The flagrant contradictions of nuclear-dependent states

Cesar Jaramillo News 4 Comments

By Cesar Jaramillo

It’s hard to tell whether the states questioning the purpose, direction, and convenience of the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament are fully aware of the extent to which the inconsistencies in their positions are apparent to the rest of the international community. Because the contradictions are, well, quite obvious.

Take, for example, the discomfort expressed by a small group of states at the tone and language in the Chair’s Summary from the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons hosted by Mexico in February. The reason for the discomfort? The Chair’s Summary dared to move the discourse beyond the technical exposition of the catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons and introduced the need for specific follow-up action. (Not coincidentally, the protesters are mainly nuclear weapons states and those relying on extended deterrence arrangements.)

But here’s the catch: even as these states chastise the Mexican Government for unequivocally signaling the need to seriously consider concrete measures to avoid the devastation that any use of nuclear weapons would bring, they complain that the humanitarian initiative doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s a clever strategy. They obfuscate and condemn any effort to explicitly move the humanitarian process forward, while at the same time criticizing it for a lack of direction. But a growing number of states and civil society organizations see right through this ploy.

The humanitarian initiative was never focused on merely recognizing the impact of nuclear weapons, but on drawing out the policy implications that follow from such a recognition. Some states fear what this process might yield. The logical progression of the humanitarian initiative is to move discussion from the technical to the political. Otherwise it will stall in emotion. Adherents of the process are keenly aware that, by vehemently resisting the transition into policy territory, nuclear-dependent states are attempting to render the process pointless—so they can then criticize it for being pointless.

Therein lies the discontent with Mexico. Those who challenge the viability of the process argue that the Mexican Conference Chair’s determination to open the door to a serious political process dealt a blow to the cause of nuclear disarmament. But it did quite the contrary. It invigorated it.

Paradoxically, if nuclear dependent states had their way and prevented the humanitarian initiative from entering policy territory, they would reduce the process to a merely ‘educational’ exposé of the issues—exactly the type of exercise whose validity they have long questioned claiming that they are completely aware of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

An intractable dead-end logic is inherent in their positions.  If the process is a merely technical one, it is challenged on grounds of redundancy. And if it moves into policy waters, it is challenged on grounds of political viability.

The push for nuclear disarmament is shaping up to be an asymmetrical political struggle. Those used to having a disproportionate influence at certain forums are stressing the importance of those very forums and decrying the ones driven by other agendas and players. Those who champion abolition are building up the pressure for concrete progress toward disarmament.

In this context, it’s not surprising that

  • Mexico has taken this bold stand in the face of stiff resistance from several nations, including its most important trading partner;
  • in an unprecedented move, the tiny Marshall Islands are suing all nuclear weapons states at the International Court of Justice for not fulfilling their disarmament obligations;
  • last year, for the first time, a state party to the NPT—Egypt—walked out of the PrepCom plenary;
  • various Arab states threaten to follow suit at the 2015 NPT Review Conference;
  • the proposal for a ban treaty has been explicitly endorsed by dozens of nations;
  • civil society advocacy of nuclear disarmament is as effective, organized and sophisticated as it has ever been;
  • national delegates at the Mexican conference could be seen wearing the Abolition pin on their lapels.

To be sure, it is not that the step-by-step approach as advocated by nuclear dependent states (and called ‘pragmatic’ by nuclear dependent states) completely lacks validity. Yes, it is one conceivable way forward. It’s just that it has proven to be to be a very inadequate one, and hardly reflects the gravity and urgency of the problem with nuclear weapons.

To deflect criticism of current efforts toward nuclear disarmament, nuclear-dependent states contend that the world is safer with the NPT than without it. True, but they miss the point.

The real question is this: can the current dynamics of the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, including but not limited to the NPT, deliver on the promise of nuclear abolition? With poor prospects for a “yes,” an increasing number of non-nuclear weapons states are openly challenging the status quo.

The nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime is crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Yet nuclear-dependent states are attempting to torpedo the most decisive push to actual progress on nuclear disarmament in decades. And as they persist in faulty reasoning and wilful blindness, an honest and open conversation on how to eliminate nuclear weapons becomes that much more difficult.

This article was submitted as a discussion paper for meetings of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW). Ottawa, 13-14 May 2014.



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Comments 4

  1. Interesting analysis and very insightful regarding the contradictory approach of our those who want to thwart change. Was there any reason why you did not include the Secretary General’s advocacy of a convention or framework as well as the number of states that support the same expressed in their votes the General Assembly in the UN in favor of the Costa Rica Malaysian resolution on a convention? Is there a material significant distinction between a convention and ban? Is it not sufficient to get states to begin a preliminary negotiation process leading to a universal verifiable process of elimination through legal instruments whether a ban, convention or framework? Jonathan

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. Trying to thwart change they are.

      Yes, there was a reason for not including references to the UNSG’s 5-point plan and related proposals, as important as they are (and which I have highlighted elsewhere).

      I wanted the thrust of the argument to be on the contradictions in some states’ positions, and I hoped it would hold regardless of where one stands on the ban treaty/NWC discussion. The convenience of pursuing a ban treaty even if it doesn’t take the shape of a ‘full-fledged’ Nuclear Weapons Convention and, critically, gets started even without the participation of nuclear dependent states, is still being debated. So I thought that entering that territory might be distraction from the ‘contradictions’ argument in this particular piece. But it’s a welcome debate. Some comments below:

      As you know, perspectives about the best way forward vary not only among states, but also within civil society. Whatever its merits, socializing the ban proposal not only raises awareness of the poor health of the regime, but also compels us to think ever more creatively about ways to resolve the multifaceted challenges facing the NPT.

      I find the current push for a ban worthy of support. The alternative seems to be more of the same, and that is unacceptable. Further, the concrete normative impact that a legal prohibition on every dimension of nuclear weapons may have, though important, is not the only criterion with which to assess the merits of supporting the ban proposal. This is also a tactical/strategic means to energize both civil society and like-minded governments around a single-focused issue and build on the RARE momentum that has emerged from Oslo and Nayarit. In addition, it serves to shine a light on the old-yet-so-true double standards permeating every inch of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, with which nuclear-dependent states are not only permissive, but indeed complicit, directly instigating and perpetuating them.

      It’s fair enough for the eventual impact and benefits of a ban to be up for debate, but I would find it very hard to concede that it would be a net negative for current nuclear disarmament efforts. In particular, I think that it is entirely consistent with the long-standing pursuit of a Nuclear Weapons Convention, whose necessity is not a matter of opinion. If nuclear abolition is ever to be a reality, the process for the actual elimination of nuclear arsenals will need to be institutionalized/codified under international law at some point, bilaterally and/or multilaterally. So that is still the goal, of course, and support for the ban proposal shouldn’t be understood as being to its detriment.

      An increasing number of policy observers, both inside and outside governments, seem to have embraced the narrative that, in the current state of affairs, a (non-universal) ban treaty seems possible, while a (full-fledged) Nuclear Weapons Convention seems impossible. Though always open to considering other arguments, I find this narrative increasingly persuasive (and, for lack of a better cliché, we ought not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good).


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