecca Johnson reports

As 96 states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting opened in the grand Assembly Hall at the Palais des Nations in Geneva (April 22 to May 3), the buzz, as predicted, was all about which states would sign up to the ‘Joint Statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons’. As more and more states added their names, it was clear that the high level of participation and arguments at the Oslo Conference had impressed NPT delegations.  In addition, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) coordinated activists from Latin America, Africa, Asia-Pacific and Europe. They promoted the joint statement to delegations on the floor and mobilised NGOs and parliamentarians in various countries to inform and encourage governments in capitals to get “on the right side of history”.

After South Africa’s ambassador Abdul Minty had sonorously read out the list of co-sponsors, the room erupted in applause – 78 governments had signed.  As a key NGO observer, Beatrice Fihn, noted in the NPT News in Review, “Never in NPT history has such a large cross-regional group of states delivered a joint statement on one issue.”

The ‘humanitarian initiative’ (as it was dubbed by the NPT meeting’s Chair, Ambassador Cornel Feruta of Romania) built on the ‘16 nation’ statement coordinated by Switzerland at the 2012 NPT meeting in Vienna. The co-sponsors swelled to 35 for a similar statement to the UN General Assembly’s First Committee in October 2012, which fed into the Oslo Conference, in which 127 states and many international and UN organisations participated.

Noting that “Beyond the immediate death and destruction caused by a detonation, socio-economic development will be impeded, the environment will be destroyed, and future generations will be robbed of their health, food, water and other vital resources”, the 78-nation statement asserted that “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” It welcomed Mexico’s decision to hold a further multilateral conference to “deepen understanding of this matter” and “the resolve of the international community to address the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons”.

Several countries were conspicuous by their absence from the list of co-sponsors. Having boycotted the Oslo conference, it was unsurprising that the “P5” nuclear-armed states in the NPT did not sign. But what about Japan, Australia and a bevy of European countries that regularly intone their desire to prevent nuclear dangers and enjoy the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons?

Despite the appeals of Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors), the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and religious, women’s and students’ groups at the NPT and in Japan, Tokyo reportedly refused to sign. Japanese participants in Geneva and Tokyo protested to their government, which was put on the defensive over its current acceptance of the US “nuclear umbrella”, in which US nuclear weapons could be used on Japan’s behalf in certain scenarios.  Australia and many NATO states also decided not to sign, apparently feeling that raising concerns about the effects of nuclear weapons might jeopardise their extended deterrence arrangements with the United States, which entail a threat to use these weapons of mass suffering and even to initiate their use in some military circumstances.  Several NATO governments did co-sponsor, taking the view that there is nothing incompatible or wrong with US allies wanting to address the humanitarian consequences and prevent the use of nuclear weapons.  In meetings on de-alerting and reducing the role of nuclear weapons, held on the fringes of the NPT conference, senior Washington analysts indicated that the Obama administration had been willing to reduce the role of nuclear weapons much further in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, but this had been stymied by Japan and a few NATO allies, even as these governments pretended in public to support nuclear disarmament. Similarly, a former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, made clear that nuclear weapons could be taken out of the equation without weakening Australia’s security or alliance relationship with the United States.

While US allies agonised about whether or not they could sign a statement of concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, the United States was engaging in positive diplomacy to showcase their arms control efforts, notwithstanding the continued failure (along with China) to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Rose Gottemoeller, Obama’s chief nuclear arms negotiator, and her Russian counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, gave robust presentations on the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty that the former superpowers brought into force in 2011, agreeing that implementation and verification, including on-site inspections, were proceeding well.  New START has brought deployed long range delivery systems (comprising inter-continental and submarine launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers) down to 1,284 with 3,134 warheads (of which the United States deploys 1,654 warheads on 792 missiles and Russia deploys 1,480 warheads on 492 missiles, as of 1 March, according to New START declarations agreed by both governments).  In addition, the two countries count 1,928 “non-deployed” long range delivery systems.  Though both expressed a willingness to negotiate a follow-on treaty, views differ over how far such a treaty might go.  Should it deal with a timetable for eliminating the thousands of warheads currently held in “reserve” stockpiles? Could the US and Russia at last address the shorter range ‘non-strategic’ or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons they hold, which include up to 200 stationed in five countries in the NATO military alliance (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey) and around 860-1,040 throughout Russia? From the Russian perspective the next round of talks could include Britain, China and France, which between them hold an estimated 750-800 nuclear weapons out of today’s total of around 17,300.  The US (and, it appears, Britain, China and France) appear sceptical, insisting that further bilateral reductions must come first.

