18 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 12

Editorial: Which side of history?
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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Main Committee I will meet this morning to go through the most recent changes to the draft outcome text on nuclear disarmament. The latest version is the weakest yet, with some particularly troubling backward steps, replacing elimination with reductions, detonation with conflagration, and narrowing the reflection of support for initiatives and undertakings that the vast majority consider most important.

Reductions are not the new elimination. The nuclear-armed states’ apparent attempt to rewrite article VI in preambular paragraph (PP) 18 must not be accepted. The paragraph “underlines the importance of practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts for the full realization and effective implementation of article VI of the Treaty to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons, and by all States of general and complete disarmament under effective international control.”

Article VI is not about nuclear weapon reductions. It is about multilateral negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament. This revision describes nuclear disarmament as the “ultimate” goal, after general and complete disarmament (GCD), which is not how it is framed in the Treaty. GCD is explicitly decoupled from nuclear disarmament in article VI. This revision overturns the language on GCD from the First Special Session on Disarmament, language that was reconfirmed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

Given the NPT’s clear rejection of nuclear weapons and objective of the total elimination of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, it is unconscionable for the nuclear-armed states to attempt to distort reality in such a manner. The majority of states have made clear, as CARICOM did on Friday, their frustration with “the lack of meaningful progress in the implementation of disarmament commitments.” Due to the resounding call for its reinsertion, the draft outcome once again reflects the “slow pace” of nuclear disarmament.

The states that wield nuclear weapons seem to feel threatened by the continued attention to their lack of progress. The UK complained on Friday that saying disarmament has not taken place does not move the debate forward. Neither does asserting that disarmament has taken place. The insistence of the nuclear-armed states to have their stated future commitments and their declared past actions reflected in the outcome only highlights their ongoing failure to advance disarmament in any practical or meaningful way during the last review cycle. Their refusal to accept any commitments with timeframes or benchmarks in this outcome suggests they are unwilling to advance disarmament beyond this conference either.

This is why at least 84 countries (and growing) have so far endorsed the pledge issued at the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW) to pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. In this regard, Egypt, Marshall Islands, Mexico, and several others reemphasised the need for a new legally-binding instrument on nuclear weapons during Friday’s meeting. On Thursday, Thailand described the legal gap as a “factual assessment” and called for a new legal instrument. “Can we not be courageous enough to say that we will begin in earnest, FINALLY, to discuss how to address the very last weapon of mass destruction left without any legal prohibition?” asked Thailand. “This request is not propaganda, not unreasonable, not illogical, not far-fetched and in our view, very acceptable. It is long overdue and it is a responsible first step.”

Of course, the nuclear-armed states are increasingly desperate to present their counter-narrative that momentum is not building for such an instrument and that there are no legal gaps to be filled. This narrative rings hollow with other states, though, because it does not reflect reality. As Ireland noted on Friday, the view put forth by some delegations that “the current arrangement of voluntary ad hoc reductions” will “satisfy or somehow ‘keep faith’ with Article VI’s demand for effective measures for disarmament … cannot in our view be sustained.”

What governments, international organisations, and civil society have learned about the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons “has changed the parameters of our discussion forever,” declared Ireland. “That is the new reality.”

Dogmatically trying to push aside this new reality, a few delegations whose governments perceive benefit from nuclear weapons are trying to assert that effective measures can be non-legal provisions, such as unilateral measures, or that they could be constituted through the building blocks or step-by-step approach. This view has made it into the draft outcome document, but does not reflect the new reality highlighted by the 159 states supporting the joint statement on the HINW, nor those endorsing the pledge.

Ongoing attempts to downplay support for the humanitarian approach represent a submission of majority interests to those of the minority. This is unacceptable. Of the 185 non-nuclear-armed states parties to the NPT, only seven have signed neither the Austrian-led nor the Australian-led joint statements on the HINW (Albania, Bhutan, Monaco, Republic of Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). Therefore, more than 96% of NPT non-nuclear-armed states parties have shown “a growing interest … in the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons” by joining these statements. In addition, Albania, Bhutan, and the Republic of Korea have participated in all three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, while Syria and Uzbekistan participated in the Vienna conference. (Monaco and Turkmenistan participated in none of the conferences.)

The states subscribing to the two joint statements do draw different conclusions about how to address the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons. On Friday, for example, Australia declared that it is a common position that nuclear war must never occur. This of course does not reflect the position of at least 159 countries that have declared that nuclear weapons must never be used again under any circumstances. But it has been reflected in the latest MC I text, with a dangerous reference to the humanitarian impact of “nuclear conflagration” rather than simply of any detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Yet despite these differences, the common interest of 96% of non-nuclear-armed states parties in the HINW cannot be denied or degraded by the nuclear-armed states. As Brazil said, the security of all states is important, not just a few. Or as South Africa put it, what is so special about the security of the nuclear-armed states that makes it so important for them to have nuclear weapons? The overwhelming majority are concerned with the HINW. A majority are also demanding concrete and effective nuclear disarmament and have expressed frustration with the slow pace so far. These are the views that must be represented in the outcome document. If not, the minority of states parties blocking progress will only risk shining an even greater spotlight on the NPT’s history of being misused and forced into outcomes that perpetuate the status quo of nuclear injustice and discrimination.

Regardless of what any potential outcome might say in the end, though, in this final week of the Review Conference, states committed to multilateral action on nuclear weapons must hold their nerve, uphold the purpose of the humanitarian reframing of nuclear weapons that has brought so much promise, and stick together on the basis of their common pledge to fill the legal gap. It seems clear that this pledge will be what is remembered from the ninth Review Conference. For states that have not yet endorsed it, there is one week left to be amongst the states making history at this Review Conference.

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