The not-so-progressive approach

April 27, 2016

“Our progressive approach is a clarion call for action,” declared Australia’s disarmament ambassador, John Quinn, upon introducing a paper to the new United Nations working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva this February. Many of the other diplomats in the room appeared doubtful.

In recent years, Australia has become an outspoken defender of the nuclear status quo. Its conservative foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has opposed moves towards a global ban on the worst weapons of mass destruction. US nuclear weapons, she says, guarantee Australia’s security and prosperity.

Seventeen other ostensibly non-nuclear nations, mostly members of NATO, co-sponsored the Australian-led paper, misleadingly titled “A progressive approach to a world free of nuclear weapons”. These nations are not against nuclear weapons per se. Indeed, five host US nuclear bombs on their soil.

In the world of disarmament diplomacy, they are not the most credible of actors, often coming under fire for their doublespeak. Some of the more moderate members of NATO declined to sign on to the paper. And a number of non-NATO members that were approached to join said they wanted nothing to do with it.


Neither progressive nor new

The “progressive approach” is the latest iteration of the “building blocks approach” or “step-by-step approach”, which the same nations have championed for decades without yielding significant results. The regular rebranding is, one can only conclude, an attempt to disguise the staleness of the ideas it contains.

Last year the United States introduced yet another synonymous term – the “full-spectrum” approach – but it has yet to catch on. And it seems unlikely that “progressive approach” will either. As Australia concedes, it would be “disingenuous” to deny a link between these various approaches.

Many of the co-sponsors, rather than earnestly pursuing nuclear disarmament, have increasingly focused their efforts on stalling moves towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons. This has become their overriding mission – despite being legally bound to pursue negotiations in good faith for disarmament.

All but one of the co-sponsors subscribe to the doctrine of “extended nuclear deterrence”. In other words, they would support the use of US nuclear weapons on their behalf in certain circumstances. Finland is the odd one out, though its views align closely with those of its NATO neighbours.

The co-sponsors rightly regard the push for a ban as a threat to their continued reliance on nuclear weapons. While they may endorse the ultimate goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world – as do the nuclear-armed nations – they have shown little willingness, as yet, to modify their own behaviour to help get there.


A short cut, but no quick fix

Despite being a “clarion call for action”, the Australian paper has a decidedly negative tone: its first paragraph declares there will be “no quick fixes” to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world, and the security concerns of nations with nuclear weapons or in nuclear alliances cannot simply “be brushed aside”.

It proposes an incremental approach to nuclear disarmament, which, according to co-sponsor Japan, may at first appear “to be a detour” to elimination, but is “actually a short cut”. (Yet, earlier, Japan had insisted: “There are no short cuts to achieve effective, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament.”)

The “progressive approach” consists of a number of “building blocks” that would supposedly take us to a “minimization point” – the point when there are “very low numbers” of nuclear weapons in the world. “Needless to say, significant work remains ahead of us before we attain this point,” the paper states.

Upon reaching the minimization point, “further thought” could then be given to the possibility of a multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty, which would be the “final” building block for elimination. However, an “axiomatic requirement” is that the treaty would include all nations with nuclear weapons.

It is unclear whether, even at this far-off point in the indefinite future, nuclear weapons would be declared illegal to use, produce and possess. According to Australia, a prohibition would “possibly … be appropriate”, but only after all nuclear weapons had been eliminated, and not before.

Yet, for other weapons of mass destruction, and for certain conventional weapons, prohibition has preceded – and stimulated – elimination. Weapons that are outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate, losing their political status and, along with it, the resources for their perpetuation.

While a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would not be a “quick fix” to this complex, intractable problem, it would – as a growing number of nations recognize – be a powerful catalyst for change, fundamentally reshaping the way we perceive the bomb and all those who possess it.


An ‘unequivocal undertaking’

In recent years, the majority of NPT members have voiced deep concern about the lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament, as well as the increasing risk of a nuclear detonation – whether by accident, miscalculation or design. That risk, experts have warned, may be higher today than ever before.

At the February session of the working group, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan expressed alarm that nuclear-armed nations have not only failed to fulfil their disarmament obligations, but “are actually modernizing their nuclear arsenals and are developing new types of weapons”.

As the “progressive approach” paper notes, the five nuclear-armed parties to the NPT – the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – made an “unequivocal undertaking” in 2000 to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear stockpiles (an undertaking they have subsequently reaffirmed).

Yet, today those five nations, together with four others outside the treaty – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – retain a total of more than 15,000 nuclear warheads. Despite this sorry state of affairs, Japan chose to defend their disarmament record. “If you look closely,” it told the working group, “there is steady progress.”

Most nations, however, disagreed, and were unafraid to convey their strong dissatisfaction. Ireland, for example, said: “The problem is, we all know what the steps are, but no one is taking any. We all know what the building blocks are, but nothing is being built … Clearly, a fresh approach is required.”


Non-proliferation measures

The “progressive approach”, rather than being a clarion call for action on disarmament, is chiefly concerned with non-proliferation – preventing other nations, or terrorists, from acquiring the bomb. As Egypt remarked: “We believe most of the effective measures mentioned in this paper are non-proliferation tools.”

