Throughout the four weeks of the nuclear non-proliferation review conference at the UN in New York, the campaign group “Reaching Critical Will” of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom produces a daily newsletter. Pressenza reproduces this editorial with the permission of Ray Acheson, the editor. At this point of the process in the conference the different committees are negotiating on the wording of texts. Main Committee I deals with disarmament issues.
The new draft text released from Main Committee I (MC I) on Thursday morning merges the most recent MC I and subsidiary body 1 (SB 1) drafts and contains further edits. Overall, this document does not contain any new action-oriented commitments, time-bound or otherwise. There is nothing here to suggest that states parties will be any more compelled to implement these suggested actions than they were the 2010 action plan. It largely encourages, urges, emphasises the need to, etc. Where it does call on states to undertake specific activities, such as ceasing modernisation or reviewing security doctrines, it does not provide timeframes or benchmarks for doing so.
For this to be a credible, successful outcome document, it must include concrete measures that advance nuclear disarmament and truly initiate a meaningful process to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Most delegations speaking in MC I on Thursday afternoon were clear about this.
Thailand expressed concern that the legal gap is not clearly articulated in the draft text, arguing that this is a factual assessment and must be included in any outcome. Beginning a process on a legally-binding instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, the Thai delegate argued, will help salvage the credibility of the NPT and signal that states parties have moved beyond a Cold War mentality. She emphasised that this request is not illogical, unreasonable, or farfetched, but rather, is a long overdue step.
Yet the nuclear-armed states continued to push back on the idea that anything more than the reductions they have already undertaken or have said they might take in the future is necessary. They clearly do not view their continued possession of nuclear weapons as inconsistent with the Treaty. This became starkly evident with the insertion of new language in the draft text noting that the indefinite extension of the Treaty in 1995 did not imply the “indefinite extension of the possession” of nuclear weapons. “Extension of” suggests that nuclear weapon possession by the five states was legitimate during the first 25 years of the Treaty’s existence, which is a dangerous revision and interpretation of the Treaty’s history.
The US delegation again forcefully argued that there can be no timelines for disarmament. But beyond timelines, there also does not appear to be any kind of plan. South Africa and Austria argued that reductions do not constitute disarmament unless they are undertaken as part of a framework for total elimination. While the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent countries continue to insist upon the so-called building blocks or a step-by-step approach as the only “practical” path to disarmament, this “process” has not achieved any disarmament at all. Further, the New Agenda Coalition expressed concern “about the precedent set, in the NPT context, by giving recognition to policies that have been determined unilaterally and subjected only to self-assessment.”
During an SB 1 meeting on Wednesday, Ambassador Minty of South Africa demanded that the nuclear-armed states illuminate the roadmap they are working on. “How fast are they going on this road? At what rate are they travelling and how long will it take to reach the destination? Do they need some fuel from us to make them go faster or are they taking rest-stops along the way, or are they simply lost?” He sharply pointed out that the “misuse of the 2010 outcome as a roadmap seems to give licence to an approach, which suggests that they have an indefinite right to possess nuclear weapons. It further suggests that if they get tired of talking to each other, then they take a rest stop, whilst they are armed with the most dangerous weapons.”
This attitude from the nuclear-armed states is mirrored by their reaction to the inclusion of language on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW) in the draft text. France once again argued that there is no new information in relation to the HINW and that the three conferences should not be referenced because France did not attend them. The fact that approximately 93% of UN member states did attend did not stop Ambassador Simon-Michel from arguing that these conferences were “divisive” and that it is better for the outcome text to not refer to “divisive” things at all. He called for the deletion of the two key paragraphs on the HINW.
In contrast, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) pointed out that the text “does not accurately reflect either the depth of concern or the urgency of action—nor does it give due recognition to the facts and evidence presented at the three Conferences held over the past five years.” Also, argued NAC and Ireland, the substance of the 159-state joint statement must be reflected, that “it is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons never be used again under any circumstances.”
The nuclear-armed states argue, as France did again yesterday afternoon, that elimination of nuclear weapons is not possible because of the current strategic context. Ambassador Simon-Michel complained again that the strategic context is not adequately reflected in the draft text. But as Ambassador Minty asked, “How can we all put our own fate at risk, because of potentially incorrect or subjective perceptions of some ‘security concerns’? What are the criteria for working out this security standard?” Are there “other ways to provide them with the security that they seek, rather than their over-dependence on nuclear weapons?” Ultimately, he noted, “the security considerations of the five are unilateral and imposed on all of us.” And of course, as many states parties have pointed out over the decades, if the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies continue to promote the perceived “security benefits” of nuclear weapons, they are essentially promoting proliferation.
The approach of the nuclear-armed states to this outcome document, much like their approach to nuclear disarmament in general, is based on their apparent belief that they have the right to possess nuclear weapons for as long as they like, regardless of the risks, consequences, or injustice of this situation. They are very clearly in a minority at this Review Conference. They are isolated. Yet they do not appear willing to compromise or accept any new commitments that would help them fulfill their legal obligations.
NPT states parties should not give into this petulant position of the nuclear-armed states. On Thursday afternoon, it did appear that many delegations were getting fed up. “Consensus must be built around the overwhelming majority, not the other way around,” warned Austria, while Ecuador asserted that if the outcome document is blocked, it will be by only a minority for whom nuclear disarmament is not a priority.
“While we work towards consensus, some continue to divide us by using the notion of consensus to make us surrender to their wishes or risk putting the whole outcome in jeopardy,” explained Ambassador Minty. But over the years, there has been so little flexibility by the nuclear-armed states that it increasingly appears that the NPT is “their” treaty. There is a very big gap between the nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states. Yet the non-nuclear armed “represent the vast majority of humanity—our lives, our future and our destiny is wrapped up” with the arsenals of the nuclear-armed.
States have a chance to change this. The urgency and opportunity to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons is before us. Now is the time to ban nuclear weapons and crawl out from under the thumb of those who seek to rule through the threat of massive nuclear violence.