8 May 2014, Vol. 12, No. 9

Editorial: The imperative of progress
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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The draft recommendations to the 2015 NPT Review Conference released today by the Chair of the PrepCom fall woefully short of a credible plan to address the continued existence of nuclear weapons. While some of the recommendations move beyond the 2010 NPT action plan, a much bolder vision is necessary at this crucial stage. Action that supports the negotiation of a treaty to facilitate implementation of article VI, as demanded by a growing number of states parties, will be necessary to sustain the NPT’s credibility and to achieve its objectives.

The recommendations on disarmament ask the 2015 RevCon to take stock of the national reports and working papers that outline the nuclear-armed states’ fulfillment (or not) of their commitments from 2010. It also suggests that the RevCon should encourage more detailed and specific reports.

These reports, however, are unacceptable and have already received criticism from many quarters. The nuclear-armed states should have reported to the 2014 PrepCom on their efforts to implement action 5 of the 2010 action plan. Instead, their reports rehash previously released information about the status of their arsenals and other nuclear weapons related activities, none of which actually address their obligations under action 5. As for a standard reporting form as per action 21, the nuclear-armed states actually only got as far as a table of contents. There is no consistency in terms of substance or level of detail.

This PrepCom had a mandate to review the progress that nuclear-armed states had made on action 5 and to make recommendations to the RevCon about next steps. But the only such recommendations contained in the draft basically repeat those contained in the 2010 action plan. Consistency with the NPT, ceasing modernization or new development, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, and taking note of the UN Secretary-General’s five-point plan were all steps agreed upon in 2010. None have been implemented.

The draft contains a few new or updated items that build upon and strengthen the 2010 action plan. It suggests that nuclear-armed states accelerate the implementation of their unequivocal undertaking for disarmament. It suggests the same for the implementation of concrete and measurable steps to reduce the alert status of nuclear weapon systems and to reduce the risk of their accidental use. It calls for “prompt and full” implementation of any remaining commitments from 2010, especially action 5 and it recommends agreed timelines for their completion.

Timelines were the biggest challenge in 2010. The nuclear-armed states consistently and systematically resisted all attempts to set deadlines for their responsibilities. A key challenge for article VI has been the lack of measurable, time-bound commitments. Achieving an agreed timeline in 2015 would be an important achievement—but this should be for article VI of the 1968 treaty, not for action 5 of the 2010 action plan.

The only other novel language in the draft recommends that the RevCon “further consider the devastation that would be visited upon all humankind by any use of nuclear weapons”. It also asks the meeting to note that there is no competent international capacity to address the resulting catastrophic humanitarian consequences. In so doing, the draft rightly reflects the key finding from the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. But it fails even to take note of either of these conferences, despite the fact that a vast majority of NPT state parties participated in them.

Instead, the draft reverts to the decades-old “step-by-step” process. As the recent report by Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 on A treaty banning nuclear weapons sets out, continued insistence on the step-by-step approach is problematic. It prevents progress, especially when lack of agreement on one step is used as pretext for no progress at all. It also serves to legitimize the continued possession of nuclear weapons in the meantime.

Rather than insisting on the same deadlocked “step-by-step” agenda, bolder action is urgently needed. A growing number of states have called for the development of a new legal instrument to implement article VI. A number have suggested a framework treaty prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons as the most practical, feasible, and meaningful way forward in the current context. Embarking on a process to develop a treaty banning nuclear weapons would not prevent or compete with continued work on other aspects of the established disarmament and arms control agenda. As the RCW/A36 paper notes, “It might even help to unlock some of the impasses that have appeared so intractable in the recent past by motivating states to take action and demonstrating that progress is in fact possible.” Crucially though, it would also change the context in which nuclear weapons exist, reducing both incentives and capacities for their continued existence and facilitating their elimination.

The 2015 Review Conference will be a turning point for the NPT. Will states parties continue to accept opaque transparency, a retreat from the unequivocal undertaking, aggressive modernization of nuclear arsenals, and straightforward refusals to negotiate nuclear disarmament? Or will those that are committed to the imperative of nuclear disarmament exercise greater political agency to begin negotiating a ban treaty as the next step towards a nuclear weapons free world?

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