NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 2

Editorial: Ending la doctrina de la muerte
4 August 2022

Ray Acheson 

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For most of the first week of the Tenth Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, delegations engaged in a general exchange of views, offering a snapshot of concerns and priorities to guide the work ahead. Unsurprisingly, the key message from most participants was one of grave concern about the viability of the NPT amidst multiple challenges, the most notable of which are the failure of the nuclear-armed states to comply with their nuclear disarmament obligations, massive investments in nuclear weapon modernisation and arsenal expansion, and Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukrainian and threats to use nuclear weapons. “The arms control infrastructure that kept nuclear weapons in their silos during the Cold War has frayed,” noted Lebanon, while Ghana said, “We are witnessing a slow-moving nuclear wreck ready to happen if we do not act now.”

But even against this bleak backdrop, most NPT states parties expressed a clear determination to achieve a successful outcome from this Review Conference—and fulfilment of the Treaty’s objectives and obligations. From demanding nuclear disarmament to setting out an intersectional approach for assessing nuclear harms and increasing diversity, states parties have advanced a sound framework for a progressive, meaningful outcome of this meeting. But it is up all states parties to utilise these ideas and do what is necessary to preserve the Treaty—and protect the planet.

Perpetual nuclear danger

Both the NPT Review Conference President, Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen, and United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres noted that current nuclear dangers are as high as they were during the peak of the Cold War. “Humanity is in danger of forgetting the lessons forged in the terrifying fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” warned the UNSG. “Distrust has replaced dialogue. Disunity has replaced disarmament.” New Zealand said despite the NPT, “we seem as far as ever from a world without nuclear weapons, and in real danger of moving backwards.”

Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine, along with its threats to use nuclear weapons and its dangerous occupation of nuclear power plants, unmask the reality of the inherent dangers of nuclear technology. For decades, the vast majority of NPT states parties have said over and over again that these weapons pose a threat to humanity and the planet, while the nuclear-armed states have claimed to be “responsible” actors that only keep these weapons for “deterrence,” as if this is a benign policy with no real tangible effects.

With a “not all nuclear-armed states” vibe, the United States (US) and France even tried to assert that this Russia’s behaviour isn’t “their deterrence”. The US argued, without any apparent irony, “There is no place in our world … for nuclear deterrence based on coercion, intimidation, or blackmail.” France, also without irony, stated that nuclear weapons must not be used as tools of intimidation, coercion, or destabilisation. It said that what we are seeing in Ukraine is the implementation by Russia of a strategy of intimidation and coercion, and that this is not what France calls deterrence.

But deterrence, or strategic stability, or any other policies that fall short of disarmament, are not benign policies without consequences. Any policy that perpetuates the continued possession, development, modernisation, and deployment of nuclear weapons is a policy that contributes to resources wasted, their eventual use, to coercion and oppression, and potentially to the end of us all. As Austria noted, nuclear deterrence doctrines are necessarily based on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons. Any attempt to distinguish between “irresponsible” and “responsible" nuclear threats is highly questionable and logically inconsistent.

“Let’s be clear: Mutually assured destruction is no assurance of peace,” said Fiji. “Ask every victim of conflict anywhere in the world about the false peace these weapons promise. Yes, we have seen no mushroom clouds, but we have seen relentless destruction and devastation—cities like Aleppo and Mariupol levelled to the ground.” Peace, argued Fiji, “is not forged at the end of a rifle or within the sights of a missile –– it comes from understanding, it comes from equality, and it comes from opportunity.”

The complexities of compliance

The world does not need nuclear weapons to survive, said the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS). “Nuclear weapons are nemesis to all,” including those that possess them. Thus, New Zealand argued, “Progress on disarmament cannot be deferred any longer, whatever other challenges we are facing nationally, regionally or as an international community.”

The US delegation did acknowledge that “any country that asks others to reject the pursuit of nuclear weapons also has to be willing to reduce—and eventually, eliminate—their own stockpiles of nuclear weapons,” and said it will “continue to implement, to the fullest extent possible, the commitments contained in the final documents of previous NPT Review Conferences.” Many nuclear-supportive allies also said they shared the “ultimate goal” of a nuclear weapon free world and outlined the incremental measures they see as practical right now.

