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Reframing the Disarmament Discourse: Can the Humanitarian Paradigm make a difference?

A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 26, 2015

    In the end, the 9th Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which concluded on May 22, turned out to be a non-event. The 2015 quinquennial will not just be remembered for the absence of any path-breaking agenda that could have enlivened the deliberations but also for the failure of state-parties to agree on a consensus final document, almost reminiscent of the chaotic RevCon of 2005. This time around, even though the draft of a final document1 was prepared (based on the debates at the Main Committees), the draft’s reference to a conference in 2016 to discuss the prospects of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction led the US and UK, along with some allies, to block its passage and render this RevCon inconclusive. The statement of a US State Department official is telling on how its delegation anchored the efforts to block the passage of the final document:

    “...we will not accept the efforts by some to cynically manipulate the RevCon to try and leverage the negotiation to advance their narrow objectives at the expense of the treaty or of our shared long-standing principles. We also made clear that we were prepared to conclude this conference without a final consensus document rather than endorse a bad final document.”2

    The scenario is almost similar to the US delegation’s action at the previous RevCon, when it led the P5 grouping to resist the recommendations of the Main Committee I for a conference to discuss the measures and timeline for disarmament in the subsequent review cycle, along with another conference on a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone in 2012.3 Cut to 2015, apart from this ‘contentious’ reference to the Middle East plan, the draft final document follows the diluted template of the 2010 Final Document, by repeating exhortations upon the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) to continue with their reporting on reductions, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their doctrines and working towards the Article VI objectives.4 The most notable addition to the draft final document is, however, the reference to the “humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons” and that this awareness should lead to a world free of nuclear weapons. Many observers have termed this ‘humanitarian pledge’ as the sole positive outcome of the 2015 RevCon. This, in fact, testifies to the efficacy of the concerted campaign by some European countries since 2013 to initiate a discourse on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in order to underline the urgency of pursuing disarmament through a stand-alone legal instrument.

    Disarmament back to the fore

    The advent of the ‘humanitarian consequences’ paradigm has been made easier by the favourable changes in the global security environment in the past few years, marked by very few proliferation challenges and fewer structural pressures on the NPT edifice. This is in marked contrast to the conditions prevailing in the preceding decade when the Treaty was in the midst of a serious existential crisis – driven by recurring instances of violations, the looming threat from non-state actors, and the influx of counter-proliferation initiatives at the cost of the NPT. The milieu began changing by the time of the 2010 RevCon. A few months before the RevCon, President Barack Obama delivered his landmark speech in Prague, where he promised to resurrect the NPT and revive the incremental steps towards disarmament, besides launching the Nuclear Security Initiative to complement the wide gamut of anti-proliferation measures. Though much of Obama’s Prague vision proved to be a non-starter, his nuclear security initiative managed to establish a global campaign to track loose fissile materials, plug proliferation channels and reduce the threat from non-state actors. With the Iran nuclear imbroglio seemingly on course for resolution (and only a North Korean defiance left to be dealt with), the evolving security environment seemed conducive to reignite focus on disarmament as a key agenda for the 2015 RevCon.

    In a bid to exploit this momentum, the Norwegian government launched a campaign on humanitarian consequences with an international conference in Oslo in March 2013 (backed by support for advocacy and research on this topic at various European think tanks). This was followed by two major events in Nayarit, Mexico (February 2014) and Vienna (December 2014) hosted by the respective governments. The Vienna conference saw the enunciation of an Austrian pledge,5 supported by the 107 participant countries.6 The message of the ‘humanitarian’ pledge could be summarised thus:

    the risk of a nuclear weapon explosion is significantly greater than previously assumed; it will threaten the survival of humanity; no existing response capacity can adequately respond to the consequent human suffering. Hence all NPT state-parties should fulfil their Article VI obligation by pursuing effective measures “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

    Though projecting the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons – almost 70 years after the world witnessed its catastrophic effects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - may not sound like a novel paradigm, the positive outcome of this initiative is the concerted effort to push for a stand-alone instrument to pursue the goal of nuclear disarmament and total elimination, fill the legal gap for this purpose and construct a global norm against nuclear weapons.

    A stand-alone instrument: can it happen?

    The humanitarian momentum was picked up by civil society groups which have since been circulating the contours of what could be a nuclear weapons ban or prohibition treaty.7 Among the recommendations is that such a ban or treaty could be pursued in a phased manner, assuming that the NWS may initially not be party to it. Further, states propagating this approach have also endorsed the existing efforts for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), prominently supported by India and a few other states including Malaysia and Costa Rica, as well as some civil society groups.8 The Convention seeks to formulate a non-discriminatory and verifiable elimination treaty by “prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons”, which, the humanitarian group feels, only complement their goal of a prohibition or ban treaty.

