NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 3

Editorial: Actions Create Conditions
6 August 2022

Ray Acheson 

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This edition of the NPT News in Review focuses largely on the work of Main Committee I, which is the NPT Review Conference’s body for deliberations and the production of recommendations on nuclear disarmament for the RevCon outcome. It also has a Subsidiary Body to focus on specific issues, which will start convening next week, but the meetings of this body are closed to civil society. Main Committee II, on non-proliferation, and Main Committee II, on other uses of nuclear technology, will commence their work next week.

The volatile landscape of dangerous nuclear rhetoric, ongoing modernisation and arms racing, and threats of spreading nuclear doctrines and weapons to new countries cast a dark shadow over the first two days of work in Main Committee I. So did renewed attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine on Friday, for which Russia and Ukraine accused each other of being responsible. Two days before, the International Atomic Energy Ageny (IAEA) Director General warned that the situation at the plant is “out of control”. The risk of nuclear catastrophe, whether through damage at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant or through the use of nuclear weapons, is horrifyingly high as this Review Conference convenes.

Of course, the work of Main Committee I and the implementation of the NPT itself has long been undermined by the refusal of the nuclear-armed states to comply with their legal obligations for nuclear disarmament. But the new landscape makes the Committee’s work even more difficult—and even more urgent. It is imperative for the Committee, and the RevCon as a whole, to adopt meaningful, timebound commitments to put an end to nuclear weapon modernisation and arms racing and ensure the total elimination of nuclear weapon programmes. The Conference must reaffirm past commitments and insist on their full implementation, but also go further to create new mechanisms for nuclear disarmament, condemn nuclear threats, recognise the catastrophic humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, welcome the contributions for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and more.

The security catch-22

The main challenge to meeting any of these goals is the five nuclear-armed states religious devotion to their nuclear weapons, and their unrelenting commitment to the “great power” competition of what should be a bygone era. In this context, the five continue to create the conditions for nuclear war, rather than nuclear disarmament.

As a justification for its decision to the cap of its nuclear arsenal, the United Kingdom said, “we cannot escape the fact that the international security environment has deteriorated significantly since 2015.” It, and all the other nuclear-armed states, acknowledged many of the same factors lending to this deterioration as those highlighted by non-nuclear-armed states.

The key difference is that while the nuclear-armed states use the “security situation” to justify their continued possession of nuclear weapons, most of the rest of the world sees this possession as exacerbating this security situation. The nuclear-armed states used the same excuses before 2015 to justify why they had not implemented their nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments. They claim on the one hand that modernisation, arsenal expansions, threats of use, and other factors are making the security situation worse, and then engage in each of these practices themselves because the security situation is worse.

The nuclear-armed states thus act as if the security environment is a force beyond their control, and demand that others take responsibility for it before they can possibly fulfill their legal obligation to make the world safer. Then, when others do take the initiative—for example, by banning nuclear weapons—the nuclear-armed states react with horror, accusing them of undermining the security environment even further.

The gaslighting performed by each of the nuclear-armed states is exhausting. Whether it is Russia claiming it was “forced” to invade Ukraine and denying any responsibility for its horrific and unlawful attacks, or the United States claiming it “does not use nuclear weapons to advance an expansionist security policy” even while stationing weapons in Europe, or all of the nuclear-armed states claiming they are in full compliance with Article VI while spending billions on extending, upgrading, and expanding their nuclear arsenals—it is all frustrating, and demeaning to the majority of countries in the world have continuously sought peace and security through disarmament and dialogue instead of devastating and radioactive violence.

“Nuclear deterrence is an oxymoron; it is not a sane, safe, or sustainable model,” said Palestine. “Peace and stability will not arise by the threat of assured and mutual destruction. International security is national security and cannot be achieved under the crushing burden of nuclear weapons.” Austria similarly argued that the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence cannot be proven and it focuses attention on the security perspectives of nuclear possessors, even while many states see these weapons as diminishing their security. In a right of reply, Mexico likewise spoke about the arrogance of nuclear-armed states and some of their allies asserting a monopoly on truth and the predominance of their security concerns. This leaves the rest of the world living under the threat of being annihilated, said Mexico, while being told they have to wait patiently for the nuclear-armed states to decide whether the time is right or not for disarmament. 

“The rest of the international community remains caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous competition, one driven by a reckless pursuit of global dominance,” warned Costa Rica. “The refusal of the nuclear-armed states to engage in the elimination of all nuclear weapons speaks to the warped nature of this renewed arms race, which threatens all members of the international community under the guise of protection for a handful of states.”

Resisting security monopolies

In reality, nuclear disarmament is in everyone’s security interests. The continued existence of these weapons of mass destruction only benefits the military contractors that build them, the political leaders who derive a sense of power from their possession, and the others within the scaffolding of global militarism that profit from global tension and perpetual armed conflict. In this context, the international security environment is not an entity in itself. It is created and can thus be changed. NPT states parties have the opportunity to contribute to that change, here, this month.

They can work to ending reliance on and the spread of nuclear power, which generates devastating harm through uranium mining, fuel production, and radioactive waste storage, and contains the risk of catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, as seen by recent events at Zaporizhzhia, as well as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

And they can work to end nuclear weapons, which is not only imperative, but possible.

Nuclear weapons have been categorically outlawed by the TPNW, which provides a clear pathway for the verifiable, irreversible elimination of nuclear weapon programmes. The TPNW constitutes an effective measure for nuclear disarmament mandated by Article VI of the NPT, and it must be seen as such.

Brazil, noting the volume of references to the NPT as the “cornerstone” of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, said that while the NPT might be a cornerstone, “it rests on a fragile linchpin: Article VI and the commitments under the Review Conferences.” Moreover, as Austria pointed out, “Cornerstones do not stand or exist in a vacuum. They anchor structures.” Arguing that the TPNW provides essential support to the NPT cornerstone, Austria noted that the NPT needs “as much structural support it can get.”

There are three weeks left for this Review Conference. States parties must “move together and to act quickly,” as Palestine said, “as for each day that passes, disarmament becomes more pressing and the possibilities become more distant.” The obligation to produce a successful outcome of this meeting is one that must pursued with determination, and is “a moral, political, and a historic test that we cannot afford to fail.”

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