Of course, what the countries that promote nuclear weapons consider possible is not what the rest of the world sees as possible, or feasible, or urgently needly. Furthermore, their claims to comply with the NPT do not match the reality of their performance. As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)’s recent legal analysis of US compliance with the NPT sets out, for example, the United States has failed to comply with its international legal obligations to prohibit the transfer of nuclear weapons to any recipient, and to pursue negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament. It has also engaged in conduct that might assist a non-nuclear-armed state to acquire nuclear weapons in the future.

ICAN’s assessments of the other NPT nuclear-armed states parties indicates that all these states are in non-compliance with the Treaty. They are spending billions of dollars every year on nuclear weapons. They are all modernising their nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and in some cases increasing the size of their arsenals or expanding their nuclear weapon facilities—all while refusing to engage in multilateral negotiations for, let alone achieve, nuclear disarmament as they legally obligated to do under the NPT. This was affirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1996, when it unanimously agreed that the legal obligation in Article VI of the NPT “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” goes beyond that of a mere obligation of conduct negotiations, emphasising that “the obligation involved here is an obligation to achieve a precise result—nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.”

Countless delegations pointed out the nuclear-armed states’ non-compliance with Article VI during the general exchange of views. As South Africa noted, the “reinterpretation, backtracking, and complete abandonment” of past NPT commitments “reflect a lack of integrity and disrespect for the NPT process.” It also argued that nuclear-supportive states “exacerbate the situation with their continued advocacy of the benefits of deterrence” and encouragement of the ongoing possession of nuclear weapons. “Any justifications for retaining such weapons amounts to proliferation and purposely undermining the very Treaty that they claim to uphold,” said South Africa.

During the past few months, three NPT non-nuclear-armed states parties have increased their support for nuclear weapons. As ICAN has noted, Belarus has offered to host Russian nuclear weapons, while Sweden and Finland have indicated that they now support these weapons of mass destruction as a crucial part of their security policy and would be willing to participate in using them as part of their of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership applications.

The thing that all these countries have in common—the nuclear-armed states, the members of NATO, and other nuclear-supportive allies—is that they assert the value of nuclear weapons to provide for their security. In doing so, they create the very conditions they claim to be trying to avoid: global and insecurity and incentives for proliferation. They all claim the international security environment is not “ripe” for nuclear disarmament, but in their actions and policies they contribute to the deterioration of this environment, lending to the profits of the military-industrial complex and the perceived power of a handful of governments, while putting the entire world in peril.

“The notion that nuclear disarmament would rather emanate from the attainment of international peace is, in our view, delusional,” said Ghana. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat posed by accidental or intentional use will persist and progress towards international peace and security will be beset with setbacks.”

Nuclear harms

The failure to disarm has grave implications. Billions of dollars are spent every year on nuclear weapons, which countless delegations condemned, especially while the world is ravaged by the climate crisis, a global pandemic, and vasty inequalities and poverty. Meanwhile, people are still suffering from the legacy of the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons, as well as past testing and use.

“Today our people and communities continue to bear the burden of the transboundary and intergenerational devastation left behind by nuclear testing and radioactive contamination,” noted the PSIDS. The grave humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, highlighted by many delegations during the general debate, are not historical remnants. They are experienced around the world every day. As Fiji noted:

Generations of Pacific Islanders have waited in vain for an apology; for health support; for reassurances that there will be no repeat of testing, for reassurances that there will be no waste disposal; and for reaffirmations that nuclear weapons will never be deployed in the Blue Pacific again. Mothers of deformed babies in the Marshall Islands, have waited. Families in French Polynesia who have lost loved ones too soon, have waited. We are still waiting. And we look to this 10th review for greater commitment –– far greater commitment –– by all countries to show us that they are taking actions to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.”

It is, as Austria and Palestine said, the survivors of nuclear use and testing that must guide the work of this Review Conference to make real progress for disarmament. “What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did unfortunately not stop the nuclear weapons race but rather accelerated it,” lamented Palestine. “May the memory of the victims and the suffering of the survivors finally guide us on a wiser path, away from such horrors, such disregard for life and law, for morality and humanity.”