Of course there is widespread encouragement for the enhanced US-Russian arms control relationship epitomised by New START.  Any and all reductions in existing arsenals are clearly welcomed.  But numbers are not the driving force that they were during the Cold War US-Soviet arms race, though they play a destabilising part in the regional nuclear race between India and Pakistan in South Asia.  The factors driving today’s major problems with regard to the proliferation, modernisation and potential use of nuclear weapons have more to do with doctrines, deployments, the political “value” attached to “nuclear deterrence”, and the continuing salience of existing nuclear weapons in some countries’ security policies.  That was why the 2010 NPT Action Plan (not to mention the unfulfilled commitments adopted in 2000) placed so much emphasis on the need to diminish the roles and “significance of nuclear weapons in defence policy”, as acknowledged by Ambassador Jo Adamson in the UK’s NPT statement on ‘disarmament’.

The UK was well represented in various fringe meetings, including a joint meeting with Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that discussed the ongoing UK-Norway project on verifying the dismantlement of nuclear warheads for disarmament, and a panel convened by Christian CND and the Reading-based Nuclear Information Service in which Adamson and her French counterpart, ambassador Jean-Hughes Simon-Michel, sought to explain and justify UK-French lab-to-lab collaboration under the Teutates Treaty.  In both meetings, Adamson was at pains to present these rather different collaborations as helping to fulfil the UK’s NPT obligations.  That’s clearly true of the UK-Norway verification initiative, which continues to generate considerable interest. The Teutates agreements, by contrast, were criticised as contrary to the NPT’s aims and obligations, characterised as a desperate attempt by two declining, cash-strapped defence establishments to prop up each other’s nuclear weapons perpetuation capabilities.  A question asking how much of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) budget went towards verification initiatives in comparison with expenditure on nuclear warhead design, production and maintenance went unanswered.

The British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) invited three members of parliament to discuss Trident on the first day of the NPT meeting. In a wide-ranging debate, in which diplomats from Iran, France, China and various non-nuclear countries participated, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the need for Britain to scrap its vain and expensive plans to replace Trident, and Bill Kidd MSP, Scottish National Party (SNP) convenor of the nuclear disarmament group in the Scottish parliament, pointed out that more jobs would be created if the £100 billion price tag for Trident replacement were more sensibly invested in other parts of the economy.  They agreed that British and Scottish security interests would best be fulfilled if the UK would join multilateral negotiations to ban nuclear weapons globally.  Kidd made clear Scotland’s intent to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state.  Sir Nick Harvey MP, the Liberal Democrat former armed services minister in charge of the Trident Alternatives Review (until September 2012) was unusually explicit in his criticisms of Trident replacement, describing government plans as “a burden that distorts the defence budget” and based on “outdated and ludicrous ideas” about deterrence.

Elsewhere during the NPT Conference, a meeting convened by Mexico and Mongolia heard representatives of the 115 governments that are in treaty-mandated nuclear-weapons-free zones (NWFZ) raise concerns about the impact of nuclear weapons and welcome Mexico’s commitment to hold an international conference on this issue in early 2014.  Representatives of China, France and the United States participated in the NWFZ meeting and gave statements pledging to honour their commitments as nuclear-armed states to the various NWFZ. But the UK and Russia failed to appear.

The Secretary General of OPANAL, which administers the Tlatelolco Treaty that established the first NWFZ covering Latin American and the Caribbean, Ambassador Gioconda Ubeda, acknowledged and encouraged “the initiatives for nuclear arms reductions. However, we consider that it is also necessary to promote multilateral negotiations on total and complete nuclear disarmament”.  She welcomed the nomination of Peruvian ambassador Enrique Román-Morey to chair the 2014 NPT meeting (the last before the 2015 Review Conference), and emphasised the role of Costa Rica in chairing an “open-ended working group to develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations”.

The working group talks she referred to were mandated by a UN General Assembly resolution in 2012 and will take place in the Palais des Nations in Geneva later this year. Despite the UN mandate of these multilateral talks, yet again the “P5” nuclear-armed states on the UN Security Council have declared that they will not participate, claiming that the discussions might distract from the NPT or Geneva’s Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked for 16 years.

Among the many NPT states that support the relevant steps undertaken by various of the P5 towards reducing the significance and numbers of their nuclear weapons, there is growing anger at such petty boycotting of practically all multilateral efforts to address nuclear disarmament. No wonder an unprecedented four-fifths of the governments attending the NPT co-sponsored the humanitarian disarmament statement.

The original version of this article can be found on the website, here.