24 May 2010, No. 16

Preventing a backslide
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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Friday saw the release of three new texts: the Subsidiary Body I draft action plan on nuclear disarmament; the Subsidiary Body II text on regional issues, including actions for implementing the 1995 resolution on the Middle East; and the second Main Committee III draft chair’s report. Delegations discussed the latest MCI, MCII, and MCIII texts throughout the day in the relevant committees. It became clear that while there is generally more agreement over the texts than there was a week ago, delegations have still not reached consensus. Open discussions were not held on the subsidiary body texts introduced on Friday, but both provide insights into the status of the closed deliberations.

While the measures proposed in the SBII draft, introduced on Friday by the SBII chair Ambassador Alison Kelly of Ireland, do not in themselves guarantee the realization of a nuclear or WMD free zone in the Middle East, this draft is still a move in the right direction. While it remains unclear if this draft will be met with consensus at the Review Conference, the efforts to produce this text represent the most concrete development on this issue since the adoption of the 1995 resolution. Getting the concerned states to the table to discuss relevant issues would be a beneficial confidence-building measure and could advance the broader regional peace process. A conference on its own does not necessarily solve the region’s problems, but it opens the line for direct communication between key actors. As the Middle East has been predicted to be one of the “make or break” issues of the 2010 Review Conference, those not involved in negotiations over this document sincerely hope that the delicate balance provided for in this document is acceptable to those involved.

The modifications to the SBI action plan for nuclear disarmament have strengthened it from the first revision, though the text is still significantly weaker than the first draft. While Action 6 now emphasizes that the NWS commit to “accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament” that were agreed to in 2000, toward this end they are still only called upon to “convene timely consultations” to pursue, address, discuss, and consider collective measures. Action 7 no longer uses the language from CD/1864, with its multiple caveats, when calling for the Conference on Disarmament to take up the issue, but instead simply calls for subsidiary “body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament,” reverting to agreed language from 2000. It still, unfortunately, leaves the issue for the immediate future to the currently non-functional CD, while the UN high-level meeting is still to be based (though, it does specifically note, among other things), on the outcome of the NWS consultations in Action 6, to be accomplished by the next Review Conference.

Perhaps the most interesting addition to the action plan is a new paragraph expressing its “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons,” and reaffirming “the need for all States to comply with international humanitarian law at all times.” This insertion helps to place the consideration of IHL toward the centre of the nuclear weapons discourse, as the Swiss and Norwegian delegations have been pushing for at this Review Conference. This could be a valuable tool by which to further delegitimize nuclear weapons, which will help facilitate nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

With this exception, however, the fighting over words and concepts within the committees seems to have been constrained primarily to small adjustments, with a limited view to the bigger picture. While the first draft of the SBI action plan provided for forward-looking actions, the resistance of the NWS to accept any concrete commitments to nuclear disarmament within a specified timeframe has meant that those states that do not possess nuclear weapons or include them in their security doctrines have had to fight to even keep the action plan from regressing from the one adopted in 2000. It is frustrating to see these delegations having work so vigorously to prevent a backslide from commitments made ten years ago, despite the rhetoric of a “vision of a nuclear weapon free world” espoused by most of the NWS.

On Tuesday, delegations will begin looking at the outcome document as a package. Without a doubt, they will engage in cross-committee horsetrading, selling commitments in one area to buy an advantage in another. This unfortunate zero-sum approach to the whole NPT regime gets us no closer to eliminating nuclear weapons or preventing their spread, to bringing in the states outside the Treaty, or to preventing double standards and discrimination.

What global peace and security really requires is a bigger picture win-win decision, wherein, for example, everyone commits to negotiate a legal framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons, a framework which would include the IAEA additional protocol.

Such a decision is not on the table at this Review Conference. Status quo is on the table. Fortunately, several delegations that have rejected nuclear weapons in all their aspects have been working hard to ensure progress is made, even if it is small. They are working against a harsh reality, where the actions of some NWS draw us further and further away from a world in which nuclear weapon states could be effectively eliminated. For example, the US House Armed Service Committee has approved legislation that specifies that if the US wants to pursue further reductions to the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile beyond New START, it will first have to demonstrate to Congress that “measures to modernize the nuclear weapons complex have been implemented to provide a sufficiently responsive infrastructure.”

Throughout the review cycle, there have been several calls for a new NPT grand bargain. A new bargain is not necessary. The old one, wherein NWS committed to eliminate their nuclear weapons, and so other states committed not to acquire them, is sufficient. It just needs to be implemented rather than undermined, especially by its most powerful parties.

H.R. 5136, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (Reported in House), 21 May 2010.


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