Nuclear Ban Daily, Vol. 3, No. 3

Disarming the debates about “realism” through real action
22 June 2022

By Ray Acheson

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On the second day of the First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), participants concluded the general exchange of views in the morning before turning to discussions about the working papers and possible action plan items related to specific articles of the treaty. The seriousness and determination of TPNW supporters to turn the goals of the treaty into reality was well-reflected in these discussions. Their interventions about advancing the treaty’s implementation stood in sharp contrast to those of some of the so-called TPNW skeptics, which focused instead on what they see as the treaty’s shortcomings. However, even among this group, perspectives on the treaty vary widely, and for some are clearly in flux.

1MSP held discussions on several of the treaty’s articles today, including article 12 (universalisation), article 4 (deadlines for disarmament and institutional mechanisms), articles 6 and 7 (victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation), and article 5 (national implementation measures). As the reports in this edition show in more detail, participants in these discussions largely focused on the working papers provided by co-facilitators and on decisions proposed for the draft action plan.

States parties adopted some decisions today already, most notably the deadline for the destruction of nuclear weapons. Based on research from Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and other expert advice drawn from those engaged with other disarmament treaties, 1MSP decided upon a ten-year deadline with a possible five-year extension. States parties also shared ideas to advance universalisation of the TPNW, as well as to establish a trust fund and needs-assessment mechanisms in relation to the positive obligations. Within these discussions, the cooperative spirit of those wanting to work together to make real change was clear. It stood in sharp contrast to the painful and exhausting process of negotiating action plans—or even agendas—in other nuclear disarmament forums.

Yet, despite this overwhelmingly constructive atmosphere, media attention in the room seemed to be directed exclusively toward the nuclear-armed state allies that have not yet signed or ratified the treaty. A scrum of cameras formed around the German delegation as it delivered its remarks, suggesting that of all the states participating in 1MSP, it was the most important.

That said, Germany’s statement was refreshingly conciliatory. Given the years of active hostility towards the TPNW from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states, Germany’s acknowledgement that TPNW supporters and skeptics can “work shoulder to shoulder” to ensure nuclear arsenal reductions and the maintenance of strong norms against proliferation and nuclear weapon use was welcome. Germany also said that it “fully shares the goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and we recognize the motives and the engagement of TPNW States Parties in this regard. We especially value the humanitarian perspective put forward.”

This is still a far cry from acknowledging the imperative of nuclear abolition, or the TPNW’s obvious role in achieving that goal. But Germany clearly recognised that the NPT is under strain as stockpile reductions stall and nuclear doctrines remain stagnant. This perhaps signals its understanding that the current architecture—which was primarily built by the nuclear-armed states to suit their interests—is not working to achieve and maintain international peace and security.

In addition to Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland also spoke. Each of the three NATO members reiterated the claim that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. Norway asserted that joining the TPNW would be incompatible with its NATO obligations—a belief that has been found to be incorrect by many experts—and said it “stands fully behind NATO’s nuclear posture.”

Sweden critiqued the TPNW because it “does not include any of the countries that possess nuclear weapons, which we do not see as a realistic or effective way forward.” Of course, this is not a flaw in the TPNW. Rather, this speaks to the flaw of the policies of those possessing nuclear weapons: they speak of disarmament but play a game of domination. To say that a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and working for justice for survivors is problematic because states that have committed grave nuclear violence won’t join it is like critiquing laws against domestic violence because abusers refuse to abide by it. Rather than ridiculing the victims or saying that those who are trying to create a framework for change are being unrealistic, allies of the nuclear-armed states should instead work to build pressure to hold their friends to account for their violations of law and morality and bring them into the normative and legal fold.

Instead, Norway, Sweden, and Netherlands focused their remarks on strengthening the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and on calling for the development of other treaties that have been under consideration to no avail for decades. Netherlands and Sweden also raised concerns about the compatibility of the TPNW with the NPT. Switzerland, on the other hand, “welcomed the various statements to the effect that the purpose of the TPNW is to contribute to the implementation of the NPT provisions, in particular its Article VI.” It also said it is “convinced that efforts within the framework of the TPNW can complement those undertaken within the NPT,” and highlighted the TPNW's provisions on assistance to victims and environmental remediation as areas where synergies may be realised. It also said it would be undertaking another assessment about whether to join the TPNW.

This constructive approach is what’s needed as TPNW states are advancing the treaty’s implementation, especially in this moment when some states with nuclear weapons are actively threatening to use them and when all have doctrines envisioning and planning for their use. Nuclear weapons have already created what Association 193 described as a “poisoned heritage”—a heritage, an ICAN France representative said, that consists of “a lottery where the prizes are radiation-exposure diseases.” For all their talk of sharing concerns about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the goal of nuclear disarmament, some of the nuclear-allied states participating in 1MSP do not seem to be willing to undertake the hard but necessary stand against the bomb.

After watching so many TPNW states parties and signatories, as well as affected communities and other civil society groups, deliver powerful statements highlighting the determination of those who prioritise peace and justice over nuclear violence, it was frustrating to see the disproportionate attention paid to non-state parties today. Of course, in an attempt to share this frustration, this editorial has also spent a disproportionate amount of time on their statements! But that is easily overcome by the extensive reporting on the meaningful conversations in the article-by-article reports in this edition.

The bottom line is that it’s great that NATO members and other nuclear-supportive states are participating at 1MSP as observers, but any state that says it abhors Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or threats from other nuclear-armed states, or are concerned with the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, should join the work to fulfill the promises of the TPNW, not critique it in defence of nuclear-armed state policy. This meeting, this treaty, is a chance to change the world. We should all do our utmost to seize this chance.

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