Will the “responsible states” please stand up?


Over the last two weeks, approximately 120 government delegations have been gathered at the UN in Geneva to discuss the implementation (and lack thereof) of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A considerable number of international organizations and civil society actors were also in attendance. Adopted fifty years ago this year, the purpose of the NPT is to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, further nuclear disarmament, and guarantee the right of all states to use nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

This year’s NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting began on 23 April and is scheduled to finish on 4 May.

The meeting has not been particularly productive. Insisting that nuclear deterrence is legitimate and that they are handling their weapons of mass destruction “responsibly”, the nuclear-weapon states have shown little will to earnestly discuss the implementation of their repeated promises to disarm. Disappointingly, the chair’s summary of the meeting offers an inaccurate narrative of balance by giving equal space to the views of the overwhelming majority of states parties and the various grievances of the nuclear-armed states. What is more, the summary fails to even mention the gendered impacts of nuclear detonations, facts that were highlighted by several delegations.

As the 2015 NPT Review Conference failed to produce a substantive outcome, the most recent roadmap for NPT implementation is provided by the Action Plan adopted at the Review Conference in 2010. Eight years on from 2010, the score card is less than impressive. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty is not yet in force. Negotiations on a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty have not even begun. Meaningful risk reduction measures have not been adopted. On the vitally important Action 5(c) – the nuclear-weapon states undertake to “diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies” – the direction of travel has been backwards. Earlier this year, the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists highlighted how “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions” by certain states had increased the risk of nuclear war, and set the minute hand of the ominous Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight – the tied closest it has ever been to apocalypse.

Troublingly, throughout the NPT PrepCom, a considerable number of non-nuclear-weapon states continued to make implicit or explicit excuses for the nuclear-weapon states, refusing to criticize their enormous investments in nuclear “modernization” programmes. Some of the nuclear-weapon systems under development today are literally designed to last out the century. Showing no signs of diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in their military concepts, most of the nuclear umbrella states continue to enable a new nuclear arms race. In fact, many states have become even more resolute in their defence of the potential use of nuclear weapons.

That said, the majority of the world’s states have taken an active stance against all weapons of mass destruction. Over the last two weeks, a large number of non-nuclear-weapon states have declared their continuing support for the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons, the breakthrough agreement banning nuclear weapons adopted at the UN General Assembly last year. The delegation of Malaysia, for example, pointed out that the new treaty is “legally sound, feasible to implement and sends a powerful political message that nuclear weapons are categorically unacceptable.” The delegation of Kazakhstan maintained that the treaty sends “a clear and unambiguous signal to all nuclear weapon possessing states.” The treaty constitutes an “impressive manifestation of the view of the large majority of the world’s states that nuclear weapons, far from providing security… are actually an existential threat for humanity”, held the Austrians.

The official purpose of the NPT PrepComs is to “consider principles, objectives and ways in order to promote the full implementation of the treaty”. But much of the PrepCom’s allotted time was instead consumed by repetitive cycles of “right of reply” involving the delegations of the UK, US, Syria, and Russia and a long list of apparent violations of the UN Charter and Chemical Weapons Convention. Recent events in Syria and Salisbury have rightly caused concern that the “chemical weapons taboo” is under threat. And some of the nuclear-weapon states were commendably eager to defend the norm against chemical weapons. But their simultaneous insistence that possessing, developing, and threatening to use nuclear weapons are OK rendered their critiques somewhat less effective than they could have been. The fact remains that the nuclear deterrent policy inescapably relies on an implicit threat to indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of civilians, not to mention the unspeakable suffering inflicted on survivors.

The nuclear-armed states’ mantra-like assertions that they are “responsible nuclear-weapon states” are in fact grossly irresponsible. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk remains that they could be used, whether by accident or design. Even a “limited” nuclear war could cause climatic disturbances resulting in a famine jeopardizing the lives of billions of people worldwide. These risks must be confronted head-on, not ignored.

The norm against weapons of mass destruction should not be qualified or questioned. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used to say, there are no right hands for wrong weapons. The real “responsible states” are therefore the nations that without qualification support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Supporters of international humanitarian law should stand up and be counted and sign and ratify the new treaty.