Commentary / World

A U.N. milestone on the road to nuclear abolition

On May 22, Elayne Whyte Gomez, president of the United Nations conference negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, released a draft text of the convention based on the first session of the conference held from March 27 to 31. The conference will resume June 15 and conclude July 7.

The March conference was attended by 132 countries, accounting for two-thirds of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty membership. Signed in 1968, the NPT is the normative sheet anchor of global nuclear orders, from peaceful uses to nuclear safety and security, nonproliferation and disarmament. Article 6 obligates signatories to eliminate their nuclear weapons. In an advisory opinion in 1996, the World Court strengthened this by saying that the nuclear powers have the obligation not just to pursue good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament, but to bring them to a conclusion.

Yet, 21 years after the World Court’s opinion and 49 years since the NPT’s signing, there are still around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine countries: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Four of these — India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan — represent a breach of the NPT’s nonproliferation barrier. Moreover, four — China, India, North Korea and Pakistan — are still enlarging their nuclear stockpiles; North Korea is still testing nuclear weapons; and all nine are modernizing, upgrading or expanding nuclear-weapon delivery platforms.

The non-nuclear-weapon NPT countries have repeatedly called on the nuclear powers to honor the NPT disarmament obligation and abolish nuclear weapons through a legally binding treaty. Promises are made at the five-yearly NPT review conferences and then ignored or broken. Efforts by the non-nuclear countries to hold states accountable for internationally made promises have gone nowhere. Meanwhile nuclear threats have become more acute and numerous.

The combination of growing awareness of nuclear threats and rising impatience and frustration with the perceived willful obstructionism of the nuclear-armed states generated a powerful alliance of civil society activists and like-minded states rooted in humanitarian principles. They came together in a shared three-part conviction:

No country individually, nor the international system collectively, has the material and administrative capacity to cope with the humanitarian disasters that would result from a nuclear war. Even a limited regional war between India and Pakistan, for example, could over the decadelong effects on crop production and food distribution chains, kill up to 2 billion people globally. A regional war in North Asia could involve four nuclear armed countries (North Korea, China, Russia and the U.S.) plus South Korea and Japan.

It is in the interests of the very survival of humanity, therefore, that nuclear weapons are never used again.

The only guarantee of never again is the verified elimination of nuclear weapons, following the precedents of biological and chemical weapons banned by legally binding international conventions.

Accordingly, at the conclusion of the last humanitarian consequences conference in Vienna on Dec. 9, 2014, 127 of the 158 attending countries signed a humanitarian pledge “to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons” and the U.N. conference seeks to give effect to that pledge.

None of the nine nuclear-armed countries, and almost none of the many NATO and Pacific allies who shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, attended the U.N. conference, describing it as impractical, ineffective and likely to damage the NPT. Japan walked out after delivering an opening statement sharply critical of the conference, leaving the hibakusha “heartbroken.” Australia is among “the most outspoken of the non-nuclear states” in attacking the very concept of a special U.N. conference instead of the building blocks or step-by-step approach of engaging with the countries that possess nuclear weapons to reduce their stockpiles.

Curiously, the draft text requires disarmament by those who already possess nuclear weapons as a precondition of signing rather than an obligation to disarm as a result of signing. Confusingly, “proposals for further effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament, including provisions for the verified and irreversible elimination of any remaining nuclear weapon programs … may be considered” at subsequent conferences. The first meeting of states parties will be convened by the U.N. secretary-general within one year of its entry into force.

India, Israel and Pakistan could sign the treaty and acquire the same status but also the same obligations under this treaty as the NPT nuclear weapon states. At first glance, the safeguards standard required under the ban treaty to prevent clandestine diversion of nuclear materials into weapon programs also seems weaker than existing safeguards applied by the IAEA.

But in most other key respects the draft text is significantly stronger than the NPT. Four are especially noteworthy. First, it prohibits the possession of nuclear weapons for all signatories and thus avoids the creation of nuclear apartheid between those who have the bomb and others. Second, it bans the use of nuclear weapons. Third, it prohibits nuclear testing and is thus more closely aligned to the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. And fourth, it bans the stationing of nuclear weapons, so signatories would be legally required to ask for the withdrawal of all warheads stationed on their territory. This would affect NATO allies like Germany and Turkey but not any of the three Pacific allies, although it would preclude the reintroduction of U.S. tactical weapons into South Korea.

There is an odd provision in the treaty: Any party that “manufactured, possessed or otherwise acquired … nuclear explosive devices after 5 December 2001” must declare this to the U.N. secretary-general. The significance of this odd date apparently is that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine agreed to the elimination of all nuclear strategic offensive arms located in their territories seven years after the Lisbon Protocol took effect on Dec. 5, 1994.

The initial draft convention marks an important milestone in the long campaign to ban the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented. It affirms that signing it will not affect the rights and obligations of members under the NPT. Rooted in humanitarian principles, the text provides a good basis to complete negotiations of a treaty to prohibit unequivocally the acquisition, development, production, manufacture, possession, transfer, testing, extraterritorial stationing and use of nuclear weapons as major steps toward their eventual elimination. It will enter into force 90 days after the ratification of its 40th member.

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

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