From the Nuclear Non-proliferation to the UN Prohibition Treaty

Aug 11, 2017

There are currently no negotiations or discussions on arms control being conducted at all between any of the countries that possess nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, USA)

  1. The Preparatory Committee process for the 2020 five-yearly Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference began with the first meeting in Vienna in May. The 2020 conference will mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT entering into force.
  2. The UN conference (27–31 March, 15 June–7 July) to negotiate a legally binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons adopted the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (NWPT) on 7 July with 122 states voting in favour. It prohibits the acquisition, manufacture, possession, testing, hosting, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. It will be opened for signature at the UN on 20 September and come into force 90 days after fifty states have ratified. It will be legally binding, albeit only for signatories.

The NWPT may be the most significant multilateral development on nuclear arms control since the NPT in 1968. The sober reality of the first storyline effectively delegitimised the NPT as the dominant normative framework for nuclear disarmament, and the third proposition was the inevitable result of this disillusionment by the international community. Its true significance is its potential to serve as the alternative normative framework for nuclear disarmament.

For almost half a century, the NPT has functioned as the normative sheet anchor of global nuclear orders. But with non-proliferation obligations effectively universalised to all countries that do not possess nuclear weapons and disarmament efforts completely stalled, the NPT’s normative potential seems exhausted.

Had the nuclear powers demonstrated serious intent to negotiate nuclear arms control measures and outline a roadmap for disarmament, there would have been no need for an alternative normative framework under which to pursue stigmatisation and prohibition of these most destructive weapons. According to George Perkovich, an NWPT sceptic who heads the nuclear policy program at Carnegie in Washington DC, ‘the nuclear prohibition initiative became inevitable’ because of the nuclear powers’ failure to take the NPT disarmament obligation seriously, insisting that ‘good faith’ negotiations do not require any particular outcome.

The failure to demonstrate nuclear reductions coincided with heightened anxieties about rising nuclear threats. The election of Donald Trump, an inexperienced person with only a shallow grasp of strategic affairs, as US President has sharply concentrated minds on nuclear risks. The world could survive on the very edge of disaster with one of the nine leaders with their fingers on the nuclear button being volatile, but risks going over the brink with two such leaders. Kim Jong-un has dramatically increased the speed and scope of his nuclear and missile programs and provocations. Trump effectively discarded President Ronald Reagan’s crisp warning that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and with his strategically challenged serial nuclear tweets, he has stoked the sum of all nuclear fears.

The NPT and the NWPT embed the geopolitical and normative balance of power, respectively, 49 years apart in time. Increasingly exasperated at the lack of nuclear disarmament anytime soon under the NPT, driven by fear of a catastrophic nuclear war with incalculable humanitarian consequences if nuclear weapons are not abolished, and inspired by humanitarian principles, a growing number of non-nuclear countries joined with civil society actors to negotiate an alternative prohibition treaty.

The nuclear powers and US allies, including Australia, refused to attend the UN conference, describing it as impractical, ineffective and unrealistic. They argued that the UN ban process is incompatible with the NPT and would weaken and damage the treaty regime. Article VI of the NPT stipulates: ‘Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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’ (emphasis added). Given firstly that no other negotiations are taking place, secondly that this was a UN-mandated and duly constituted multilateral conference, and thirdly that this is a UN treaty, it is on the face of it very hard to see how the boycott of the conference is in compliance with any NPT State Party’s Article VI legal obligation.

The prohibition treaty will have a powerful normative impact on both the military utility and political value of nuclear weapons and as such marks an important milestone in the long campaign to ban them. The treaty draws on the long-recognised unique role of the United Nations as the sole custodian and dispenser of politically significant international legitimacy flowing from its universal membership. Stigmatisation and prohibition are the necessary – not sufficient, but necessary – precursors to elimination.

Criticism of the NWPT as ineffective in eliminating warheads, lacking credibility and impractical is fundamentally misconceived: it confuses normative impact of a prohibition treaty with operational results of a full-fledged Nuclear Weapons Convention. Stigmatisation implies illegitimacy of a practice based on the collective moral revulsion of a community. The ban treaty aims to delegitimise and stigmatise the possession, use and deployment of nuclear weapons, plus the practice of nuclear deterrence. The foreseeable effects of use makes the doctrine of deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons morally unacceptable to the community at large.

The great Australian International Relations scholar Hedley Bull, who has an Australian National University building named after him, noted in his influential book The Anarchical Society (1977) that ‘great powers are powers recognised by others to have, and conceived by their own leaders and peoples to have, certain special rights and duties’. The NPT recognised the major powers’ right to possess nuclear weapons as part of their special managerial responsibilities for world order; the leaders and peoples of the nuclear weapons states continue to assert that right;  but in the NWPT international society as such has derecognised the right.

The nuclear powers may not like the result, but their constant refrain – that the nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle – can now be turned against them: neither can the ban treaty.  It is the new institutional reality. Instead of dismissing it, the nuclear powers will have to respond to it, and manage the suddenly more challenging alliance relations and domestic expectations.  The best way to do so is not to deny the new international reality, but to demonstrate tangible progress on nuclear arms control, for example by taking weapons off launch-ready high alert state, negotiating a no-first-use global convention, reducing warhead numbers, etc.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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