The 9th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has now been underway for a week, at the United Nations Headquarters. The five-yearly “Revcon” is a crucial international meeting that has the aim of improving and strengthening one of the most important global security regimes: the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
The ICCS is in New York City to observe the negotiations and conduct research for our ESRC/AHRC funded project, “Nuclear Ethics and Global Security: Reforming the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime”. I will be blogging weekly on the conference. In this first piece, we look at what is arguably the biggest story to emerge from this year’s Revcon: the extraordinary influence that the new “humanitarian impacts” agenda has gained in three short years.
Subsequent blogs will focus on the other big issues this year, and into the future: disarmament; peaceful uses of nuclear energy and nonproliferation; and the long-term fate of the regime and the potential futures it must prepare for.
The NPT and Revcon 2015: Fears of Failure
While it was in many ways a flawed and highly political document, the NPT has helped limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to nine states, provided a normative and legal context for states like South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Libya to relinquish their weapons, and provides a forum for international society to press the nuclear weapons states to abolish their weapons altogether.
At Monday’s first session, the NPT’s value was affirmed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, by Iran’s foreign minister Dr. Javad Zarif speaking on behalf of 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement, and by every other state that spoke. The NPT’s membership of 188 states (187 if we accept North Korea’s withdrawal) makes it one of the most universal treaties bar the UN Charter or the Geneva Conventions. However, given that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has more members and so far stands as a tragic failure, membership alone is no indicator of success. This is what is at stake at every Revcon, and especially this year: Have the actions and attitudes of states to the NPT, and the web of other agreements that make up the nonproliferation regime, served to advance or undermine its purposes? Consequently, have they advanced or undermined the contribution it can make to global security?
In 1995, amid intense dispute and at the final hour, the NPT was extended indefinitely. In 2000 the Revcon set out an impressive agenda that included a 13 point plan and set of principles for disarmament and security; in 2005 the French, and a US delegation led by the Bush Administration, drove the meeting into failure; and in 2010, amid optimism engendered by improved US-Russian relations, a new bilateral arms control treaty (NewSTART), and the joint declaration by Presidents Obama and Medvedev committing ‘our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world’, the Revcon set out an ambitious 64-point series of actions. However in 2015 the Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament assessed that on key issues – disarmament, nuclear testing, IAEA safeguards, and fissile materials – there has been no or minimal progress.
Hence this year, with US-Russia relations under stress against a background of the Syrian war, the Ukraine crisis, and US accusations of Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, along with numerous divisions between the nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, the mood is more sombre. (For the angry Russian response to the US statement, see here). Indeed some observers, such as the chair of the 1995 Revcon Jayantha Dhanapala, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, are predicting that this year’s meeting will fail to reach consensus.
The Humanitarian Impacts Agenda: Nuclear Ethics Storms In
Even if the 2015 meeting fails to produce a final statement or an action plan, it will not have been a total failure. The 2010 action plan remains important, and the CNND’s State of Play report sets out numerous good ideas for progress across the gamut of issues. This report exemplifies the efforts of numerous civil society organisations and think tanks, and much background diplomacy, that aims to promote problem-solving and progress on many key questions, as the ICCS’s Ana Alecsandru explained earlier this year.
One of the most significant of these efforts have been those by civil society, churches, and many non-nuclear weapons states to force serious consideration of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and testing. At the birth of the nuclear age this was a significant concern that tortured the consciences of nuclear scientists – it is not widely known that a petition of 155 Manhattan project scientists opposed the atomic bombs’ use against Japan without warning – and led to US and Soviet proposals for the international control of all nuclear activities and the banning of nuclear weapons. The reports from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were sickening, and even the future head of the US Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, observed in a report to the chief of the air force that ‘in conjunction with other mass destruction weapons it is possible to depopulate vast areas of the earth’s surface, leaving only vestigial remnants of man’s material works’. Sadly, this led him to conclude that ‘in being there must be the most effective atomic bomb striking force possible’.
Even after a study prepared for the 1977 Presidential Review Memorandum predicted that the casualties of nuclear war between the US and USSR would be more than 270 million people, and the “nuclear winter” studies were released (the most recent of which concluded that even a relatively small “regional” nuclear conflict that saw the use of 100 Nagasaki-sized weapons could create ‘combined cooling and enhanced UV [that] would put significant pressures on global food supplies and…trigger a global nuclear famine’) moral concern about nuclear weapons faded into the background after the end of the Cold War.
