“NATO” is not an excuse

March 24, 2015

Media outlets in Japan and Norway report that the United States has become more assertive in its opposition to the humanitarian initiative, issuing “demarches” to its allies to refrain from backing a Pledge announced by the Austrian government at the conclusion of the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. Prompted by the comprehensive evidence generated by the Vienna Conference and its two predecessors, the Pledge is a call to action to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. Amidst calls for a nuclear weapons free world the US has decided to show its hand and reveal that it intends to do everything it can to control the debate on nuclear disarmament and isn’t interested in anyone else pushing it out of its comfort zone.

The five nuclear weapons states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have been quite suspicious of the so-called “humanitarian initiative”. Launched in 2012 by a group of countries and supported by major humanitarian actors and civil society organizations, including ICAN, the initiative has managed to shift the debate on nuclear weapons from a security-centric discussion to one that places at its core the fact that nuclear weapons pose a major and potentially imminent humanitarian threat.

Norway, a NATO member, organized the first of a series of three international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The second Conference was held in Nayarit, Mexico on February 2014, while the most recent meeting was organized by the Austrian government and assembled 158 countries, hundreds of civil society representatives and several international organizations. The evidence presented during the conferences concluded that nuclear weapons have the potential to create a humanitarian catastrophe; the risks of nuclear explosions are rising; and little could be done to bring relief to those affected should a denotation happen either by accident or as a result of an attack.

After dismissing the humanitarian initiative as a “distraction”, acknowledging that progress was made in their absence, the UK and the US felt pressured to participate in the Vienna conference. The vast majority of NATO allies, if not all, have instead been attending the humanitarian impact meetings since their inception. Some, the “spoilers”, have been exposed for their hypocrisy, unable to justify their claims of pushing for a nuclear weapons free world. Others have expressed their support in other forums by condemning the “use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances” and demanding that awareness of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons should underpin “all approaches and efforts towards nuclear disarmament.

Now, just a few weeks before the 2015 Review Conference, the disarmament record has shown no progress. Almost none of the disarmament commitments of the NPT Action Plan agreed five years ago have been implemented and article VI of the NPT seems to be disregarded by the nuclear weapons possessors as a general principle with no practical implications. The calls for a nuclear weapon free world paired with the billions of dollars invested in the modernization of the nuclear arsenals do not indeed sound credible.

As the nuclear possessors are about to step into a security hole, it’s the responsibility of their ‘good friends’ and allies to warn them of the risks. NATO allies should indeed consider that blindly obeying the US’ requests might turn them into accomplices. The current nuclear weapon regime is not only unsustainable but it is also unpredictable and full of risks.

Notwithstanding the insolence of telling another country how to behave, NATO solidarity should not be invoked as the reason of refusing support to the Austrian Pledge. NATO’s strategic concept explicitly recognizes the connection between nuclear disarmament and ‘a safer world’ and commits NATO to the goal of “creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”. All member states are committed to pursue such goal and should seek their elimination.

In addition to being parties to a military alliance, all NATO member States are also parties to the NPT and are bound by its obligations, including article VI. The Austrian Pledge is a call to “all states parties to the NPT to renew their commitment to the urgent and full implementation of existing obligations under Article VI, and to this end, to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. This intent does not conflict with any NATO obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty. On the contrary, State Parties to the treaty should work inside the NATO alliance to reduce and end the dependence on nuclear weapons, as stated in the 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan (Action 5, 7 and 8).

Moreover, with regards to nuclear weapons NATO member states have reserved their right to adopt independent national policies. For instance they have joined treaties like the NPT, the PTBT and the CTBT at different times. NATO’s nuclear policy cannot be simply reduced to the strategic concept or the intergovernmental agreements, but must take into account the policies and military doctrines formulated by each member state, which show a significant diversity in their nuclear weapons policies (ILPI, A ban on nuclear weapons: what’s in it for NATO?).

The evidence collected by the Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, shows that the consequences of a nuclear detonation are more severe than previously imagined. The effects of such explosion(s) would not stop at national borders and could potentially have regional or global effects depending on the number of detonations entailed. The risks of such a scenario to enfold is higher than previously imagined.

The humanitarian initiative and the Austrian proposal to address the “legal gap” are outstanding opportunities not to be missed. Results under the nuclear weapon states leadership have proved to be scarce if not disappointing. Those supporting the humanitarian initiative, including NATO member states have a historic chance to seize. Military alliances and fear of being distracted do not sound like arguments but more like excuses.

As we prepare to commemorate the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing, a new leadership is needed. The voices of those who experienced the horror of a nuclear detonation first hand are now disappearing. Now is not the time for excuses, nor is the time for vague hype intentions lacking a timeframe. It’s time to keep our promises and deliver concrete results.

 Arielle Denis and Daniela Varano



  • 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