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Link nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts

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Visiting Hiroshima or Nagasaki on the anniversary of the atomic bombings of the two cities is always a moving experience. To be present in Hiroshima on the 70th anniversary of the twin tragedies was especially poignant.

The Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (APLN) and the Hiroshima Round Table share the vision of a world freed of the threat or use — and the very existence — of nuclear weapons. There is also some overlap of personnel in the two groups. This year the APLN (whose secretariat I head) and the Hiroshima Round Table decided to hold back-to-back sequential meetings in order to facilitate members of one group being able to observe the proceedings and discussions of the other, to mutual benefit. The discussions began on Aug. 7 and concluded on Aug. 9. About 10 overseas guests were able to attend the commemoration ceremony on Aug. 6 and all participants paused to observe a minute’s silence at 11.02 a.m. on Aug. 9.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation agenda in the aftermath of the failure of the ninth review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York in April-May.

The name of the NPT notwithstanding, starting with the treaty itself, there is an inalienable and symbiotic link between nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. The NPT has been most successful in facilitating and underwriting the international trade in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, not just for power generation, but also for applications in agriculture, medicine and so on. It has also been more successful than might have been anticipated by most reasonable analysts at inception, in inhibiting and curbing nonproliferation, with only nine countries known to have nuclear weapons today (Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States).

That said, the nuclear disarmament stalemate — which was one of the triggers for the collapse of the NPT conference — is now imperiling the entire NPT edifice. The key policy challenge, therefore, is how to protect and preserve the political gains and security benefits of the NPT, while also working around it to inject momentum into the disarmament process leading to total abolition of all nuclear weapons.

The two biggest nonproliferation challenges of the past decade or two have been Iran and North Korea. The merits of last month’s Iran nuclear deal include the complete closure of the plutonium pathway to the bomb, the severe narrowing of the uranium pathway, a robust transparency, inspections and consequences regime to deter, catch and punish any attempt at cheating, and the lack of any realistic alternatives. Threats of force are not credible and sanctions had imposed costs but not halted Iran’s advancing capability.

This triumph of diplomacy would have been far more difficult without the NPT. Yet the negotiations and the deal also betray the problematical elements of the NPT. First, among the P5+1 countries that negotiated with Iran — whose nuclear weapon stockpile is zero — the five (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and U.S.) have more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and Germany has over 100 NATO nuclear bombs stationed on its territory.

The only lawful enforcement agency is the U.N. Security Council whose five permanent members (P5) are the five NPT nuclear powers. The global double standards is reinforced by regional hypocrisy, in that all sides stayed studiously silent on Israel’s bombs.

With North Korea, the nonproliferation agenda translates into the demand to freeze existing capability: no more tests, warheads, missiles and proliferation to others. The disarmament agenda would see North Korea’s nuclear arsenal cut back and eliminated.

For nonproliferation, the key external actor is China. The world has moved past the point where it expects China merely to cooperate with the international community in confronting the North Korean challenge. Instead, Beijing has to assume the lead responsibility on behalf of the international community on this issue.

For disarmament, however, it is hard to visualize the circumstances in which any one of the nine nuclear-armed countries will accept unilateral disarmament. It might be more productive to focus instead on global disarmament through nuclear abolition that includes all nine.

Similar linkages can be shown with other parts of the nonproliferation regime. A fissile materials cutoff treaty (FMCT), for example, addresses only nonproliferation if it is limited to ending any future growth in fissile materials stocks, as has been the dominant proposal. But if the FMCT is to include destruction of existing stocks, as demanded by Pakistan on pain of vetoing commencement of negotiations otherwise, it trips over into actual disarmament and that is why the demand is rejected by the other nuclear powers.

The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty is a purely nonproliferation measure. It is a legal oddity: the CTBT is operational but not legally in force because eight of the 44 countries required under its annex are still not party to it. One can question whether the unique entry-into-force formula was designed to make the CTBT robust and effective or to intentionally frustrate its coming into force.

One can also ask: In the foreseeable future, is it realistic to expect signature and ratification by all eight holdouts — including China, India, U.S.? Or would it in fact be easier to change the formula and bring it into force legally for the overwhelming majority of countries? The latter might be the one constructive proposal that the Group of Eminent Persons could make in regard to the CTBT; anything else is likely to be unrealistic exhortation.

But the biggest elephant in the nonproliferation room is nuclear disarmament. This is the issue on which the NPT review conference mainly collapsed, through two manifestations. At the regional level, the proposal for a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction foundered largely because Arab countries pushed it as a means of denuclearizing Israel by stealth, while the U.S. and U.K. rejected it as premature in order to protect Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Globally, more and more countries are coming around to the conclusion that the NPT is being used cynically by the nuclear powers not to advance but to frustrate disarmament.

This is why around 160 countries are more attracted to the humanitarian impacts initiative with its bold assertion that it is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances; and that the only guarantee of non-use is non-existence of the weapons. In other words although an extremely valuable anchor of the present global nuclear order, the NPT may have reached the limit of its potential and exhausted its normative capacity.

Over 100 countries pledged at last year’s U.N. General Assembly to take effective action to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons. Consistent with that, the APLN Hiroshima Declaration, noting that the NPT “has failed to make progress toward nuclear disarmament,” called for “like-minded states” to negotiate “a simple, normatively powerful Use Ban Convention that prohibits any use of nuclear weapons by any state or non-state actor under any circumstances.”

Even if nuclear-armed states do not join initially, such a convention “would be an important educational and advocacy vehicle for governments and civil society organizations.”

But the final goal remains a comprehensive and universal Nuclear Weapons Convention backed by effective verification and enforcement.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University. His most recent book is “Nuclear Weapons and International Security” (2015).