To this end, Chile observed with hope “the awakening of a new generation that has been committed to replacing the doctrine of death with a culture of coexistence based on common humanitarian values that do not tolerate the possession of any category of weapons of destruction massive.” Part of this new doctrine of humanitarian disarmament is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the entry into force of which dozens of delegations welcomed in their opening remarks to the NPT Review Conference. The TPNW, which adopted a bold Declaration and Action Plan at its First Meeting of States Parties in June 2022, is already changing the legal, political, economic, and cultural nuclear landscape.

Costa Rica noted that the TPNW “was born of our belief in the capacities for international law to effect meaningful and substantial change.” Many delegations highlighted the contributions the TPNW has made in this respect, including, as Liechtenstein said, strengthening the NPT framework in defining new and concrete perspectives for nuclear disarmament, thus helping implement obligations contained in Article VI.

One of the key contributions that the TPNW has made to the wider field of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is to challenge the idea of who gets to participate, who gets to be heard, and who is taken seriously as “credible” in space traditionally dominated by a very narrow, highly gendered, and racialised space. As Costa Rica noted, the TPNW stands in contrast to previous instruments and fora that had largely excluded or “tokenized” diversity, including the NPT. The TPNW holds up a mirror to the ways in which traditional narratives of power exclude and undermine women and people of diverse and marginalised genders, said Costa Rica. However, it also affirmed that greater awareness must translate into effective and thoughtful inclusion that drives action beyond simply increasing the numbers of women or other marginalised groups in nuclear disarmament spaces:

It is only when we make room for, or have women insist upon their voices being heard, that it will be possible for women to begin to change the systems and the structures of power that have cost us our safety for generations. The goal of gender mainstreaming is to avoid making gender an ‘add-on’ by insisting that every aspect of a given activity, such as peace or disarmament negotiations or post conflict operations, be assessed for its gender implications. It is high time for the NPT to recognize women and girls as equitable partners in international relations and nuclear security. Taking a progressive approach to gender and inclusion will drive forward nuclear disarmament that is our goal.

The example set by the TPNW seems to be influencing the thinking of some NPT states parties. In a joint statement on Gender, Diversity, and Inclusivity, 67 states set out their recognition that “the intersections of race, gender, economic status, geography, nationality, and other factors must be taken into account as risk-multiplying factors” in relation to nuclear weapons. It also highlighted that nuclear weapons have different effects on different demographics as evidenced in studies with survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing, and recommended various ways to address both the impacts of nuclear weapons and participation in work for disarmament and non-proliferation.

While still largely focusing on increasing a women’s participation in a binary and non-intersectional way, the statement does recognise that “for women and other underrepresented groups, there must not only be a seat at the table, but also real opportunities to shape conversations, policies, and outcomes.” Despite this statement, it should be noted, on a binary calculation of statements delivered to this Review Conference’s general exchange of views, only 28 of 132 statements were delivered by women (21 per cent).

Boldness for a brave new world

NPT states parties need to embrace these perspectives and broader, more diverse, and inclusive participation. To prevent a failed Review Conference, as well as even more structural damage to the NPT, states parties need to fundamentally change the approach to concluding their outcome document. The time for nuclear-armed states to dictate the outcome according to their own interests, or to decide which obligations are worthy of compliance, is long past. As shown through the TPNW, and through the growing support for new voices and perspectives, the games of “great power politics” can have no place in our world today—especially if we expect to survive.

As Austria said, “We are at a threshold moment: We are on track towards a nuclear arms race dynamic and much increased proliferation pressures, with dramatic negative effects for international security.” The alternative is to “turn the ship around,” by returning to nuclear disarmament and away from the belief in a nuclear weapons-based security approach. While the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have shown other vectors of existential threat, “The difference between these two and nuclear weapons is that we have the chance to act preemptively by removing the nuclear threat altogether,” as Austria additionally pointed out. “As is the case with all these crucial issues, we can only find solutions by acting together and in the interest of humanity and of our common security. We owe it to the survivors of nuclear use and testing and to future generations that we use this conference to make real progress.”

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