At a time when the risk of nuclear war seems to be rising in relation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is worth highlighting two recent major events related to nuclear weapons. International conferences were held in June 2022 in Vienna and in August 2022 in New York and ended with completely opposite results. The Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), in the absence of the nuclear powers and most of their allies, adopted a substantial action plan. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference came close to adopting a relatively weak outcome document, ultimately rejected by Russia over the situation around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine. A new proof that it is indeed the nuclear powers that prevent any progress towards nuclear disarmament in favour of which they nevertheless committed themselves more than half a century ago.

By Marc Finaud*

 The Vienna Meeting: a model of international democracy

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted by 122 States at the United Nations on 7 July 2017, entered into force on 21 January 2021 and has, to date, been signed by 91 countries, 68 of which have ratified it. The first Meeting of its States Parties provided for by the treaty was held from 21 to 23 June 2022 in Vienna. While the whole process leading to the treaty had been boycotted by the nuclear powers and their allies, it is interesting to note that several NATO countries, while refusing to sign it, nevertheless participated as observers in the Meeting: Belgium, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands (all four of which host American nuclear bombs on their soil), as well as Australia (under American nuclear umbrella) and Finland and Sweden, candidates for membership in NATO. So many reasons to call the NATO front “cracked”.

In a climate of dialogue widely open to contributions from civil society, including ICAN, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the participants adopted a report containing a solemn Declaration and a substantial Action Plan. The following points can be noted:

  1. Bearing in mind the case of Russian aggression in Ukraine but not only, the participants stated that they were “alarmed and dismayed by threats to use nuclear weapons and increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric” and condemned unequivocally “any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”
  2. Indeed, “far from preserving peace and security, nuclear weapons are used as instruments of policy, linked to coercion, intimidation and heightening of tensions. This highlights now more than ever the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines, which are based and rely on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons and, hence, the risks of the destruction of countless lives, of societies, of nations, and of inflicting global catastrophic consequences.”
  3. Participants therefore “regretted” and expressed “deep concern that (…) despite the terrible risks, and despite their legal obligations and political commitments to disarm, none of the nuclear-armed states and their allies under the nuclear umbrella are taking any serious steps to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons” and that “all nuclear-armed states are spending vast sums to maintain, modernize, upgrade or expand their nuclear arsenals and are placing a greater emphasis on and increasing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines.”

In their Action Plan, the participants agreed to implement 50 measures, particularly to:

  1. Act in favour of the universality of the TPNW, by emphasizing especially the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons,
  2. Work towards the establishment of the authority provided for by the treaty to verify compliance with it, and to continue to advance the verification of nuclear disarmament,
  3. Consult with civil society and countries that have carried out nuclear tests or used nuclear weapons with a view to provide assistance to victims and remediate the environment as provided for in the treaty,
  4. Support the work of the Scientific Advisory Group provided for in the treaty and promote scientific expertise on nuclear disarmament,
  5. Promote synergy between the TPNW and the other treaties relating to nuclear weapons (NPT, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty),
  6. Promote gender equality in the implementation of the treaty.

All in all, a non-negligible result, largely due to the mobilization of both the majority of the states of the world and civil society in order to demonstrate to the proponents of nuclear deterrence the risks that they pose to all of humanity. Admittedly, it will be objected, the nuclear possessor states were absent and could not prevent the adoption of this ambitious programme. But, precisely, if they had sincerely wanted to influence this process, they could have participated in it. What happens when they are present, such as within the NPT?

The NPT Review Conference: the reign of the veto of the nuclear powers

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which came into force in 1970, provided for a review conference every five years to review its implementation. In recent years, the review conferences of 2000 and 2021 had adopted substantial final documents containing a reminder of the obligations of the treaty in its three “pillars” (non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy) as well as new advances. However, most of these commitments, like Article VI of the NPT on disarmament, had remained a dead letter. In 2015, the United States vetoed the draft final document because it opposed a conference on the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, which was rejected by Israel, a non-NPT party. The 2022 Conference, postponed twice since 2020 because of the pandemic, again saw a nuclear-weapon state, Russia, prevent consensus on a draft final document because of a paragraph recognizing the sovereignty of the Ukraine on its Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant occupied by the Russian army.

Should we conclude that, if Russia had joined the consensus, the Conference would have advanced the cause of disarmament, non-proliferation, and nuclear risk reduction? Opinions are divided and it all depends on the yardstick against which this progress would have been measured. One fact is undeniable: the different versions of the final document, initially proposed by the chairs of the Conference main committees, were, during the negotiations, emptied of several advances which appeared there, eliminated at the initiative of the nuclear powers. It is the case for:

  • The recommendation to these states to adopt the nuclear doctrine of no-first use to reduce the risk of any use of nuclear weapons. This proposal, resulting from a Working Paper presented by many NGOs, supported by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, notably came up against the activism of the UK and French delegations,
  • The idea, contained in an open letter from thousands of personalities, to set the goal of completing nuclear disarmament no later than 2045, for the 100th anniversary of the creation of the UN. Again, the nuclear powers objected to any mention of a date,
  • The reference to the Declaration and Action Plan of the Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW. The nuclear-weapon states and some NATO members dismissed it and only conceded to “acknowledge” the existence of this treaty.

If, however, we compare the final “quasi-document” of 2022 to the one that was almost adopted in 2015, we must note some progress, mainly due to the perseverance of civil society representatives at the Review Conference, ultimately discarded during the final negotiations. Thus, the most recent draft includes the following provisions which were absent in 2015:

  • The “deep concern” that the risk of use of nuclear weapons is higher than during the Cold War,
  • The “urgency” of reducing nuclear arsenals and the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines,
  • The “need” for the nuclear-weapon states to follow up with concrete actions on their declaration of 3 January 2022 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore not be fought”,
  • Satisfaction with the “increased attention” given to victim assistance and environmental remediation due to the damage caused by nuclear weapons and nuclear tests,
  • “Concern” at the threat or use of force in violation of the United Nations Charter against the territorial integrity of any state,
  • “Acknowledgment” of the nuclear risk reduction measures adopted by certain states,
  • The “concern” of the non-nuclear weapon states regarding the modernization of nuclear arsenals,
  • The call on the nuclear-weapon states to show more transparency on their arsenals and their doctrines.

All in all, even if these provisions had been adopted, the most important thing would have been that they were applied, contrary to previous commitments. The next NPT review cycle will begin in 2023 and culminate with a new Review Conference in 2026. The work done this year will, however, be useful as it will provide a solid basis for future negotiations and action by civil society, stimulated by the progress made possible thanks to the TPNW. It is already clear that the nuclear powers and their allies who cling to nuclear deterrence cannot indefinitely ignore the determination of the states and NGOs for which this policy, far from ensuring the safety of its supporters, constitutes an existential threat to the whole world.


* Associate Fellow, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), Vice President, Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaire (IDN)