NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 7

Editorial: Diversity is Key to Disarmament
18 August 2022

Ray Acheson 

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As the Main Committee I discussions progressed this week, the nuclear-armed states hunkered down into their “no new commitments” bunkers. They popped their heads out to reject language on most things, and to express regret when other countries asked if the praise for their actions—actions such as holding meetings, and developing a glossary no one asked for—could be toned down a bit. The nuclear-armed states also continued to indicate that they are mostly just submitting their edits to the Chair, which gives the impression that whatever document is put on the table tomorrow, or next week, will not necessarily look like the document that is being considered now.

All of this makes NPT Review Conference veterans wary. The Austrian delegation noted today that it is always difficult to reach a meaningful compromise, but that is what most countries are here to do. But what Austria finds difficult to accept, it said, is the clear disconnect between the sense of urgency of progress on nuclear disarmament and the arguments put forward by the nuclear-armed states that the international security environment is why they can’t accept meaningful steps. “We are worried that we are yet again being strung along to general language” that won’t have an impact the day after the document is adopted, warned the Austrian delegation. Indeed, despite the excellent interventions, proposals, and collaborative work by many delegations at this Conference, the adoption of a meaningful outcome that advances disarmament seems distant. 

Continuing to condition disarmament

All five NPT nuclear-armed states demanded that nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments mentioned in the MCI revised draft text be conditioned by the nebulous and apparently always elusive concepts of international peace and security, undiminished security, and strategic stability. Some tried claiming this wasn’t conditioning, but “framing,” even though they have been using these abstract concepts to justify their disarmament failures for more than a decade.

France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (US) also demanded the deletion of references to the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament and claimed to be in compliance with their Article VI obligations. The US further asserted that the possession of nuclear weapons is not illegitimate under the NPT, which, following its rejection of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on nuclear disarmament earlier in the week, reinforces the US position that it does not have to eliminate nuclear weapons. (Apparently, nothing signals compliance with your legal obligations as much as refuting that those legal obligations exist.) The UK, meanwhile, said that it cannot accept any references to “benchmarking or targets or arbitrary deadlines,” and called several times for a return to language from 2010, indicating that 12 years on, nothing new is possible.

Twelve years after the adoption of the last NPT outcome, it seems we not only haven’t made any progress toward but disarmament, but as many delegations have warned this week, things have gotten a lot worse. Yet, in another throwback to the last review cycle, France called on non-nuclear armed states to be “realistic” in their demands for nuclear disarmament. Apparently after 77 years of living under the threat of nuclear weapons, it’s still unrealistic to demand compliance with legal obligations. 

Prohibitions and postulations

This attitude is a large part of why 122 states voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017. Motivated by the moral and ethical imperatives of nuclear disarmament and the known catastrophic humanitarian and environmental impacts of these weapons, more and more countries have been signing and ratifying the TPNW since its adoption. In a joint statement delivered in Main Committee I on Wednesday, the states parties and signatories to the TPNW proclaimed, “Nuclear weapons are now explicitly and comprehensively prohibited by international law, as has long been the case for biological and chemical weapons.” They “welcome that the Treaty fills this gap in the international legal regime against weapons of mass destruction.”

In reaction to this joint statement, the US claimed that no prohibition of nuclear weapons exists, because the TPNW is only binding on its states parties. France, meanwhile, said that the calls to include a reference in the NPT outcome document to the complementarity between the NPT and the TPNW demonstrates that the TPNW undermines the NPT. So, for those wondering, yes, this argument does suggest that France believes that dozens of states asking for something that France doesn’t feel should be reflected in a document is not only unacceptable, but actually undermines international law.

The audacity of this argument is really something that is perhaps only possible from states that spend billions of dollars a year to maintain the capacity to unleash unconscionable levels of brutal violence in minutes. The arrogant assertion that this capacity is defensive, prevents war, and keeps the peace, as France as said several times during this Review Conference, masks the fact that it, and the other nuclear-armed states, not only do not care about people or the planet, but are fine with destroying us all if it means maintaining their perceived privilege in the international system.

