5 May 2014, Vol. 12, No. 6

Editorial: Dogma 95
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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The cracks in the NPT edifice are widening. The divide is not just over how best to achieve nuclear disarmament. It is about whether nuclear disarmament can or will be achieved at all. On the one side, nuclear-armed states and some of their allies cling dogmatically to self-serving concepts of nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. On the other side, mounting resentment from non-nuclear-armed states is fuelling consideration of innovative ways forward—in particular through a new treaty providing the framework for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Reports and statements by the nuclear-armed states’ during this PrepCom indicate a retreat from previous commitments and an entrenchment of possession. These states do not see nuclear weapons as inherently unacceptable, as UK Ambassador Rowland said openly. He argued that nuclear weapons “have helped to guarantee our security, and that of all allies, for decades.” Furthermore Ambassador Simon-Michel of France made it clear that the nuclear-armed states do not perceive the continued possession of nuclear weapons as a violation of their obligations. “Since it may only be used in extreme circumstances of self-defence,” he declared, “the French deterrent does not violate international law in any way.”

But article VI is clear. It is not about what a state may or may not do with their nuclear weapons. It is about possession. Its clear, unambiguous objective is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

As Mr. O’Reilly of Ireland pointed out, it is illogical to claim that nuclear weapons are legitimate tools of security for some states but not for others. Either the NPT is “a blueprint for wholesale weaponisation” or for achieving a nuclear weapons free world. And while some states call for a balance between the humanitarian impact and the “security dimensions” of nuclear weapons, only the elimination of nuclear weapons appropriately addresses both concerns. Nuclear disarmament is the only way to preserve the security of all over the security of a handful of states seeking to retain a position in which they threaten the rest of the world with total destruction.

Yet over four decades after the NPT entered into force, elimination is still perceived as a distant goal.

Austria, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, and Ireland, among others, critiqued the stark lack of progress reflected in the reports from the nuclear-armed states. Austria’s Ambassador Kmentt noted that the reports failed even to offer a perspective on how to facilitate negotiations on nuclear disarmament as mandated by article VI and the ICJ opinion. These countries expressed concern that no concrete work has been taken to achieve elimination.

France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with some of their allies such as Canada and the Netherlands, stressed the continued relevance of the step-by-step process and said there are no “quick fixes” for achieving nuclear disarmament. Those critiquing the current situation, though, are not looking for a quick fix. As Brazil and Egypt noted, nuclear disarmament should have been achieved within 25 years. Yet nearly 45 years after the NPT entered into force, said Ambassador Motta Pinto Coelho, “we are dealing with a world infested by some 17,000 nuclear weapons.”

Vocal dissatisfaction with this lack of progress is nothing new. This PrepCom, however, has painted a more worrying picture than previously. The failure to comply even with the simple commitments of action 5 of the 2010 NPT action plan, coupled with aggressive modernization programmes and a dismissive approach to the initiatives of other states, signals an intention to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely. 

This is provoking a new determination among many non-nuclear-armed states. They recognize that what article VI lacks is not a clear objective, but a mechanism to make it happen. This is why the demand for a new legally-binding instrument is growing. 

Opinions may yet vary on the exact nature of this instrument, but discussions at this PrepCom suggest that most states believe the most effective measure for nuclear disarmament is a new treaty—not to replace the NPT, but to help implement it. The idea of a treaty framework for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons has provided a feasible approach around which states should be able to coalesce.

“The time has come for a new diplomatic process to negotiate a legally binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons—even if the nuclear-armed states are unwilling to join such a process,” declared Ambassador Otto of Palau. Such an agreement, he argued, would devalue and stigmatize nuclear weapons, put them on the same footing as chemical and biological weapons, and help achieve their elimination.

The nuclear-armed states, for their part, treat this position as impractical. Ambassador Simon-Michel described it as “dogmatic,” arguing that recent initiatives undermine the NPT review process, disregard the “real strategic context,” and “turn away from concrete measures.”

In reality, of course, it is the nuclear-armed states’ insistence on preserving their nuclear arsenals and justifying this on the basis of theories of “deterrence” and “strategic stability” that is dogmatic. They discuss these concepts as if they were facts and refuse to acknowledge the true implications of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. They assert their full compliance with article VI despite having never engaged in negotiations for nuclear disarmament and while continuing to modernize their arsenals.

The accusation that new initiatives undermine the NPT has been heard ad nauseum since Norway announced the first conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This accusation has been leveled against the open-ended working group and the high-level meeting—even though both were embraced by a majority of UN member states. How can initiatives designed to foster multilateral discussion on nuclear weapons undermine the NPT? How could a treaty prohibiting and seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons challenge a Treaty that itself shares that goal?

The accusation of disregarding the “real strategic context” is equally dogmatic. “The right political and security conditions for an outright ban on nuclear weapons do not yet exist,” argued Ambassador Rowland. The conditions specified for elimination vary among the nuclear-armed states, but they will be very difficult to achieve, especially all at once. And as Mr. O’Reilly firmly explained, the conditions for nuclear disarmament were put in place on 5 May 1970 when the NPT entered into force. There is no conditionality or exceptions written into the Treaty’s disarmament obligations. Furthermore, he argued, “refusing even to countenance the possibility of prohibition will almost certainly guarantee that these weapons will never be eliminated.”

The dogmatic nature of the nuclear-armed states’ engagement on nuclear disarmament perhaps developed most strongly after the indefinite extension of the Treaty in 1995. Since then, it seems that the worst fears of the non-nuclear-armed states have come true—indefinite extension of the NPT has been interpreted as allowing indefinite possession of nuclear weapons.

Now, some nuclear-armed and allied states seek indefinite extension of the 2010 action plan. Several non-nuclear armed states have objected to this, arguing that rolling over the action plan will further undermine the NPT’s credibility and prevent the pursuit of concrete initiatives for nuclear disarmament.

This is the central issue for the rest of this NPT review cycle: whether states parties will allow countries possessing or relying upon nuclear weapons to dictate the pace and direction of nuclear weapons-related initiatives, or whether they will take action against the imbalanced, unjust, and untenable system of nuclear weapon possession.

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