The darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth

Mar 13, 2024
Black radioactive hazard warning sign painted over grunge yellow

The ailing nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires ‘effective measures’ to regain its health, writes Dr Marianne Hanson, Co-Chair of ICAN Australia.

Last week marked the 54th anniversary of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty was designed to freeze the number of states with nuclear weapons – beyond the five countries that had already developed these weapons prior to 1967 – in the hope of averting what John F Kennedy warned was ‘the darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth’.

Australia ratified the NPT in 1973. It has since been a self-declared champion of the need to prevent nuclear proliferation. But it continues to ignore a key requirement spelled out in the NPT, namely, the need to take ‘effective measures in the direction of complete nuclear disarmament’.

The most effective of all measures that could be taken – and indeed the logical outcome of the NPT – was the decision made in 2017 to make all nuclear weapons illegal, and to ban them under the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Yet Canberra has not yet signed up to this vital step.

Instead, it continues to give unwavering support to the NPT, despite the fact that this treaty is suffering from several maladies, and may not remain a viable treaty for much longer unless effective measures such as the TPNW are supported.

The NPT: a success story for curbing nuclear proliferation

President Kennedy had warned in the 1960s that unless global restraints were put in place, the world might see 25 or more nuclear weapon states by the late 1970s. Thanks to the normative and legal pressure of the NPT, the vast majority of states disavowed nuclear weapons. Only four states (India, Pakistan, Israel, and since 2003, North Korea) have rejected the treaty and gone on to develop their own nuclear arsenals – and while the failure to stop these four states is regrettable, we must give credit to the NPT for these numbers mercifully low.

The NPT was based on an extraordinary bargain: the five existing nuclear states – at that time the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China – wished to prevent other states from acquiring nuclear weapons. And in exchange for the rest of the world saying no to nuclear weapons, they would eventually get rid of their own arsenals. All states were obliged, under the NPT’s Article VI 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.’

This promise to disarm, plus an agreement to allow non-nuclear weapon states access to nuclear materials and technology for peaceful purposes, was accepted by (most of) the rest of the world, on the understanding that the inequality of the NPT – in terms of who could legitimately possess nuclear weapons and who could not – was only a temporary arrangement. Eventually, disarmament would occur, as Article VI presaged. And even if some states were hesitant about the good-faith nature of the treaty, it was clearly in their interests that nuclear proliferation should be halted.

And so, they signed, expecting that the five nuclear states would keep their word. In 1995, they were persuaded to extend the NPT indefinitely, although by then there was concern that the nuclear weapon states were keeping their arsenals even as they repeated their promises to disarm.

A range of maladies troubles the NPT

Although bilateral agreements between the US and Russia brought down the number of nuclear weapons, there remain around 12,500 of these weapons in existence, many of them vastly more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. The nuclear weapon states show no signs of moving to the elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Instead, they continue to threaten using their nuclear weapons (notably by Russia at the beginning of the Ukraine war, by the US recently against China, and outside of the NPT, by Israel against Gaza).

On top of this, every arms control agreement between the US and Russia, and between Russia and Western Europe more broadly, has been discarded. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty are all lost. And the hugely important New START agreement between the US and Russia has been suspended.

All this as relations between Washington and Moscow and Washington and China are at an all-time low. The idea of summit diplomacy or even dialogue between leaders to minimise dangers seems to be deeply out of fashion.

This has not been lost on the non-nuclear states; at every NPT Review Conference since 2000, they have shown their disappointment at the refusal of the nuclear states to take their disarmament obligations seriously. Many of them regret extending the NPT in 1995, and now believe that the nuclear states are intent on keeping their weapons indefinitely, while expecting non-nuclear states to live with this unequal situation. Their view is that a handful of nuclear weapon states hold the rest of the world hostage as they continue to threaten destruction of large parts of the world. And they certainly do not have confidence that nuclear deterrence will always work.

As a result, many argue that the NPT is now ‘in mortal peril’. The nuclear states, while continuing to promise that they will disarm, are all modernising their arsenals and show no indication of fulfilling their NPT pledge. Because of these broken promises, there is the possibility that some non-nuclear states might leave the NPT, opening the door to further nuclear proliferation. This would be a dangerous outcome.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: an ‘effective measure’ required by the NPT

The frustration felt by many non-nuclear states led naturally to the TPNW. After decades of hoping that the elimination of these weapons of mass destruction could be achieved via the NPT, non-nuclear states voted to create a new treaty, making them illegal under international humanitarian law for all states. It was a logical outcome of the NPT, which is now seen increasingly as unfit for purpose, at least in the way it is currently constituted.

The TPNW currently has 93 states as signatories, and this number is set to grow. Its value lies in the normative pressure it can bring to bear on states that retain their nuclear weapons. Its fundamental message is that just like the other weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons – nuclear weapons must also be delegitimised, prohibited, and eventually destroyed.

Canberra can rest easy on the interaction of the TPNW with the NPT

Our Prime Minister has noted that the government will sign the TPNW, ‘after taking account of the need to ensure the interaction of the TPNW with the longstanding nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’. This is one of three issues the government has said it will consider before signing. None of these issues presents any serious obstacle to Australia signing up, least of all the compatibility of the TPNW with the NPT. Canberra will know that interactions between the two treaties are harmonious and coherent. All states who have signed the TPNW remain members of the NPT and participate fully in NPT Review Conferences. But they do see far more promise in the TPNW, while the NPT continues to be mired in its inequalities and unfulfilled promises.

There has been considerable research on how states such as Australia can overcome their hesitations and sign the TPNW. The issues to take account of can be met easily; indeed, Australia has an obligation as an NPT member to support effective measures called for by the NPT, such as the TPNW. The TPNW is already supported by some US allies (and populations in some NATO states are exploring ways of joining the treaty).

The Labor government has shown some positive moves towards the TPNW, and it is to be commended for this. But it must realise that ardently supporting the NPT, without doing the same for the TPNW, is no longer a rational pathway forward.

The problem is this: the NPT is ailing, largely due to the intransigence of the nuclear states. As a result, an important measure, the TPNW, was taken in 2017. But if they do not support the TPNW, states may find that their faith in the NPT does little to help that treaty. The NPT, despite its importance and contribution, may wither and fail.

It can be rescued, but this depends on its signatories, including Australia, taking seriously the ‘effective measures’ it requires, including signing the TPNW and encouraging the nuclear states to disarm.

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