Non-Proliferation Treaty: the ground is shifting

Civil society, the Non-Aligned Movement, and a cross regional group of 16 countries have brought humanitarian consequences and international  law to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review meeting in Vienna. This may be a potential game changer, says Rebecca Johson

Rebecca Johnson
4 May 2012

After an unusually smooth start, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting in Vienna is getting interesting. Three primary, linked are emerging from the statements and side events in the first week: overcoming the regime’s weaknesses with regard to non-proliferation compliance and safeguards (symbolised by references to Iran and North Korea); the importance of the 2012 Conference on the Middle East and participation by all states in the region including Israel and Iran,with concerns that time may be running out to make the necessary preparations); and reframing the security debate on nuclear weapons from ‘strategic stability’ among nuclear-armed states to ‘humanitarian consequences’ and international humanitarian law, increasingly being pushed by nuclear-free countries (some of whom are in military alliances with nuclear-armed states) and civil society.

The 2012 Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom) got off to a flying start when it accepted Australia’s Ambassador Peter Woolcott as Chair and adopted its agenda early on the first day, leaving the maximum time possible over the next two weeks to discuss substantive technical and political issues.  

Egypt, which played a starring role at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, kicked off the ‘general debate’ on behalf of the 116 states parties in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Over 50 statements followed, which set out collective positions from groups such as the European Union and League of Arab States, and national perspectives from many non-nuclear countries as well as the “P5” nuclear-armed states in the Treaty (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and China).  The conference also heard from civil society, including the Mayor of Nagasaki,Tomihisa Taue, and a nuclear bomb survivor (Hibakusha) Mikiso Iwasa, who told the delegates of how he had been unable to help his mother who burned to death when Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August 1945, lost relatives, including his younger sister whose body was never found, and how he himself fell sick with leukaemia caused by radiation from the bomb. He closed his testimony by urging the governments to “commence negotiations for a nuclear abolition convention without delay in order to achieve a world without nuclear weapons in 2020”.

In amongst the ritual expressions of support for the NPT’s “three pillars” of non-proliferation, disarmament and nuclear energy, the biggest buzz occurred on Wednesday when Switzerland’s Ambassador, Benno Laggner, presented a joint statement on the “humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament” co-sponsored by 16 governments: Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Holy See, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, South Africa and Switzerland.

This quoted from the 2010 NPT Review Conference, which had expressed its “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirmed “the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law”.   It went on to evoke descriptions from the Red Cross on the “horrendous effects” and “immeasurable suffering” if nuclear weapons were ever used, and recent studies that “even a ‘limited nuclear exchange’ – in itself a contradiction in terms – would provoke… global climate change with serious and long-lasting impact on the environment and food production, which could cause… global famine affecting over a billion people.”  The statement drew attention to the resolution adopted in November 2011 by the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, which had emphasized that “it is difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law”.  The statement insisted that all NPT parties, “especially the nuclear weapon States, [should] give increasing attention to their commitment to comply with international law and international humanitarian law.” It concluded by calling on states to “intensify their efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons and achieve a world free of nuclear weapons”. 

On the face of it, this 16-nation initiative was a modest articulation of what most people know.  Its significance lies in the geographic and political diversity of the co-sponsors and the sense that they might constitute a new strategic pressure on the nuclear-armed states (not only the P5, but non-NPT parties India, Pakistan, Israel and also North Korea).  The co-sponsors had kept it fairly close to their chest until they were ready to go public. In the last week or so, before the text and co-sponsors were made public, rumours of this initiative had already been attracting interest, with diplomats from the nuclear-armed states particularly keen to find out more, aware that they were on the outside of something that was causing a stir among non-nuclear delegations and civil society.  Watching and reading the diplomatic dynamics –  the corridor whispers, nervous anticipation and buzz of reaction when the statement was read – there is something about this quietly introduced statement that has made other governments see it as a potential game changer. Whether they like what was said or not, there is recognition that the ground is shifting, and that these ideas and this cross-regional group of states could become an important catalyst for reframing the debate around nuclear weapons.

Even before the 16-nation statement, there were far more references than at previous NPT meetings to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, international humanitarian law, modernization of nuclear arsenals and the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.  The Norwegian statement made public the intention - announced by Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre a couple of weeks ago to the Norwegian Parliament – that Norway would host a conference in Spring 2013 to examine the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and war, saying that it would be open to all interested governments, as well as relevant inter-governmental and humanitarian organisations, experts and representatives of civil society.  In the words of the newly appointed UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, “It is now beyond question that international humanitarian law has already arrived here in the NPT review process – and it is here to stay.”

Nonetheless, traditional arms control and disarmament approaches are still an important part of the NPT discourse. The five nuclear-armed states within the NPT all spoke, presenting the perspectives that underpin their respective nuclear doctrines and information about their initiatives to cut arsenals, reduce the operational role of deployed nuclear weapons, or provide assurances to non-nuclear-armed countries that they will not be threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons.  UK Ambassador Jo Adamson, for example, reiterated the government position justifying the intended renewal of Trident, saying “As long as large arsenals of nuclear weapons remain and the risk of nuclear proliferation continues… only a credible nuclear capability can provide the necessary ultimate guarantee to our national security.”  This contrasted sharply with the joint statement made by South Africa on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition, which includes Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and South Africa, which underlined that “As long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the possibility of their use, whether by accident or design, will remain. Similarly, as long as some states continue to possess them, citing security reasons for doing so, others may aspire to acquire them.”  As the general statements ended, the more focussed disarmament debates will begin, so I will provide a fuller analysis of the issues raised in these debates in a future article.

Looking at the broader themes raised in the opening statements, practically everyone expressed support for the 2012 Conference on the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East and the importance of getting a process aimed towards creating a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (MEWMDFZ). The substantive discussions on this will intensify next week, including a report from the Facilitator for the 2012 conference and process, Finnish Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy, on his consultations and progress so far, which I will analyse in an article next week.

By comparison with 2010, comments on nuclear energy have largely eschewed the promotional marketing of the so-called “nuclear renaissance”. Though few directly referred to the Fukushima tragedy, its impact lay over the NPT meeting like a sombre dark cloud.  Nevertheless, the long-standing political dynamic within the NPT regime is such that NAM states continued to stress their rights under the NPT’s Article IV to nuclear energy “for peaceful purposes”, while many states associated with Western political groups and alliances tended to place emphasis on “responsible” development requiring full compliance with NPT obligations, adoption of the strengthened inspections system developed through the Additional Protocol to the comprehensive safeguards agreements implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

This is the second of a series of articles by Rebecca Johnson who is reporting for openDemocracy 50.50 from the NPT meeting in Vienna.

To read Rebecca's coverage of the NPT Review Conference in 2010 click here 



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