The NPT: a big distraction from the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

24.02.2019 - London, United Kingdom - Tony Robinson

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The NPT: a big distraction from the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

In April 2019, states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will meet in New York to continue their preparations for the 2020 edition of the 5-yearly revision conference.

Hopes are not high, however, that anything will change in this forum to take the planet closer to the stated aim of facilitating “the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.[1]

Despite the great advances in past decades in bilateral agreements between the USA and the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, which have hugely reduced stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the NPT is currently paralysed, and has failed in its objectives, and it must be seriously considered if it’s even worth continuing to waste time on it.

Obviously, the NPT hasn’t been a complete failure. Although the NPT has failed to stop nuclear weapons proliferation – as four further countries have acquired nuclear weapons since entry into force in 1970 – it could have been much worse.  31 countries have nuclear power stations, all of which are producing the raw material for nuclear weapons.  For the majority of these countries though, the bargain of pursuing nuclear power in return for non-proliferation has been acceptable.

Of course, in today’s environmentally conscious world, no one thinks nuclear energy is a good idea any more, and no one would write the “inalienable right”[2] to it into a treaty if they didn’t have to.  The technology is prohibitively expensive and obsolete and the waste has to be stored for 250,000 years; a topic that is still vexing the world’s scientists today.  Furthermore no one would write a provision into a treaty that allows for peaceful uses of nuclear explosions, but the NPT has one[3].

The NPT is a product of a different moment in history and it’s time to re-evaluate whether it’s still fit for purpose.  In 1970, the UN consisted of 127 member states and has grown by over 50% since then, nuclear energy was considered a panacea for the problems of increasing global energy demands, and the world was suffering a bipolar Cold War in which two powers were fighting for global dominance.

But, the world has moved on geo-politically, technology has moved on, and the colonial mentality that was still prevalent in 1970 in which five nations felt they had the right to impose their possession of nuclear weapons on everyone else for ever has all but died.

And as a more important indicator of failure, after nearly five decades since the NPT entered into force, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists currently maintains their Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight.  We have never been closer to nuclear Armageddon than we are now.

And despite this dreadful threat to us all, the five-yearly pleas from countries without nuclear weapons – that the nuclear weapons states in the treaty must advance in disarmament and that those outside the treaty must join it – have been met with arrogant disdain and ignorance.  “The security conditions are not right,” the nuclear bullies say.  And every five years they say the same thing.

Yet there are a number of actions that nuclear weapons states could do right now which would reset the hands of the Doomsday Clock into more acceptable territory.  2000 nuclear weapons could be taken off hair-trigger alert so that instead of being capable of launching within 15 minutes of the red button being pressed, it would take hours – enough time to at least make a phone call and check that the incoming attack is not a false alarm.  Nuclear warheads could be disassembled and put into storage, and their facilities could be opened to inspections.  Nuclear weapons states could all agree to sign no-first-use policies.  The status of nuclear weapons in national security doctrines could be downgraded.  The USA could withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe.  Russia and the USA could sit down and talk about their allegations of violations of the INF Treaty and agree to salvage it and invite other major military powers to join in talks to expand it globally.

Some or all of the above could be done and every time that states with nuclear weapons fail to engage on these issues and refuse to take even the smallest measures to ease international tensions, the NPT regime dies just a little bit more.

When the Ban Treaty approach appeared with the appearance of ICAN and the inclusion in the 2010 NPT outcome document of the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences”, non-nuclear weapon states were eager to hook onto it and push in a new direction which had served so well in efforts to stigmatise and ban cluster bombs and landmines.  It’s a pity that Princess Diana didn’t live long enough to meet with Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and project their suffering into the consciousness of a new generation.

Conferences in Norway, Mexico and Austria gathered experts from the fields of medicine, law, and history, together with those who work in the field of international emergency response, and civil society organisations who bring their energy, knowledge and conviction, and this marked a turning point in nuclear disarmament conversations.

Suddenly the nuclear weapons states had lost control of the debate.  Initially they tried to prevent Norway from going ahead with the Oslo conference, but having failed to convince the Norwegian foreign minister, they took the petulant path of boycotting the conference; closing their ears to the growing body of evidence being assembled, which were echoing the words of Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

This month marks six years since that first Humanitarian Consequences Conference, and we now have a treaty that definitively prohibits nuclear weapons.  The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was approved by 122 states in 2017 and is on course to be the quickest ratified disarmament treaty in history, probably in 2020.  Thereafter states parties will meet every two years, with review conferences every 6 years.  The NPT will increasingly fall into irrelevance.

And this is not a bad thing!  We do not have to consider the NPT to be some kind of sacred object that must be preserved and revered for ever.  The TPNW is an evolution of the NPT.  The NPT, in its article VI, even forsees the need for it.  The NPT has served its purpose and is now approaching retirement.  Eventually we will look back in history and see that, although the NPT was the best first step that could be taken in 1970, by 2020, like a rapidly growing teenager, the world had outgrown its old clothes and was in need of something that fitted better.

By 2100 – if we still have a planet by then – surely the NPT will be dead; the inability to reach universality under its apartheid-inspired provisions will have finally killed it off as nations one by one withdraw from it and commit their faith to the TPNW, leaving behind only the nuclear powers as the pariah outcasts, stigmatised and out of touch with a world that has grown up a bit more than they have.

By that time, the thought of using nuclear power will be dead, and nuclear scientists, instead of building bombs and power plants, will be dedicated to discovering ways to artificially speed up the process of radioactive decay so that the world’s stockpile of nuclear waste can finally be neutralised.

Of course, the TPNW may also be dead itself by then, but this will be because it, too, has been superseded by something else in a world that is no longer based on competition and the perverse obsession of measuring economic success in terms of the human capacity to consume material goods and the speculation of financial instruments.

In that future world – let’s call it a Universal Human Nation – we will have discovered that there is no progress for anyone unless there is progress for everyone, and we will have discovered that bombs of any kind help no one except those with violent intentions, and everything we do in life will be connected to mutual cooperation and the use of nonviolence to resolve conflict.  In that world, those with violent intentions won’t be able to access any form of power that will allow them to act out their violence on others.  Instead, they will receive all the help they need in order to surpass those violent impulses that cause so much damage to others, but also, to themselves.

So, when we start to see the world not in the narrow historical context of the present moment, but rather in a historical process that has lasted and will last for millennia, and if we are able to see human beings and human society in a process of constant evolution, we will recognise that evolution also applies to international treaties.

In this context, the decline of the NPT is just a natural part of the process, and we should not be distracted by it or worry at all.  The next step of our planetary evolution, by necessity, requires the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and there will be further treaties to ban nuclear energy that haven’t yet been proposed.  And we should not be scared of letting go of something that in one moment of history felt like something sacred, because what is truly sacred is the human capacity to learn and change and adapt and overcome all the difficulties in life so that we may truly reach our full potential.


[1] Preamble to the 1970 NPT.

[2] Article IV of the NPT.

[3] Article V of the NPT.

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