The nuclear disarmament status quo: Not acceptable

Tasneem Jamal News, Nuclear Weapons

Don’t look now, but a major power struggle is taking shape at the highest levels of multilateral diplomacy. At issue: the blatant disregard of nuclear-weapons states of their obligation to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 2 Summer 2016 by Cesar Jaramillo

The latest showdown was at the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to Take Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations, established by the United Nations (UN). On May 13 the OEWG concluded a two-week session at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. As 2016 is an off-year in the conference cycle for states parties of the NPT, the OEWG constitutes the single most important multilateral effort this year to make progress along the troubled path to nuclear abolition.

No right hands for wrong weapons

The profound ills and shortcomings of the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime were already apparent at roll call on the first day of the OEWG. Not one of the five nuclear-weapons states under the NPT (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China) showed up. These states (and allies including Canada and other NATO members, which have security arrangements involving nuclear weapons) continue to insist that a major diplomatic process to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons would be premature.

The rest of the world—including most non-nuclear-weapons states, legal scholars, diplomats, international agencies, and hundreds of civil society organizations, including Christian denominations and other faith traditions—strongly disagrees. Complete nuclear disarmament, many of them forcefully argued in Geneva, is in fact long overdue. Project Ploughshares was present at the OEWG to help to make the case for prompt and concrete progress on abolition, while engaging with all possible stakeholders.

Driven by a shared sense of frustration, a growing number of states are uniting to boldly challenge the status quo. The clear goal: complete nuclear abolition. The basic premise: there are no right hands for wrong weapons.

A proposal submitted during the OEWG by a group of non-nuclear-weapons states (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia) constitutes what is perhaps the boldest and most concrete and ambitious initiative in years. These states propose to “convene a Conference in 2017, open to all States, international organizations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons” and “to report to the United Nations high-level international conference on nuclear disarmament to be convened no later than 2018 on the progress made on the negotiation of such an instrument.”

The OEWG will reconvene—and conclude its mandate—during a three-day session in August, after which a report will be presented to the UN General Assembly. And while it is unlikely that the proposal for negotiations in 2017 of a nuclear weapons legal prohibition will garner consensus, no doubt the group of states that presented it, and possibly others that join the initiative, will make every effort to move it forward in fall sessions of the General Assembly First Committee, which deals with matters of disarmament and international security.

In consideration of human folly

In the view of several stakeholders, in and out of government, time is of the essence. The case has been made, repeatedly and compellingly, that the absence of a nuclear-weapons detonation since Hiroshima and Nagasaki can best be attributed to luck. Nuclear weapons could be used by accident, miscalculation, or design. Assurances that they will never be used cannot be trusted. History has proven that human folly often leads to unwanted, disastrous outcomes.

So, the objective cannot be nuclear-weapons management or containment. Nor are sporadic reductions and reconfigurations of nuclear systems sufficient. Only complete and irreversible disarmament will do. While even one nuclear weapon remains, there is a real possibility of nuclear catastrophe.

So far, Canada has not sided with the growing number of nations, organizations, and individuals that believe that a comprehensive process for complete nuclear disarmament is long overdue, but with the few that question the merits, feasibility, and timeliness of a global ban on nuclear weapons. Canada has taken similar minority stands at some of the most important multilateral governance forums that tackle nuclear disarmament. It continues to insist on the tried-and-failed step-by-step approach that has not gotten the international community any closer to abolition 45 years after the entry into force of the NPT.

The NPT was designed to prevent non-nuclear-weapons states from acquiring nuclear weapons and to compel nuclear-weapons states to eliminate them. Those that hold nuclear weapons have resisted, avoided, and ignored not only their treaty obligations, but the groundswell of support for nuclear abolition that is building from all corners of the planet.

Some states consider the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons by certain nations or groups intolerable, but seem content to accept the nuclear-weapons programs of military or economic allies, even outside the NPT framework. The United States and Canada, for example, not only turn a blind eye to the rogue Israeli nuclear-weapons program, but engage in nuclear-cooperation agreements with India, contravening a longstanding agreement that nuclear cooperation should be reserved for NPT states parties.

To make matters worse, almost every state that possesses nuclear weapons is currently spending huge amounts of money to modernize their nuclear arsenals. Such actions not only work to ensure that the ultimate threat persists for decades to come, but discourage non-nuclear-weapons states from adhering to their nonproliferation obligations.

The United States has constructed other roadblocks on the path to nuclear abolition. It has so far refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, more than 15 years after the treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly. And it, alone among the states of the world, continues to supply nuclear arms to other states. Under NATO nuclear-sharing agreements, U.S. nuclear weapons are permanently stationed in several European countries.

The troubling reality is that states with nuclear weapons still embrace nuclear deterrence as a valid security doctrine, despite overwhelming evidence that it is fundamentally flawed and morally deficient. Nuclear weapons do not enhance the national security of those that hold them and can only result in the indiscriminate killing of many thousands of individuals, making their use contrary to International Humanitarian Law.

Building a protective legal wall

At the time of writing, 127 states had formally endorsed the “Humanitarian Pledge,” which commits them to filling the legal gap that currently exists in international law. Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not yet prohibited.

Absent from this list are all nuclear-weapons states and their nuclear-reliant allies. So, some big players are not yet at the table. And it’s true that there are different interpretations of what “filling the legal gap” means. Still, the coming together of most states, on humanitarian grounds, to demand concrete progress constitutes a historic shift in the nuclear disarmament debate.

The drive to nuclear abolition will continue and intensify because the threat posed by nuclear weapons is real, their use is unacceptable, and their complete elimination is essential. And as a comprehensive legal ban on nuclear weapons moves from aspiration to reality, a window of opportunity opens for Canada. Now is the time to signal its support for nuclear disarmament by siding with the majority of states, not with the nuclear powers.

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