    However, the NWS, which form the critical element for any such stand-alone instrument to be effectively pursued, have long rejected the idea of any timeline-oriented plan for nuclear disarmament – be it through a prohibition treaty or an elimination instrument. In an unusual move, the P5 group issued a statement on 30 April 2015 (three days after the RevCon proceedings began) reiterating their support for “an incremental, step-by-step approach (as) the only practical option for making progress towards nuclear disarmament, while upholding global strategic security and stability.”9 They further placed the onus of disarmament on other states by asking them “to create the necessary security environment by resolving tensions, tackling proliferation and making progress in all areas of disarmament.” The lynchpin of this campaign is the US government, which had termed the Nuclear Weapons Convention an ‘amorphous’ initiative while rejecting ‘false hopes of fixed time-lines’, and affirming that multiple concurrent paths are the only realistic route to a nuclear weapons-free-world.10 Further, some US allies have argued that a prohibition or elimination treaty could seriously undermine the NPT.11

    Nonetheless, the humanitarian narrative found considerable echo at the RevCon deliberations, with references in the Main Committee report as well as in the draft final document. However, unlike the ‘humanitarian pledges’, none of the RevCon documents could incorporate the demand for a ban or prohibition treaty though there is a subtle reference to a stand-alone instrument (#19 of para154). This outcome only reinforces the truism that nuclear weapon states could scuttle the inclusion of any time-bound disarmament measures in the RevCon documents, thereby illustrating their reluctance to commit on such obligations, as they purportedly “take into account all factors that could affect global strategic stability.”

    Like the NWS weighing on the NPT as a means towards disarmament, the proponents of the prohibition treaty also assume it as fulfilling the mandate of Article VI of NPT – of pursuing ‘effective measures’ by filling the legal gap for prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Driving this divergence are the varied conceptions on the routes to disarmament – whether to pursue incremental measures like reductions, test ban and fissile-materials production cut-off in tandem with the NPT or to await the facilitation of an ideal condition – presumably a post-proliferation world – to springboard towards a treaty on disarmament.

    A problem of flawed creation

    In fact, the question of a stand-alone instrument dates back to the origin of the NPT. At the height of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) negotiations in 1967-68, the US-Soviet joint draft (which became the NPT text) limited the Treaty’s end-objectives to preambular declarations of ‘cessation of arms race’ and ‘effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament’ without enshrining the timeline or suitable measures. Instead, the draft confined disarmament provisions to a common obligation of all state-parties to negotiate a treaty on general and complete disarmament (Article VI).12 The debate has since persisted on when and how this treaty could be pursued and whether the NPT could facilitate the conditions for this to happen. Numerous proposals have been deliberated in forums including the Special Sessions on Disarmament (SSODs), the Conference on Disarmament (CD), besides initiatives from non-governmental groups. A notable attempt to provide a new template was the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988, which proposed a treaty to facilitate total elimination by 2010.13 India also submitted the draft of a Nuclear Weapons Elimination Treaty at the 1995 SSOD-III, which also facilitated its subsequent (and logical) shift to the Nuclear Weapons Convention model.

    On the other hand, the inability of the NPT state-parties to initiate a stand-alone instrument or work towards the Article VI objectives, even 45 years later, is a reflection of how the Treaty’s conceptual incongruities continue to trouble its functional existence. The NPT preamble describes a scenario akin to a post-proliferation condition, which includes an earliest possible date when nuclear arms race ceases, all test explosions are discontinued, international tension eases and trust is strengthened, all of which will allow a treaty on disarmament to take shape. Though many or all of these conditions are unlikely to be met in the foreseeable future, the failure to devise a stand-alone disarmament instrument will imply the pursuit of ‘ideal conditions’ for an infinite period.

    While initiatives like the humanitarian movement may keep the tempo alive or fade away in the din of global politics, a peculiar action that stands out for its novel approach is the April 2014 petition by the Marshall Islands at the International Court of Justice seeking to sue all the nuclear-armed states for failing to fulfil their disarmament obligations.14 Though it is certain that the NPT does not entail any legal obligation for the P5, leave alone the non-NPT states, to pursue disarmament unilaterally, such legal suits will invariably expose the vested interests of the NWS, especially the P5, in delaying the disarmament that is inevitable.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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