The co-authors invoke non-proliferation challenges as an excuse for disarmament failures. Strengthening the non-proliferation regime, they argue, would “help create an appropriate climate for disarmament to progress”. The current climate, in other words, is not conducive to disarmament action.

One of the main “building blocks” advanced in the “progressive approach” paper is the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); another is the negotiation of a treaty to cut off the production of fissile material. Both are eminently worthwhile initiatives, and both have been pursued for decades.

But it is difficult to see how these and other non-proliferation-focused measures would take us significantly closer to the goal of elimination. Most nations have already stopped producing fissile material, and North Korea is the only nation to have conducted a full-scale nuclear test this century.

A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons could go further than simply outlawing full-scale tests; it could outlaw “sub-critical” nuclear testing, too, as employed recently by the United States, Russia and China. Such testing does not violate the CTBT, but nevertheless allows those nations to enhance their nuclear arsenals.

Moreover, as Brazil proposed in February, the treaty could include a prohibition on the production of fissile material, rendering unnecessary the negotiation of a separate instrument as envisaged in the “progressive approach”. Indeed, it could go a step further and ban the export of uranium without comprehensive safeguards.


Universality and inclusivity

One objective of the “progressive approach” is to universalize the NPT – that is, to convince India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea to join (or rejoin) that treaty as non-nuclear nations. But the paper offers no suggestions as to how this could be achieved. Non-NPT nations view the NPT as an unjustly discriminatory regime.

For many years, it was widely agreed that denying non-NPT nations access to uranium or nuclear technology was an important impediment and disincentive to proliferate. But over the past decade, that principle has been steadily eroded – and many of the “progressive approach” authors, Australia included, bear part of the blame.

Thus, the calls in their paper to universalize the NPT ring hollow. Indeed, all advocates of the “progressive approach” have refused even to acknowledge that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, cheerfully accepting its policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of these weapons of mass destruction.

Equally disingenuous are the concerns about “inclusivity”. The “progressive approach” authors insinuate that the UN working group on nuclear disarmament – which is open to all 193 UN members – excludes the nuclear-armed nations. Why? Because those nations have chosen to boycott it.

Certainly, the working group is a far more inclusive body than the long-moribund Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, of which two-thirds of the world’s nations are denied membership. For decades, nuclear-armed nations and their allies have misused that forum to thwart disarmament efforts.


Do as we say, not as we do

Notably absent from the “progressive approach” are steps that the co-authors themselves will take to advance nuclear disarmament. Since the NPT entered into force four and a half decades ago, these nations have done little, if anything, towards ending their own reliance on nuclear weapons.

They have become adept at recommending particular courses of action for nuclear-armed nations to follow, but their own record on implementing the disarmament provision of the NPT (article VI) leaves much to be desired. The precarious state of the treaty today is, to some extent, attributable to their inaction.

The “progressive approach” paper calls for increased transparency with respect to nuclear arsenals. However, five of the co-sponsors refuse even to admit, officially, that they host nuclear weapons on their territory. Their cold war-era policy of nuclear opacity, or ambiguity, is little different from that of Israel.

The paper calls for greater education on the “humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons”. Yet, at the three international conferences on this topic in 2013 and 2014, Australia refused multiple requests from civil society to share information on the impact of nuclear testing on its Aboriginal communities.

Furthermore, most of the co-sponsors have refused to endorse statements noting that “it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons never be used again, under any circumstances”. And none voted yes in 2015 to a UN resolution condemning nuclear weapons as “inherently immoral”.


The ‘security dimension’

The co-sponsors view the possession of nuclear weapons by certain nations as legitimate and justifiable given “the prevailing international environment”. And they seem determined to continue relying on nuclear weapons in their own military doctrines indefinitely, while ensuring that no other nations do likewise.

They argue that humanitarian-based efforts to prohibit nuclear weapons fail to take into account the supposed security benefits derived from possessing these ultimate weapons of mass destruction. And they believe that “legitimate security concerns” must be balanced against “humanitarian concerns”.

But humanitarian concerns are not distinct from security concerns. This is a false dichotomy they have developed. Humanitarian concerns are, first and foremost, about protecting the safety and security of civilian populations. The very purpose of a treaty banning nuclear weapons is to enhance global security.

The co-sponsors of the “progressive approach” paper urge nations to focus on “common ground”, not differences. They warn of the “further fragmentation” of the international community – seemingly oblivious to the divisiveness of their own actions, not least of all the hosting of nuclear weapons.

After years of broken promises by nuclear-armed nations, it would be futile, indeed reckless, to continue pursuing yet more lowest-common-denominator outcomes of the kind routinely brokered at NPT meetings. Instead, nations that favour disarmament must join forces to create strong new treaty-based norms.

Fierce resistance to a ban is inevitable. Nations with nuclear weapons, and many of their allies, are intent on keeping them. They believe these inhumane weapons afford them prestige in international affairs. But that perception can change, and it can change soon – if the international community chooses to ban the bomb.

By Tim Wright

  • aiweiwei

    “Let’s act up! Ban nuclear weapons completely and unconditionally.”

    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate