During the current session of the NPTPrepCom much mention was made of various possible approaches and vehicles for implementing article VI of the NPT on nuclear disarmament. These included building blocks, step by step, giving effect to the 2010 NPT action plan, devising frameworks, comprehensive approach, Model Convention, action plan with a clearly defined timeframe, comprehensive and legally binding framework, humanitarian approach, a ban on possession of nuclear weapons, and more. This mix of possible procedural, legal and organisational devices is confusing especially when some states offer few insights into what they mean by the particular approach they support, let alone how to take it forward.
Some clarity, however, was provided, notably by papers that were the focus of a side event* on 2 May organised by the NGOs, Reaching Critical Will and Article 36. The papers (see links below) helped draw attention to what article VI itself specifies – the need for “effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament”. So does it really matter how a particular approach is characterised when the focus should be on the question of what will be effective?
Obviously, that is not going to be the end of the matter because of the subjectivity involved. And the drafting of article VI is somewhat convoluted. Nonetheless, legal advisers in nuclear weapon states are likely to tread cautiously in any debate over the meaning of “effective measures”. Those words need to be interpreted in the spirit of the NPT as a whole including the goal of elimination mentioned in the preamble and the question of good faith required by article VI.
Similarly under scrutiny will be obstacles placed in the way of pursuing effective measures towards nuclear disarmament, or seeming indifference to the need to resolve implementation blockages in a constructive, timely way. The development of some impetus for nuclear disarmament - injecting new life into the issue – has become inevitable. The hope inspired by President Obama’s Prague speech has not been reflected in the forums where this business would normally be transacted. Inertia in established multilateral processes and arenas has been a spur to challenging traditional approaches both in terms of substance and forum. An example is the empty debate over what is the ripest issue for negotiation in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the lack of any sustained moves to broker compromise there.
The absence of consensus on any one of the four mandates embodied in the work programme of that Conference since 2000 means that nothing happens on any of them. Nuclear disarmament, the oldest of the 4 core issues, has been an enduring casualty. Indeed, the entire multilateral nuclear disarmament scene is the cause of widespread concern. The CD’s integrity is at stake, CD issues such as fissile materials have temporarily moved to another forum, the NPT has experienced healthier days, the UN Disarmament Commission had an unproductive 2014 session. And the Open-ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament was shunned by the NPT nuclear weapon states.
It is hardly surprising that new ways for dealing with nuclear disarmament have emerged. These changing dynamics during the current NPT review cycle have led to almost a dozen multilateral and legal initiatives since the 2010 Review Conference. Those initiatives have as their underlying message to the nuclear weapon states that concrete efforts are needed in terms of producing effective measures toward nuclear disarmament. Yet, one such initiative, the humanitarian approach, has been criticised by nuclear weapon states in particular as a challenge to the authority of the NPT. Unfortunately, the humanitarian approach has been misconstrued by the NPT nuclear weapon states, and invitations to attend the Oslo and Nayarit conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons were turned down by them.
The criticism of the humanitarian approach as “parallel” to the NPT disregards the preamble of the NPT and the 2010 Action Plan. This is an echo of criticisms made by some non-nuclear weapon states about “parallel” measures for non-proliferation pursued by the nuclear weapon states a decade ago. In reality, it is hard to differentiate the pedigree of the humanitarian approach from that of the P5 process initiated five years ago by the NPT nuclear weapon states and which met last month in Beijing. That is not to belittle the P5 process in any way – greater leadership by the nuclear weapon states towards the implementation of article VI would be welcome.
The extent to which the nuclear weapon states are responsive to the frustrations of non-nuclear weapon states can be gauged by measuring signs of increased transparency of their nuclear weapon holdings and greater commitment to NSAs in the context of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones in Asia. Evidence of progress on these fronts can perhaps be attributed to the growing pressure stemming from the new initiatives on nuclear disarmament, although disappointment marks many responses to date.
In any event, when the five-yearly NPT Review Conference meets in 2015 to take stock and consider the next steps for the full implementation of article VI, it will be difficult to overlook increasing efforts by frustrated non-nuclear weapon states to turn attention away from perceived military and security values of nuclear weapons to their actual humanitarian impacts. The meaning of the words “effective measures” in article VI will be more readily demonstrated when such measures are seen as reinforcing the reality that a nuclear war in humanitarian terms is unwinnable and that an accidental detonation is not a hypothetical eventuality.
There are valuable tools at hand for developing effective measures through papers tabled in the NPT PrepCom by the New Agenda Coalition and one published by Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will. Those papers help reduce obfuscation and sharpen the focus on how to get multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament under way as required by article VI. The clearer and simpler the message the better chance there is of gaining traction.
The ultimate effective measure is of course a legally binding, universally observed, fully verified “elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery” to quote the NPT. But given that this end is not yet in prospect, what are the most effective measures towards that objective? What comes immediately to mind is the need for the development of the notion of “timeliness”. This is a concept that has been vigorously contested in the NPT for much of its long life without success.
If the 13 steps agreed at the NPT Review Conference in 2000 represent the clearest direction to date on the route to elimination, they lacked a crucial indication of effectiveness. Efforts to define a timeframe for their implementation, let alone the means of assessing progress on their fulfilment, were steps too far for the nuclear weapon states in 2000. There were some vague expressions of time, and even a specific one in relation to the conclusion of a ban prohibiting the production of fissile material. But there was nothing that would facilitate real accountability - nothing that would enable effective monitoring of progress towards implementation.
Continuous resistance to a results-based approach using milestones and timelines let alone deadlines raises serious questions in terms of article VI. Pursuing the recognition of timeliness as a principle of effectiveness among the pantheon of NPT principles, notably those agreed in 1995, may seem inconsequential, perhaps derisory, given how long the NPT has been in force. But it is surely a litmus test of intentions and even of interpretation of the Treaty.
* "Effective measures for nuclear disarmament" was the title of an event hosted on Friday, 2 May at UNHQ, New York. It was organized by Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 and took place in the margins of the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting. Michael Hurley of Ireland spoke to the New Agenda Coalition’s document on article VI of the NPT and Ray Acheson of RCW introduced the joint RCW/Article 36 publication exploring the development of a legal framework for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. This posting contains contextual remarks made at that event by Tim Caughley, a senior fellow at UNIDIR.