States agree on one thing at least: The dangers of divergence(!)
A perspective from the UN Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee 2018 in Geneva. This is adapted from the article originally published by Reaching Critical Will.
Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meetings may not always be the most productive of sessions, but they do give a telling snapshot of national perspectives on disarmament and nonproliferation. The 2018 NPT PrepCom brings two things into sharp focus: 1) that the world faces increased nuclear risk at present, and 2) that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is struggling to cope under the strain.
There are multiple troubling matters that set this PrepCom apart from its recent predecessors, not least the unresolved crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the need to sustain the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most concerning though is the resurgent role and more aggressive posture of nuclear weapons in some nuclear-armed states’ security doctrines, reversing a trend that goes back to the 1990s. The Swedish delegation said it best:
“We are witnessing a deeply worrisome renaissance for nuclear weapons”.
The prospect of a new arms race goes jarringly against the grain of the majority of states calling for accelerated progress on disarmament, made apparent by another development since the 2017 NPT PrepCom, which is the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) with the support of 122 countries in July 2017.
Over the past year the five nuclear-armed states recognised under the NPT have variously (and changeably) attacked or ignored the TPNW; at the PrepCom it’s been similar. Russia and the United States framed it as a threat to international security. Doing so sets up the TPNW as a future scapegoat if the 2020 Review Conference fails to make progress (at both the 2015 and 2005 review conferences, states failed to agree an outcome document). China and France largely ignored it — although during cluster one France put forward more specific criticisms — emphasising existing frameworks and the need for gradual progress, while the United Kingdom took the step of lodging its objections to the prohibitions contained in the TPNW by contesting their emergent status under customary international law.
Irrespective of these objections, the TPNW is an irrefutable part of the rules-based international system that the majority of states view arguably not as a means of weakening the NPT regime, but in the absence of satisfactory progress on disarmament, complementary to it and a measure for the fulfilment of states’ article VI commitment to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. By the end of the general debate on Wednesday, over 25 states as well as the African Group, New Agenda Coalition, and Non-Aligned Movement had welcomed the TPNW in the context of the NPT.
Little progress has been demonstrated on the steps towards disarmament agreed in the NPT’s 2000 and 2010 Action Plans. A simple answer to nuclear-armed states’ concerns that the TPNW is undermining the NPT is on offer: implement the NPT. And be ready to signal meaningful progress at an early date.
There is no shortage of states, civil society organisations, and UN bodies trying to build common ground for progress towards nuclear disarmament consistent with the agreed NPT Action Plans. Side events aimed at doing so are being hosted by Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Canada on issues ranging from declaratory policy, a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone, entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and on a possible future fissile material cut-off treaty.
Efforts like these put the ball squarely in the court of the nuclear-armed states and test the sincerity of their commitment to the NPT. As the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs said, “Only progress on disarmament can ensure the long-term viability of the NPT.” Ideas and facilitators for this sort of progress are on offer — but there cannot be progress without political will.
The edifice of the NPT is crumbling. At some point in the not-so-long-term the nuclear weapons states will have to demonstrate meaningful, unmistakable progress on disarmament or accept responsibility for a defunct non-proliferation regime. Since this regime is widely credited with keeping the number of nuclear armed states in single figures, such an acceptance has attendant significant threats to international security and stability.