Over the last two years such moral concern has surged back, and planted itself immovably on one side of the Revcon stage – like Hamm bound to his wheelchair in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. On Monday, one minister after another referred to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war: Iran for the 120 members of the NAM, New Zealand for the “New Agenda Coalition” (which includes Brazil, Egypt and South Africa), Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Mexico, The Slovak Republic, Spain, and one nuclear weapons state, the United Kingdom. They were joined – somewhat obliquely, by the US, when John Kerry spoke of his personal experience as a Navy trainee at the Nuclear Chemical Biological Warfare School where he ‘learned in graphic detail about what nuclear war would look like, about the damage that weapons of mass destruction can inflict’ and ‘not just the immediate harm, but the long-term trauma that [radiation] can cause’. The statements from China and Russia, however, were notably silent on the humanitarian question. On Thursday, Australia also read a statement on behalf of the 26 nations in the ‘humanitarian consequences group’.
Especially powerful statements came from Japan, which evoked the memory of the 130,000 dead at Hiroshima; Ireland, which mentioned the ground-breaking moral condemnation of nuclear weapons from the Holy See; and the Marshall Islands, which reminded the audience that 67 nuclear tests had taken place while the islands were a UN trusteeship territory between 1947 and 1954, with a combined explosive yield that equated to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for twelve years. The foreign minister, Tony DeBrum, stated that he brought ‘a moral lesson for all nations – because no one ever considered the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the Marshallese people carry a burden which no other people or nation should ever have to bear’.
The Marshalls and Mexico both reminded the conference that nearly 160 states – 80 per cent of the UN’s membership – have endorsed the “humanitarian initiative”. The efforts by civil society and many states that saw three major international conferences hosted in two years (Oslo, Norway in March 2013; Nayarit, Mexico, in February 2014, and Vienna, Austria, in December 2014) have obviously borne fruit. Key outcomes were a ‘pledge’ by the host of the Vienna conference, Austria, to disseminate the evidence and findings from the Vienna Conference and “cooperate…to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”.
The diplomatic and policy implications are that the agenda is being used to both pressure nuclear weapons states to completely abolish nuclear weapons, and to take immediate steps to reduce the likelihood of their use. It is also driving pressure for a new treaty, or treaties, that would ban the use and possession of nuclear weapons and demonstrate a stronger time-bound commitment by all nuclear weapons states to abolition.
The moral and normative implications are also profound. These are exemplified by Pope Francis’ message to the 2014 Vienna conference, which stated that ‘the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are predictable and planetary’ and that ‘nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among states’. That not just nuclear use, but the continuation of deterrence, has been condemned as immoral was confirmed by the Pope’s representative at Vienna, Archbishop Tomasi. This ethical stance by the leadership of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has been so disturbing to the nuclear weapons states that (so I was told by one well-connected NGO delegate) senior US arms control officials have visited the Vatican three times since 2014 in an attempt to persuade the Holy See to soften its position.
From our perspective researching nuclear ethics at the ICCS, this development is very important. Rather than trying to impose ethics on nuclear politics from the academy, we are observing international society taking up an ethical imperative as a central part of their effort to reform the nonproliferation regime and drive it towards nuclear zero. If we think of Hedley Bull’s English School solidarist position that looks for states to become ‘local agents of a world common good’, the humanitarian initiative points the way by underscoring the unacceptable danger that nuclear weapons pose to humanity, even under the conditions of declared restraint and mutually assured destruction. The initiative is also evidence of a cosmopolitan ethic, which rejects the view that the nuclear weapons states can purchase their security at the expense of the rest of the world. Rather, it maintains that the security of humanity and the biosphere must be our goal, and puts human security and human rights – not deterrence and strategic stability – at the centre of global deliberation. This is not to stay that concerns about national security and strategic stability are not legitimate, but only within a more actively disarming world that acknowledges – through its actions – the unacceptable dangers of nuclear weapons and is determined to abolish them. That would be, as I wrote in a 2009 article, a system of ‘strategic reassurance towards disarmament’. As that vision of a nuclear free world mentioned by Obama and Medvedev fades from the language of the nuclear weapons states, the humanitarian initiative drags it back into view – as a fundamental question of what the Marshallese foreign minister called ‘a failure to address incontrovertible human rights.’ Reminding us of the more that 150 states who joined the statement on humanitarian consequences at the General Assembly’s First Committee, he stated that ‘the humanitarian dimension of disarmament must be the strongest centerpiece of multilateral assurance’.
In short, the extraordinary success of the humanitarian initiative signals a seismic shift in the global structure of norms around nuclear weapons. It promises to deprive the nuclear weapons states of all legitimacy for their nuclear weapons holdings and robs them of the lingering prestige value they may hold. Rather than a coveted avatar of geopolitical power and leadership, nuclear weapons promise to become a moral and geopolitical albatross around the nuclear states necks.
Anthony Burke is Associate Professor/Reader in International and Political Studies at UNSW Australia, Canberra. He is a visiting fellow at the ICCS and a co-investigator with Nicholas Wheeler and Scott Wisor on the “Nuclear Ethics” project. His most recent book is Ethics and Global Security: A Cosmopolitan Approach (with Katrina Lee-Koo and Matt McDonald, Routledge 2014).
Image source: Flickr / U.S. Department of State.