NPT shows signs of fraying

by Ramesh Thakur

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the latest Cold War era pillar of global order to show signs of fraying and no longer being capable of coping with contemporary challenges. The ninth NPT five-yearly review conference, after four weeks of deliberations and negotiations, ended in acrimony on Friday instead of with a consensus document.

Although regrettable, this was not unexpected. For one thing, based on historical cycles, the 2000 conference was a success, 2005 was a failure, 2010 a success, and so the failure of the 2015 conference fits the pattern of alternating success and failure every five years. For another, the mood of optimism from 2010 had been steadily fading and had given way to outright pessimism by the end of last year, with tensions over Ukraine renewing interest in the role of nuclear weapons, no end to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, growing arsenals in all the Asian nuclear armed states, no sign of a Mideast conference on creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) as called for by the 2010 conference, and even the November deadline for a deal on Iran having been missed.

The framework agreement on Iran in early April set the scene for a marginally more optimistic start to the conference in late April but not, evidently, sufficient to overcome the serious clash of interests, values and perspectives. Two issues proved particularly contentious.

The first was that of a Middle East NWFZ. On the one hand, the Western powers led by the United States and United Kingdom are extremely naive in believing that Israel can be shielded permanently from scrutiny of its undeclared nuclear arsenal but any other regional power can be stopped, by force if necessary, from getting the bomb.

On the other hand, Egypt — claiming to represent the Arab bloc — was disingenuous in trying to use a NWFZ as a means of achieving Israeli nuclear disarmament by stealth. All NWFZs ratify an existing nuclear-weapon-free status. None compares with the Middle East where one country already has the bomb, is not recognized by some neighbors, and faces threats of destruction from some. The entire region has also been in extraordinary upheaval from an Arab spring of hope that mutated into a winter of discontent.

The second unbridgeable divide was that between the five nuclear powers and the others. The NPT reflected several bargains, including a promise by those with nuclear weapons to negotiate their elimination in return for those without agreeing to renounce the option forever. Of the 128,000 bombs to have been built since 1945, 98 percent have been by Moscow and Washington. There are still some 16,400 weapons held by nine countries, with Russia and the U.S. accounting for 15,300 of the global stockpile. All nine are busy modernizing and upgrading, and not one has given credible evidence of abandoning the nuclear weapons option. Their resistance to any benchmarked and timetabled calendar of denuclearization leaves others singularly unimpressed by self-congratulatory proclamations of remarkable progress in meeting NPT commitments.

The obvious question that arises is: Is the NPT still fit for purpose or has its shelf life expired? If it has passed its use by date, how can we manage the transition to a post-NPT world without endangering the global nuclear order that is firmly anchored in the NPT, and what might a post-NPT order look like?

The NPT indeed suffers from many shortcomings. Crucially, four of the nine nuclear-armed countries are not NPT members, producing a substantial gap in its core business. Former Canadian disarmament ambassador Paul Meyer, now with the Simons Foundation in Vancouver, catalogs other NPT shortcomings with respect to the division between haves and have-nots, the corrosive effects of violations that go unpunished, and reporting and institutional deficits (a five yearly review conference is not much of an institution to undergird the regime).

An important clue to the answer on the post-NPT order lies in the humanitarian impacts statement. Three conferences have been held on this topic in the last three years, in Norway, Mexico and Austria. The numbers of governments and civil society supporting the movement has snowballed, with 159 countries subscribing to the statement at the review conference. Its essence can be distilled into three propositions:

1. Neither any country individually, nor the international system collectively including international organizations, have the capacity to cope with the humanitarian consequences of any nuclear war;

2. It is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances;

3. The only guarantee of non-use of nuclear weapons again is their complete elimination.

Bearing these three propositions in mind, concerned governments and civil society representatives will likely now look to independent initiatives outside the NPT framework. One option would be to remain silent on the nuclear arsenals but ban any use of nuclear weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, on the grounds that any use would violate the very core of international humanitarian law.

A second would be to ban the possession as well as use. Following the precedent of the Ottawa convention banning anti-personnel land mines, this could be done by the overwhelming majority of non-nuclear countries acting on their own as a powerful means of entrenching the anti-nuclear weapon norm. That is, although not legally binding on non-signatories, it would erect a powerful normative barrier and delegitimize the possession of nuclear weapons by everyone, thereby ending what has always been one of the most troubling aspects of the NPT, namely a world of nuclear apartheid.

The third, potentially the best but in practice the most challenging option to aim for, would be the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention (NWC) to take its place alongside the companion conventions banning biological and chemical weapons. It is worth noting that the chemical weapons convention (CWC) in particular has been an outstanding success. The CWC was signed in 1993 and came into effect in 1997 and its implementing organization has seen the destruction of 85 percent of the world’s chemical weapons stockpile. In other words, 18 years after its entry into force, the dismantlement agenda is still not complete but the multilateral convention is universally acknowledged as having been a great success. By contrast all the progress in reducing nuclear arsenals has resulted from unilateral actions and bilateral agreements.

A NWC could follow the same route: negotiate, draft and sign a universal, binding, verifiable and enforceable convention; establish an implementing agency and verification machinery; and then oversee the dismantlement of all existing nuclear weapon stockpiles with an emphasis on safety and verified destruction, no matter how much longer the process takes after the entry into force of the NWC.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.