NPT Conference Sparks Calls for New Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

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May 22, 2015 – The merits of a new treaty banning nuclear weapons have been debated over the past month in UN conference rooms during the five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which ends today in New York.

Among the reasons cited by advocates of a ban are the reluctance of nuclear armed states to meet their disarmament commitments and that nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not banned by treaty, with chemical and biological weapons covered under separate conventions.

But the biggest reason cited is new information on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. “We’re learning more every day as new documents become declassified and made available,” said Thomas Nash, director of the advocacy group Article 36. In some cases he said the research shows that “sheer luck has prevented the detonation of nuclear warheads.”

The growing information about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons prompted an international conference in Oslo in 2013 on that very issue and concluded:

It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected… While political circumstances have changed, the destructive potential of nuclear weapons remains.

A follow-up conference in Vienna lead to what has become known as the Humanitarian Pledge, which calls for “effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and we pledge to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”

“What’s happening now is that because of this deeper frustration at the lack of progress and the intransigence of countries with nuclear weapons, I think states are saying we’re not going to wait for you, we’re going to move forward on negotiations for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons even without the nuclear armed states,” Article 36′s Nash said.

So far, 99 countries* have signed on to the pledge, which, as Nash acknowledges, does not outright call for an international treaty banning nuclear weapons but for “effective measures to fill the legal gap” prohibiting these weapons. He said the greatest pushback against the calls for a treaty for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons have come from the UK who have said that it would be “like a referendum on the NPT and that it would basically undermine the NPT.”

“It only undermines the NPT if you see the NPT as something that legitimizes your position on nuclear weapons and the problem is that that is precisely what countries inside the NPT with nuclear weapons see the NPT as,” Nash said. While the NPT prohibits non-nuclear weapons states from acquiring such weapons it also calls for the recognized nuclear powers to disarm – which is not happening.

“They think it’s a great treaty that allows them to keep their nuclear weapons. It gives them special status,” he said, adding that France, the US and the UK are engaged in revisionism arguing that the NPT is not about disarmament, it’s about non-proliferation – even though disarmament is one of the three pillars of the NPT along with non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

While it’s not clear if all of the 99 countries* that have so far signed the Austrian Pledge are in favor of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons or some other steps to fill the “legal gap,” what is clear is that the countries absent from the pledge are the nuclear armed states as well as NATO members and other countries that are in a security alliance with nuclear states.

Alyn Ware, a longtime disarmament campaigner and member of the World Future Council, said the calls for a treaty among like-minded countries for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons are understandable as the nuclear weapons states are not yet prepared to abolish nuclear weapons. Under this scenario, non-nuclear countries would negotiate a treaty without waiting for the nuclear armed states and those countries in nuclear-weapons alliances to join.

“Such a treaty could be concluded quite quickly” he said. “However, a problem is that it would only apply to those countries that join. It would not impact on the policies of the nuclear-armed states and their allies. Another problem with the proposal is that there does not appear to be even a majority of the non-nuclear countries in support. When the proposal was discussed in the United Nations Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations, a number of non-aligned countries indicated that they would not support a treaty like this that placed new obligations on them, but no additional obligations on the nuclear armed states.”

“Another type of ban treaty, one that might have more impact, would be one banning the use of nuclear weapons as a measure leading towards nuclear disarmament. You could probably capture more of the allied countries, maybe even some of the nuclear weapons states, in such a treaty” he said. “India has already put forward a proposal to the United Nations General Assembly on negotiating a convention to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons. It is a much shorter, and more realizable, step from this position to a ban on use, than it is to jump immediately to a ban on possession.”

Ware pointed out that the global ban on chemical weapons started first with a ban on use, followed by negotiations to achieve the Chemical Weapons Convention banning possession.

But campaigners for an outright ban say it is the only credible option, particularly as the draft final document of the NPT review conference, which has yet to be agreed on, reflects the views of the nuclear weapons states and their allies.

While an earlier draft noted the the growing interest in the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the final draft now refers to a growing interest “among non-nuclear weapons states” in those consequences and raises doubts on other humanitarian concerns.

“It suggests that only non-nuclear-armed states and civil society learned anything about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons over the last three years and argues that it is only the perception of some states that there could be no adequate response to a nuclear weapon detonation,” Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will wrote on Friday about the final draft. “States truly committed to disarmament must say ‘enough is enough’ to the nuclear-armed states. As of writing, 99 states* have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. The pledge should be the basis for negotiations of a nuclear weapon ban treaty.”

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

*The Pledge has now been signed by 107 countries