An unusual counting game is underway as the NPT undergoes its periodic review at the United Nations in New York. Five nuclear-armed states – China, France, Russia, the UK and USA – are doing their best to dominate the NPT and uphold the nuclear status quo that enables them to modernize their nuclear arsenals, while an overwhelming 159 states parties to the NPT have issued a joint “humanitarian disarmament” statement demanding an end to nuclear business as usual.
Described as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes, the NPT enshrined a simple bargain at the height of the cold war: states that don’t have nuclear weapons agree not to acquire them in exchange for complete disarmament by those who had already (by 1968) acquired them.
Decades since that agreement was sealed, some NPT member states continue to argue about text, as if this is the main task for non-proliferation. By contrast, a more ambitious group of 96 states and counting have been propelled by deep concerns about the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons to sign up to an important international pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.
Nuclear disarmament, to put it plainly, has suffered from a sort of diplomatic colonialism, in that the self-important militarist interests of a few states have been imposed over the rest of the world for nearly 70 years. Now a host of nuclear free states are claiming back their power to create the conditions for a much-needed legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons.
Nuclear disarmament has not been shaken up like this since developing states pushed for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the 1990s. Since it was concluded and adopted in 1996, the UN’s traditional negotiating body, the Conference on Disarmament, has signally failed to get a work programme for talks. At the NPT Conference, however, the five nuclear-armed states proudly announced that in the past five years they have kept themselves busy producing a “glossary” of nuclear terms.
The United States has also launched a new website focusing on the NPT, with slick videos and a ‘rejuvenated’ presence on social media. President Putin, meanwhile, has taken to parading Russian nuclear weapons like a playground bully brandishing a painted wooden sword, desperately hoping that no-one will call his bluff. China, which used to keep its arsenal smaller than the others, is now causing nuclear headaches by modernising its missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. France and the UK just want to stay at the top table, and seem to think that replacing their nuclear forces is the way to do that. But they’ve been inviting ridicule by crashing their nuclear submarines into each other, while a recent Royal Navy whistleblower described the deployment of the UK’s Trident nuclear system as a “disaster waiting to happen”.
The so-called “step-by-step approach” that these five and a handful of nuclear sharing allies call “practical” has lost credibility. The significance of US-Russian reductions, as well as Britain’s promise to slightly reduce the number of warheads in the planned replacement of Trident, is fatally undermined by ongoing modernization programmes of deployed nuclear weapons. The US alone is planning to spend one trillion dollars on nuclear weaponry over the next 30 years.
The nuclear dependent governments’ interminable appeals for pragmatism no longer inspire or convince. If these five consider their current nuclear activities to be evidence of a commitment to nuclear disarmament, it is hardly surprising that the majority of other NPT member states have lost patience and want now to pursue more substantive, sincere and achievable nuclear disarmament initiatives.
Humanitarian and environmental concerns, as well as mounting frustration, are now impelling over half the UN’s member states to take a more active leadership role to negotiate genuine disarmament steps. These are challenging nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-sharing allies for their contradictory actions and lack of vision on how to implement article VI of the NPT, under which they are required to negotiate in good faith and bring to conclusion the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
In return, the nuclear five are spending ridiculous amounts of diplomatic energy to get the NPT parties to substitute the word “severe” for “catastrophic”, thereby weakening the NPT-related assessments they previously agreed to in 2000 and 2010. With more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine countries, this attempt to sanitize the risks and threats would be risible, if it weren’t so foolish and dangerous.
Their position is especially shocking in light of the compelling evidence presented at the series of International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons held in Oslo, Nayarit (Mexico) and Vienna during 2013-14, where states concluded that the threats and global consequences of nuclear weapon detonations have remained unacceptably high despite the end of the Cold War, with human error and cyber threats adding to the continuing risks of miscalculation and intentional nuclear war.
Since the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has mobilised civil society to advocate for a global nuclear ban treaty to fill the legal gap between non-proliferation and disarmament. By prohibiting the use, deployment, development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of nuclear weapons the new treaty would reinforce the NPT and draw in the four nuclear-armed states that have proliferated outside the current regime.
As has happened with the Mine Ban Treaty and the Cluster Munition Convention, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would stigmatize their possession and challenge the notion that nuclear armaments provide any prestige or security for those who possess them. As with chemical and biological weapons, which have both been comprehensively banned, a universally-applicable nuclear ban treaty would unequivocally declare nuclear weapons to be illegal, closing off the perpetual cycle of their deployment and modernization.
This treaty will give nations a clear and straightforward choice: those who believe that nuclear weapons are inhumane and unacceptable would join the nuclear ban negotiations. Those who believe that nuclear weapons are legitimate means of defence and warfare, notwithstanding their inhumane effects on people and the environment, are able to stay out of the negotiations if they choose to do so. In reality, most will find that the treaty process creates its own momentum, and even the most resistant nuclear-dependent states will find that greater domestic and international pressures help – or push - them to reduce and eliminate their reliance on these weapons of mass destruction.
If inequality has dominated past discussions on nuclear weapons,, as Costa Rica stated during this Review Conference, “Democracy has come to nuclear disarmament.” The humanitarian initiative has been fully backed by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, who have called for a ban on nuclear weapons on several occasions. Many African, Middle Eastern and Asian states also strongly support the prohibition of all nuclear armaments, and some have concluded or continue to push for treaties to ban nuclear weapons from their own regions. What is clear is that, as with other successful disarmament processes, the Global South is getting ready to take the lead.
A process for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons is in the making. The NPT is being saved from irrelevance by the new Humanitarian Pledge initiated by Austria. And in the halls of the UN headquarters on New York’s First Avenue, even those opposed to disarmament see this as a very significant “game-changer”. Like the CTBT twenty years ago, a nuclear ban treaty should now be recognised as the necessary next step towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, in fulfilment of the NPT’s core objectives and obligations.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever the formal outcome of the NPT Review Conference, banning nuclear weapons is now the name of the game. It will be revealing to see which governments sign up to invest in the future and be on the right side of nuclear history.
Read more articles on 50.50's long running platform: Towards nuclear non-proliferation