NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 5

Editorial: Getting Out of the Upside Down
13 August 2022

Ray Acheson 

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As the second week of NPT Review Conference concludes and the nuclear-armed states start to flex their “we can’t accept any commitments because of the international security environment” muscles, a metaphor for our present condition comes to mind: we are stuck in the Upside Down. We’ve been here for a very long time—so long that some people don’t even realise there is any alternative. Or have lost the ability to imagine that anything other than constant violence and relentless military spending is possible. But this is a fabrication created by those who profit from death and destruction—and it’s possible to get out.

This metaphor is only really going to make sense to those who have seen the television show Stranger Things, which means some readers (and even one of the editors of this publication) might not understand it. But the Upside Down is simple. It’s an alternate dimension that mirrors our world, where monsters reign and death and decay are paramount. It’s a toxic hellscape. And it also happens to be stuck in 1983. I’m hoping by now the analogy with our world of nuclear weapons is clear enough.

The first two weeks of the RevCon have reaffirmed what the Upside Down has to offer. More than 77 years after the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused catastrophic human suffering, after decades of devastating nuclear tests wreaking radioactive havoc across the world, more than 50 years after the NPT contractually obligated nuclear-armed states to end their perilous arms race and eliminate their nuclear arsenals, the nuclear weapon possessors and their allies still come this forum with empty words, double standards, and overconfident assertions.

The nuclear-armed states and their nuclear alliance partners continue to argue that the time isn’t right for disarmament because global security and stability has deteriorated. (They say it passively, as if they themselves are not behind this deterioration—similar to how many of the same governments speak about the changing climate, eroding seabeds, toxic rain, and species extinction, as if these are not caused but simply materialise, out of nothing.)

These states argue that they cannot give up their nuclear weapons because their security depends on them. They not only refuse to comply with their nuclear disarmament obligations, but also with their non-proliferation ones. Some of them assert that nuclear sharing is fine. They all invest billions in modernising their nuclear weapons and delivery systems, in developing new types of systems. They ridicule anyone who raises concern, refusing to accept any criticism of their behaviour.

In Main Committee II this week, for example, the United States—supported by a variety of its nuclearised allies—said that it would not except any “false claims” that “extended deterrence” or “nuclear burden-sharing” is inconsistent with the NPT. Hungary even asserted that nuclear sharing arrangements make a “valuable contribution” to nuclear non-proliferation by “providing security guarantees that, in turn, remove incentives for nations to develop their own nuclear deterrence capabilities.” The United States—supported again by some of its allies—also said it would reject any proposal to create any special committee or process to address the concerns raised about the spread of highly enriched uranium and nuclear naval propulsion systems in relation to AUKUS.

These countries say these things as if they aren’t the biggest incentives for proliferation. As if they believe that no one will notice that their argument is literally that spreading nuclear weapons, technologies, and materials will prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, materials, and technologies. As if these arguments don’t definitively display a foundational belief that security is a zero-sum game—and that they really just don’t care about the security of others. Or the survival of the planet.

In this context, the nuclear-armed states also argue that they cannot grant security assurances to non-nuclear armed states that they won’t drop a nuclear bomb on them, because this, too, would diminish their security. In Main Committee I, Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia, Mexico, and others pointed out the hypocrisy in these arguments. The nuclear-armed states are basically saying: security is so bad we need our nuclear weapons, and we can’t promise you that we won’t use them against you, even though you don’t have nuclear weapons and have accepted numerous prohibitions against every acquiring them.

Further, the nuclear-armed states are refusing to grant binding non-nuclear security assurances even as they are perfectly happy to grant the kind of nuclearised security assurances that Hungary promoted, the kind that involve the sharing of nuclear weapons.

So, once again, despite their claims of strict adherence to the non-proliferation regime, the nuclear-armed states are once again proclaiming that more nuclear weapons equal more security.

Without any apparent sense of irony, France asserted this week that Russia’s violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum offering security assurances to Ukraine “brings Russia further away from what the international community have come to expect from the nuclear-armed states, which is the full respect of their international obligations.”

Actually, we have come to expect nuclear-armed states to pretty much only violate their legal obligations related to nuclear weapons. Compliance, from any of them, would be shocking.

In the Upside Down, of course, compliance is marked by rhetoric, not action. But even the rhetoric is lousy. The caveats imposed on when action could possibly take place have become absurd. For example, Hungary—impressively using in one sentence every single adjective deployed by those seeking to delay, defer, dismiss, or deny the possibility of real progress—asserted that “in order to achieve tangible results we need to pursue a progressive and inclusive incremental approach consisting of gradual and concrete building blocks and engaging Nuclear Weapon States.”

The nuclear weapon supporters fill their mouths with words while their nuclear-armed “protectors” inch the world ever closer to nuclear annihilation.

In Main Committee I this week, Colombia asked, what are the nuclear-armed states waiting for? When will the security conditions for nuclear disarmament be in place? Can they really say that in these past 52 years, these conditions have never been in place? Is this an argument that will continue for present and future generations? In this same spirit, El Salvador pointed out that there will always be geopolitical considerations to “justify” delaying the implementation of disarmament and non-proliferation commitments. But this, both countries argued, is upside down.

Colombia argued that achieving nuclear disarmament does not undermine security but in contrast, guarantees it. Nuclear weapons are what undermine collective security and pose risks to humanity, said Colombia, noting that the presumption that nuclear weapons provide security is a fallacy disproven by their impact. El Salvador agreed that the serious humanitarian consequences of the use of these weapons is a sufficient reason not to keep postponing nuclear disarmament.

Like Colombia, I have questions. Such as, why do some governments want to keep us living in the Upside Down? Why do the nuclear-armed states and their allies keep clinging to the myths of the security and the reality violence offered by nuclear weapons? Why do we not, through nuclear abolition, collectively work for a better world of equity, justice, and peace?

We know, from current events and the last 77 years, that nuclear weapons not only do not ease tensions, or create stability, or make us safer, but in fact the exact opposite. Yet a select few, who profit from the power they believe that these bombs afford them—or who profit in a more literal sense from their manufacture and modernisation—continue to put on their endless play, filled with righteous indignation and unmitigated arrogance, that these creations of unimaginable horror are the harbingers of world peace. It is a monstrous myth, and it will eventually end life on the planet if we don’t overcome this obsession with the atomic bomb.

Getting out of the Upside Down is not an impossible feat. And it must not be treated as an “ultimate goal” that is postponed and procrastinated upon indefinitely. Despite the condescending claims of the nuclear-armed and their supporters, nuclear abolition is achievable, practical, feasible, reasonable, rational, and any other preferred adjectives. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons sets out a path. The Declaration recently adopted by its states parties lights the way and the Action Plan offers the roadmap. Rather than standing still inside the alleged cornerstone, watching it crumble around us, we need to implement its obligations and commitments in order to reinforce its foundation while we crawl out of this nuclear nightmare. We need to work our way out of the Upside Down and into a nuclear weapon free world.

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