How We Learned to Stop Playing With Blocks and Ban Nuclear Weapons

By Ray Acheson

“It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” This is the view of the 155 states that endorsed the joint statement delivered by Ambassador Dell Higgie of New Zealand. “The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.”

The majority of states and their publics share this view. It is only a handful of states, generally among the most wealthy in the world, that have consistently resisted progress in this area.

Another 20 countries signed onto a separate statement calling on states to address the “important security and humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons.” Delivered by the Australian delegation, this statement suggested that working “methodically and with realism” is the way to “attain the necessary confidence and transparency to bring about nuclear disarmament.”

By this, the 20 countries refer to the “step-by-step” or “building blocks” approach. As outlined by an all-male panel hosted by Japan and the Netherlands last week, the blocks include, among other things, entry into force of the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty, negotiation of a fissile materials cut-off treaty, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, increasing transparency of and de-alerting nuclear forces, and arsenal reductions.

Yet as the Irish delegation pointed out, these actions—while welcome to the extent that they lead to concrete disarmament—do not constitute implementation of article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article VI calls for an effective multilateral framework for nuclear disarmament and the end to the nuclear arms race. “Until we put in place the framework,” argued Breifne O’Reilly of Ireland, “we all stand accused of failing to implement our NPT obligations.”

It is the responsibility of all NPT states parties to pursue effective measures for nuclear disarmament. Yet supporters of the step-by-step or building blocks approach seem unwilling to put these “blocks” in place themselves. Some of them host US nuclear weapons on their soil, without acknowledging their presence. Most of these states include nuclear weapons in their security doctrines via NATO, which has not taken a collective decision to reduce the role of this weapon of mass destruction in its military doctrine.

An Approach For Some: Prohibition Leading to Elimination

So far, none of these states have been open to articulating a clear legal prohibition against nuclear weapons, even though, as Costa Rica noted, the prohibition of weapons with unacceptable humanitarian impacts has typically preceded their elimination. The Irish delegation pointed out that without the clear prohibition against chemical weapons, these weapons would probably not now be so universally condemned and subject to a specified program of elimination.

Maritza Chan expressed Costa Rica’s willingness to join a diplomatic process to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even if the nuclear-armed states are unwilling to participate. She argued that such a treaty would establish a strong legal norm against the use, possession, and deployment of nuclear weapons and represent a significant step towards their complete elimination.

Palau’s delegation agreed with the utility of this approach, noting that such a treaty could compel states to reject any role for nuclear weapons in their military doctrines, prevent nuclear sharing, and prohibit investments in nuclear weapons production. The Thai delegation, among others, expressed a firm conviction that is time to “initiate negotiations on a legal instrument to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons.”

The countries resisting this approach argue that the “security context” is not ripe for pursuing such an effective measure. Australia continues to demand that “we” need to address the security dimensions of nuclear weapon possession. The nuclear-armed states of course want to focus on their own perceived security interests. France asserted that disarmament cannot move forward if it “ignores” the “strategic context.” The United Kingdom argued that “we do not yet have the right political and security conditions for those without nuclear weapons to feel no need to acquire them, nor for those who do have them to no longer feel the need to keep them. Nor is it possible to identify a timeframe for those conditions.” The UK even argued that “nuclear weapons are not per se inherently unacceptable” and that they have “helped to guarantee our security, and that of our allies, for decades.”

This is a dangerous narrative, noted Ireland. In effect, it makes an argument in favor of proliferation. “Every state on earth has a strategic context,” noted Mr. O’Reilly. Arguing that nuclear weapons are good for some is the same as arguing they are good for all. They either provide security or they don’t. Their consequences are either acceptable or unacceptable.

Simply Put: Nuclear Weapons Do Not Provide Security

The majority of states, international organizations, and civil society groups have articulated clearly that nuclear weapons do not provide security and that the consequences of their use are wholly unacceptable. There is no ambiguity here. But the narrative of “conditions” ensures that nuclear disarmament is perpetually punted down the road to some unknown, possibly unattainable future state of affairs in which the world is at peace and security is guaranteed through some other imagined means.

Most states reject this utopian view. The majority considers the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons to be a key step in the pursuit of peace, global justice, and security for all.

Some states have already put this approach into practice. Sweden’s delegation explained that it discontinued its nuclear weapons research and development program in the 1960s because it believed that abolition was the safest option both for its people and for the rest of the world. Focusing on preconditions, Sweden argued, will not help overcome challenges nor uphold commitments.

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, Sweden noted, the nuclear-armed states committed themselves unequivocally to eliminate their nuclear arsenals without any preconditions. Today, however, the nuclear-armed states and their allies have retracted from this commitment and from any other that rejects the legality or utility of nuclear weapons. They continue to pursue a path that has proven incapable of addressing the core obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Only Path: Clear Legal Standard Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons

The continued stalemate in pursuing the “building blocks” specified by nuclear weapons dependent governments suits their interests only. It supports and even seeks to legitimize the continued possession of nuclear weapons by a select few. These states reject the most feasible, practical, and meaningful “building block” available under current circumstances—the prohibition of nuclear weapons—precisely because it would be an effective measure for nuclear disarmament.

Yet at the same time, they insist they do not have a predetermined course for action. “Each step builds on past steps and provides a foundation for future action,” argued the US delegation. “The temporary inability to make progress in one area does not preclude progress in others or prevent us from putting in place the building blocks for a comprehensive approach to disarmament.”

This is a compelling argument for pursuing a treaty banning nuclear weapons. While the nuclear-armed states and their allies resist negotiations on the comprehensive elimination of these weapons, the rest of the world can begin to establish the framework for this by developing a clear legal standard prohibiting these weapons for all. This will take courage. But it is a logical, feasible, achievable, and above all, effective measure for nuclear disarmament.Φ

Ray Acheson is the Director of Reaching Critical Will. She monitors and analyzes many international processes related to disarmament and arms control. Ray is the editor of RCW’s reports and analysis of UN meetings and of several publications on subjects such as nuclear weapon modernization, myths and risks of nuclear power, and challenges to nuclear disarmament. She is currently on the Board of Directors of the Los Alamos Study Group and on the International Steering Group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She previously worked with the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies as an associate editor of the Arms Control Reporter. Ray has an Honours BA from the University of Toronto in Peace and Conflict Studies and is pursuing an MA in Politics at the New School for Social Research.

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