These claims about the TPNW reveal the absurdity of the arguments levelled against those who support a ban on nuclear weapons. There isn’t actually any reasonable argument that the TPNW undermines the NPT, and a lot of evidence and legal analyses to show that it in fact is an effective measure of compliance with the NPT. So TPNW objectors are cornered instead into making ridiculous claims that TPNW states parties are undermining the NPT by even daring to speak about it. 

True colours showing through 

This is a common tactic used by nuclear-armed and nuclear-allied states to provide cover for their ongoing support for nuclear weapons. A good example is the refusal this week of nuclear-allied states to accept any responsibility for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines. Their collective argument is that this creates a “new category” of states. Brazil, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, and others have well-articulated the absurdity of this claim. The details of their remarks can be found in the Report on Main Committee I in this edition and the previous one, but in short, they pointed out that a reference to the responsibility of states that have freely chosen to enter into alliances involving nuclear weapons, especially those that are self-declared nuclear alliances, is entirely relevant for the NPT to consider. It has nothing to do with creating a new category of state and everything to do with addressing the roles and responsibilities that come from this factual situation.

One might think that a reference to states in military alliances that include nuclear weapons would offer these states an opportunity to show leadership on nuclear disarmament. After all, these countries claim to support the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. They set up countless cross-regional groups, hold lots of meetings, and issue many policy papers—all of which include the recommendation to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in security doctrines. If they were to reduce their own reliance on nuclear weapons, this would be a crucial measure towards reducing the alleged justifications for the existence of nuclear weapons, for nuclear sharing, for nuclear deterrence doctrines—especially “extended” deterrence—and even for the number of nuclear weapons in global stockpiles. Yet they resist even the most benign calls on them to take actions they themselves have recommended countless times. 

This speaks to a broader point of the “do as I say, not as I do” attitude from nuclear-armed and nuclear-allied states. They demand ever-stricter rules against proliferation while refusing to disarm and while engaging in nuclear sharing and spreading highly enriched uranium to non-nuclear armed states. They (rightly) condemn Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons, but do so while modernising their nuclear arsenals and maintaining deterrence doctrines that, as the TPNW states parties said, “rely on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons.” They express grave concern about the prospect of a meltdown at the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant in Ukraine while actively promoting the spread of nuclear energy around the world. The list could go on. The bottom line is, if the nuclear-armed and nuclear-allied states were serious about their commitments to achieving a “safer and more secure world” and to fulfilling their nuclear disarmament obligations and commitments, this would require them to let go of nuclear weapons themselves.

Stuck in the past, fighting for our future

Even as the world faces renewed nuclear threats, even as we understand the devasting impacts nuclear weapons have already have on the world and will have if used again, even as global tensions rise and investments in militarism increase—a handful of governments remain entrenched in their economic and politically-motivated opinions that nuclear weapons are good for the world. “The NPT is not just falling behind, it is stuck in the past when a few countries, people, and perspectives were allowed to dominate conversations about nuclear weapons,” argued Costa Rica.

This is exactly why the demands for increased diversity and inclusivity at the NPT are so urgent. While some states argued this week that issues of participation and perspectives are unrelated to the “topic at hand,” issues of participation and perspectives are directly related to the topic at hand. The NPT, and all nuclear forums, need new voices, new perspectives and experiences, and an intersectional approach that enhances understanding about what nuclear weapons really are, who benefits from them, and who is harmed by their continued existence.

For example, exposing how the patriarchal notions of power, strength, and rationality affect thinking about nuclear weapons is imperative to undercutting theories of nuclear deterrence and strategic stability that are used to justify the bomb. Revealing the colonial and racist patterns of nuclear weapon development, testing, and use is vital to understanding why the nuclear-armed states claim nuclear weapons don’t cause harm but are strictly “defensive” weapons. Looking at the unique and understudied impacts of nuclear weapons on women and girls, as well as Indigenous populations and other affected communities helps not just respond to those harms, but build solidarity with wider communities and contextualise the work for nuclear abolition in broader struggles for justice and peace.

