Rattling the nuclear cage, and look who is terrified

The dream of a world freed of the existence of nuclear weapons, and of the resulting existential threat to humanity and to all life on planet Earth, is an inalienable element of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Revived for a brief shining moment by U.S. President Barack Obama in Prague in 2009, it has gradually faded from view since then as the world witnessed nuclear modernization and upgrades, growth in warhead numbers, continued testing and a rise in geopolitical tensions in several high-risk theaters involving nuclear powers in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.

But the international community did not give up hope and redoubled efforts to bring the nuclear arms race under control and point the way to nuclear abolition. An ambitious yet sharply practical agenda was outlined by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) co-chaired by former Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi of Australia and Japan. The current global tensions with their nuclear overtones make any further progress on nuclear arms control much more challenging. But they also heighten the urgency for action.

To realize the NPT vision and remain consistent with the steps advocated by the ICNND, on Oct. 27 the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly adopted, by the overwhelming vote of 123-38 (with 16 abstentions), Resolution A/C.1/71/L.41, which calls for negotiations on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading toward their total elimination.” Two conferences will be convened next year in New York (March 27 to 31 and June 15 to July 7). The resolution fulfills the 127-nation humanitarian pledge “to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.”

The strengthening international sentiment was evident at the U.N. working group’s disarmament meeting in Geneva in August when Australia angered many countries by insisting on a recorded vote instead of approving a consensus report calling for negotiations on a ban to begin in 2017. The vote was 68-22 to proceed. Strenuous efforts since then to cajole, coax, bribe and bully countries to change their vote in the U.N. General Assembly in October failed spectacularly as no fewer than 57 countries co-sponsored resolution L41. The European Parliament has adopted its own resolution [415-124 (74 abstentions)] calling on member states to participate constructively in the 2017 negotiations.

This historic U.N. decision adds to global efforts to delegitimize nuclear weapons, contain and reverse their spread, and begin the process of first banning and then eliminating them and dismantling their infrastructure. A legal ban will further reinforce the normative boundary between conventional and nuclear weapons, strengthen the norm of nonuse of nuclear weapons, and reaffirm both the nonproliferation and disarmament norms.

All 191 NPT state parties have committed in Article 6 to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” In 1996 the World Court advised that they have an obligation to bring these negotiations to a conclusion. The Oct. 27 U.N. resolution conforms to this obligation and attempts to give practical expression to it.

Objections to it lack merit and should be seen as a failed tactic to delay abolition indefinitely. The nuclear powers have done their utmost to deny there is any binding legal obligation under the NPT to abolish the bomb within a foreseeable time frame. Having taken that stand in principle and backed it in practice by keeping substantial nuclear weapons stockpiles and modernizing, upgrading and enlarging their arsenals, they have few takers for the argument that the world should not act to fill the existing legal gap.

Japan’s explanation for its “no” vote does not pass the laugh test: “This recommendation of the disarmament community would undermine the progress of effective nuclear disarmament.” Such sophistry adds to the anger and impatience of the others at the lack of concrete progress. Contrary to the nuclear powers’ endless excuses, the international community considers a ban treaty urgent, essential and in current circumstances the only practical way forward for achieving real disarmament.

The nuclear powers parrot one another’s argument that as long as nuclear weapons exist, their stockpiles are needed both to protect national security and to keep the nuclear peace. U.S. umbrella states — allies that shelter under the American nuclear umbrella — echo this in saying that while nuclear weapons exist, they must rely on the protection of U.S. nuclear weapons. But no one is calling for unilateral U.S. nuclear abolition. The entire edifice of the “while nuclear weapons exist” argument crumbles once the goal is synchronized global abolition. The policy challenge changes to managing the transition process so as not to jeopardize any country’s national security nor undermine international security.

Delegitimizing nuclear weapons is central to the longer term goal of abolishing this uniquely inhumane and devastating weapon of mass destruction. The decision to start negotiations is recognition that a ban treaty can be one useful building block for creating the structures necessary to support a world free of nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons were universally prohibited back in 1993 and the relevant convention entered into force in 1997. It is widely hailed as an outstanding success, even though the actual elimination of all chemical weapons has yet to be completed.

Similarly, a legal nuclear ban treaty by itself cannot deliver nuclear disarmament. But it can be a vital element to revive flagging momentum and re-energize efforts to move from a ban to total elimination of nuclear warheads and dismantlement of the nuclear weapons infrastructure. Accordingly, a ban treaty will be complementary to the disarmament goal of the NPT and provide impetus to efforts toward an eventual Nuclear Weapons Convention that is universal, nondiscriminatory and fully verifiable.

A ban treaty would strongly affirm the moral case against the development, acquisition, possession and use of nuclear weapons and for their abolition. Its implementation will require action by those who possess nuclear weapons. Their failure to follow through will be evidence of defying the global norm.

A detailed breakdown of the U.N. vote is quite revealing. Four of the five NPT-licit nuclear weapons states voted against the resolution (France, Russia, Britain and the United States) and were joined by Israel as a non-NPT nuclear power. China abstained and so did India and Pakistan. North Korea, remarkably, voted “yes.” Of the three countries that have hosted conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, Austria and Mexico voted for it, but Norway buckled to U.S. pressure and voted against.

Of the 177 countries that voted on the resolution, 34 are from Asia and the Pacific region. Of these, 26 voted in support of Resolution L41, four against (Australia, Japan, Federated States of Micronesia, and South Korea), and four abstained (China, India, Pakistan and Vanuatu).

Clearly, Australia, Japan and South Korea voted in solidarity with their U.S. nuclear protector and against the overwhelming sentiment of their Asian and Pacific neighbors as well as against global opinion. Being on the wrong side of geography as well as history is not a good look. Their vote might also attract charges of hypocrisy the next time they criticize North Korea’s nuclear program.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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