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Issue #1700      September 2, 2015

Nuclear-weapons-free world no lost cause

The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has as one of its main goals the realisation of general and complete nuclear disarmament. While it is tragic that an NPT review conference held on the 70th anniversary year of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have ended without an outcome document, it was by no means a total failure. Jamshed Baruah explains the positive outcomes of the 2015 NPT review conference.

Nuclear-weapons

The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August was an appropriate occasion to start developing a legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons. This, according to experts, is the distinct message emerging from a four-week-long United Nations conference which ended without an outcome document on May 22.

The failure of the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to reach consensus on a substantive outcome has prompted the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to express his “disappointment”, which is widely shared.

But the conference had two positive outcomes: the Humanitarian Pledge, initiated by Austria, representing a commitment of more than 100 states to work for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons; and recognition of the crucial role of the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) in facilitating steps towards a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The conference failed not only – as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada claimed – because of the lack of agreement over making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The draft outcome document had also generally been considered deeply flawed on disarmament.

In a statement, the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson said on May 23 that Ban regretted “in particular that State parties were unable to narrow their differences on the future of nuclear disarmament or to arrive at a new collective vision on how to achieve a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction”.

At the same time, Ban appealed to all states to sustain the momentum they had built over the previous five years. These included new initiatives in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament and continuing efforts to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation.

“With respect to the Middle East, the Secretary-General continues to stand ready to support efforts to promote and sustain the inclusive regional dialogue necessary to achieve this goal,” Ban’s spokesperson said.

How far this offer would be helpful remains to be seen. Rose Gottemoeller, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, has described as “unrealistic and unworkable” the demand from Egypt to set a deadline for the convening of a conference on a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction – a conference the last NPT review in 2010 had stipulated must take place by 2012.

Ban hopes that the growing awareness of the devastating humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons would continue to compel urgent actions for effective measures leading to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

The Secretary-General’s remarks address the basic issues at the heart of disagreement in the NPT review conference from April 27 to May 22 in New York – and this in spite of the fact that the NPT, which entered into force in 1970 and to which 191 states have subscribed, is regarded as the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime.

The treaty covers three mutually reinforcing pillars – disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy – and is the basis for international cooperation on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. However, the official nuclear weapon states – Britain, France, Russia, China and the US – are faulted for not doing enough for nuclear disarmament.

Rollback

According to Elizabeth Minor, writing in Open Democracy, the draft document contained no meaningful commitments by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. It set out few clear activities and no deadlines.

“Indeed, in many areas it rolled back on disarmament promises made in 2010 – such as diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, excised from the draft. It also suggested that work on nuclear disarmament at the UN General Assembly be done by consensus, even though that forum has always operated through democratic voting procedures,” argues Minor.

“Overall, the draft strongly reflected the priorities of the NPT’s five officially nuclear-armed states and their nuclear allies, in favour of upholding a status quo which features little activity on disarmament on the one hand and the modernisation of nuclear arsenals on the other,” adds Minor.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) says: “More than two decades after the Cold War ended, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads  remains at a very high level: approximately 15,700. Of these, around 4,100 warheads are considered operational, of which about 1,800 US and Russian warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice.”

Most warheads are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades, experts say.

“Despite significant reductions in US, Russian, French and British nuclear forces compared with Cold War levels, all the nuclear weapon states continue to modernise their remaining nuclear forces and appear committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future,” says FAS.

According to Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Barack Obama administration plans to rebuild the entire US nuclear arsenal, including the warheads, and the missiles, planes and submarines that carry them. These plans will cost US$348 billion over the next 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate beginning of 2015. The National Defence Panel, appointed by Congress, found that the price tag over 30 years could be as much as US$1 trillion.

While the US blamed Egypt, others from the Middle East expressed anger that the interests of Israel, a nuclear-armed state outside the NPT, had been prioritised over the interests of NPT member states. “Their criticisms seemed to be borne out when Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly thanked the US, UK and Canadian governments for ‘blocking an Egyptian-led drive on a possible Middle East nuclear arms ban’,” writes Rebecca Johnson in Open Democracy.

Anti-democratic and non-transparent

According to Reaching Critical Will (RCW), the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “The process to develop the draft Review Conference outcome document was anti-democratic and non-transparent. Several delegations, including ASEAN [Association of South-East Asian Nations], expressed their sense of frustration with and exclusion from the process ... South Africa lambasted the NPT for denigrating into rule of the minority, where the few have control even when it doesn’t make sense.”

RCW points out that, as a large cross-regional group of 47 states argued in a statement delivered by Austria, the discussions during the Conference and resulting text demonstrated the “urgency to act upon the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons’, but then fell ‘dramatically short of making credible progress on filling the legal gap”.

A total of 107 states – the majority of the world’s countries (and of NPT member states) – have highlighted this legal gap and have committed to fill it, by endorsing the Humanitarian Pledge issued by Austria. These states have collectively demonstrated their empowerment by demanding that their security concerns be considered equal to those of the nuclear-armed states.

RCW, headed by Ray Acheson, is of the view that these states – and those that endorse the pledge after the Conference – must now use the pledge as the basis for a new process to develop a legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons. “This process should begin without delay. The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has already been identified as the appropriate milestone for this process to commence.”

Observers agree with Acheson that a treaty banning nuclear weapons remains the most feasible course of action for states committed to disarmament. “This Review Conference has demonstrated beyond any doubt that continuing to rely on the nuclear-armed states or their nuclear-dependent allies for leadership or action is futile.”

As the 47 states represented in the Austrian statement highlighted, “The exchanges of views that we have witnessed during this review cycle demonstrate that there is a wide divide that presents itself in many fundamental aspects of what nuclear disarmament should mean. There is a reality gap, a credibility gap, a confidence gap and a moral gap.”

These gaps can be filled by determined action to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. “History honours only the brave,” declared Costa Rica. “Now is the time to work for what is to come, the world we want and deserve.”

RCW argues: “Those who reject nuclear weapons must have the courage of their convictions to move ahead without the nuclear-armed states, to take back ground from the violent few who purport to run the world, and build a new reality of human security and global justice.”

Third World Resurgence

Next article – Ongoing refugee tragedy

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