Demanding diversity 

Bringing these perspectives and experiences into forums where nuclear weapons are discussed is critical to ensuring credibility of the outcomes of these forums. With the NPT failing repeatedly to adopt outcomes, or to implement what is adopted, it’s clear this is urgently needed. As the joint civil society statement on racial justice and intersectionality delivered earlier this month noted, “We cannot operate in good faith or design effective measures without including the voices of those most impacted by our decisions.” 

Similarly, the joint statement by 67 states parties on gender, diversity, and inclusion recognised that, “To accurately assess how different populations and groups are affected, we must give greater consideration to diversity and inclusion in all processes and decision-making bodies such as this one to ensure that outcomes reflect their vital perspectives.” These states parties also noted that diversity and inclusion requires more than adding diverse individuals to delegations. It means having diversity at all levels,” and, 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.” 

For some states even a reference to women’s participation is pushing the envelope. As can been seen in the summaries on MCI and MCII in this edition, including even minimalist references has been difficult. The “contention” over reference to women’s participation and gender perspectives in the NPT draft reports this review cycle is not unique; it’s been going on in other UN disarmament forums for years. But even though traction is still building for these minimum suggestions for diversity, we need to push for more.

Breaking binaries instead of building bridges 

This is why several delegations have called for language in the outcome document promoting the full and effective participation of “all genders” in the work of the Treaty, rather than just of men and women.

Breaking binaries is important for an intersectional approach. It helps us overcome the idealised notions of strong men and passive women, for example; of men needing to be providers and protectors, and women needing protection. It helps push back against the limitations imposed upon people on the basis of sex and gender. Rather than reinforcing stereotypes of all men do this or all women act like that, gender analysis and perspectives help us analyse what we are socialised to believe is possible for our behaviour, actions, and emotions, and break down the idea that are only two ways to be in the world.

Breaking binaries is essential to the work of challenging who gets to participate in nuclear discourse—and who is considered “credible” and “realistic”. Reality is not as clean as “nuclear-armed states are rational and reasonable” and “non-nuclear armed states are unrealistic and emotional” (these are actual claims that have been made by government delegations in NPT meetings).

As I write in a recent paper for Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, called Notes on Nuclear Weapons and Intersectionality in Theory and Practice, binaries enable hierarchies. Gender binaries are accompanied by racial, geographic, religious, and other hierarchies. Binaries put people in boxes. They constrain how we can be, look, act, and feel when we are contained within certain bodies. Undoing binaries helps undo normative, hierarchal structures that oppress and cause harm. This, in turn, can help the broader project of nuclear abolition.

While many states talk about “bridge building” between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states, they ignore that this binary is already complicated by the category of states that support nuclear weapons but do not possess them, as described above. Furthermore, talking about building bridges between two sides suggests these categories of countries are either static or timebound. This limits what is seen as being possible by those actors. Instead of seeking creative solutions in collaboration with one another, the way that TPNW states parties have done, the “bridge building” approach always comes down to the non-nuclear armed side having to move closer to the nuclear-armed side: to understand their “struggles” and “security needs,” to be more reasonable, realistic, rational, etc. 

Deconstructing binary gendered notions of power—in particular concepts of militarised masculinities—helps to undermine the idea that “security” achieved through nuclear weapons is necessary or desirable—or that it is achieved at all. Divesting from binaries helps us move away from nuclear “haves and have notes” to a world where it is clear that nuclear weapons are bad for all. Ultimately, it helps expand the idea of who we are and what is possible for our world beyond the rigid categories forced upon us. Anyone participating in this NPT Review Conference should be able to see the urgency of this right now.

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