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NPT News in Review, Vol. 16, No. 7

Editorial: Courage and possibility
10 May 2019


 Ray Acheson 

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Standing up to bullies is always hard. It takes courage and resilience. This week, Ambassador Syed Hussin of Malaysia and his team demonstrated this in spades. They listened to vehement criticisms from nuclear-armed states for the revised draft recommendations. The United States and France in particular accused the Chair of moving away from consensus and including elements in the recommendations that “undermine the NPT”. But rather than caving to pressure, the Chair simply turned the recommendations into a working paper. This will be forwarded to the 2020 Review Conference and can provide a basis of work there if states want.

The majority of states taking the floor made it clear that this is exactly what they want. For most delegations, the revised draft is the most balanced NPT document they have seen since 2010. It actually reflects the views of the entire membership of the NPT rather than just the nuclear-armed and nuclear-endorsing states parties. Standing by these recommendations rather than watering them down to appease the vocal minority was a revolutionary act, one that should give heart to the international community at a time when belligerence and bullying are the tune of the day.

“Balance is in the eye of the beholder,” noted the Singapore delegation in defence of the second draft, arguing that a document that reflects the majority view is balanced. The Netherlands, on the other hand, conflated the issue of balance and consensus, arguing that consensus means agreement by all, not the opinion of many or even the majority. As we have said before, consensus can be a useful process to help bring divergent positions together over time through deliberation and dialogue. But through practice at many UN forums it has turned into the equivalence of absolute unanimity, typically around the lowest common denominator. Consensus has been turned into a veto, into the ability of one state to prevent action on an issue of importance to 192 other states. 

Perhaps having over the years engrained this approach into their own sense of process, a number of nuclear weapon-endorsing states such as Australia, the Baltic states, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Republic of Korea undertook to protect the nuclear-armed states’ position against the revised recommendations. Using very similar language to each other, they said the draft “drifted away from consensus”. Several of these delegations admitted that the second draft improved the text related to some of their key priority issues, including risk reduction, transparency and reporting, gender, and more. Yet they asked the Chair to revert to his first draft—which would mean forsaking these improvements—because the second draft was further away from the US, UK, and French positions. It seems that these countries could have negotiated in good faith with the rest of the Treaty’s membership over issues of remaining concern to their delegation, were it not for the massive nuclear-armed elephant in the room. If they did not feel that they had to protect or actively promote the radical extremist view that every nuclear disarmament agreement made in the NPT context for the past fifty years is no longer relevant because of the “security environment,” they could probably have accepted the second draft recommendations with perhaps a few adjustments on a few issues.

It certainly seemed possible for delegations that felt uncomfortable with all of the revisions to the draft recommendations to nevertheless support the efforts of the Chair without demanding he revert to the earlier draft. Canada, for example, thanked the Chair for reflecting the views of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, of which it is a member, on some issues. While the Canadian ambassador noted that there are some problematic elements for her delegation in the new draft, she also expressed her appreciation for the Chair’s efforts to articulate where there is common ground. Both Australia and Canada argued that the discussions during this PrepCom have demonstrated where negotiations are possible, which is useful for the 2020 Review Conference. 

This was the theme of the Chair’s reflections on the PrepCom, which he published on Friday morning. He argued that there is more convergence than divergence in states parties’ views, including their conviction of the NPT’s importance and relevance. He urged states to move away from entrenched positions and to keep an open mind in order to avoid deadlock. This is a key message. But the persistent challenge, which has only grown throughout the past two review cycles, is the refusal of states that believe in their right to possess nuclear weapons or include them in their security doctrines to be willing to change this position. This position is anathema to the NPT itself, especially to its objectives and obligations of averting the danger of nuclear war, ending the nuclear arms race, and achieving the total elimination of nuclear weapons. It is the primary reason why the NPT has not yet been fully implemented, nearly fifty years after its entry into force. And it will be the critical sticking point once again in 2020 unless the nuclear-armed and nuclear-enabling states begin to comply with international law, which stands firmly against nuclear weapons. 

The rest of the world has a stake in this—but also a say. Just as the majority of governments, working with activists and the Red Cross, demonstrated by banning nuclear weapons, we are not beholden to power. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change,” said Angela Davis. “I am changing the things I cannot accept.” This is the spirit in which non-nuclear-armed states parties need to approach the 2020 Review Conference: a spirit that builds on the courage of the Malaysians to issue a balanced document at this PrepCom, a spirit that honours the work that so many have done over so many years to protect future generations from the scourge of nuclear war. Regardless of what we think is possible next year, we have the duty, and the right, to try to achieve that to which we have all agreed: total nuclear disarmament.

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