The Urgency of Nuclear Abolition

B-29 over Osaka on 1 June 1945. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After a year and a half’s delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tenth Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is finally scheduled to meet from 1–26 August 2022. Considered by most governments to be the “cornerstone” of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, the NPT is facing serious challenges that threaten not only this upcoming Review Conference but the Treaty itself.

During the period of postponement, the nuclear-armed states have continued to modernise their nuclear weapon arsenals, some have announced increases in the size of their stockpiles, and others have expanded their delivery systems. The US government has changed, but it still seems intent on prefiguring a conflict with China—increasing tensions to manufacture a stand-off, for which it is gearing up in coordination with its allies. The recent announcement of a new military alliance and sharing of nuclear submarine technology amongst Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) is part of this scheme.

This already troubling situation has been massively exacerbated by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Along with the devastation of cities and towns through explosive violence, horrific acts of sexual and gender-based violence, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the conflict has increased the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. Russian President Putin ordered the country’s nuclear forces to be put on heightened alert status and he and other government officials made several remarks over many months indicating their readiness to use nuclear weapons if other countries “interfered” in the war.

The alleged strategic stability offered by nuclear deterrence has been exposed for the myth it always has been. Rather than preventing conflict, nuclear weapons have only made a horrific war even more dangerous. Violations of the UN Charter and the rule of law are facilitated by nuclear weapons, and now nuclear-armed states are preparing for the Tenth NPT Review Conference amid a situation that could lead to a nuclear war.

On the positive side, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which outlaws the development, possession, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, entered into force on 22 January 2021. The First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW met in Vienna in 21–23 June 2022, where participants adopted a strong Declaration and Action Plan setting the path for the Treaty’s effective implementation.

Hundreds of cities, towns, and municipalities around the world, in countries where the federal government still supports nuclear weapons, have joined the ICAN Cities Appeal in support of the TPNW. Several banks and pension funds have pulled their money out of investments in nuclear weapon production and modernisation. Parliamentarians have voiced their support for the Treaty, as have former leaders from nuclear-supportive countries. In addition, Russia and the United States agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which has helped to ease tensions between the two countries—though the arms control agreements they abrogated in the preceding years have not yet been resurrected.

Thus, the obstacles to a successful outcome of the NPT Review Conference are created not by any technical or legal impediment, but solely by the patriarchal pursuit of power through violence and security through weapons. Progress is possible if the majority of NPT states parties are willing to be creative and are committed to change. This a critical moment for nuclear disarmament, and for our collective survival. NPT states parties must meet the gravity of the moment with urgency and courage in order to fulfill their obligations and the Treaty’s objectives.

The refusal to disarm

The nuclear-armed states that are party to the NPT have failed to implement their disarmament commitments and obligations. They have consistently refused to engage in multilateral nuclear disarmament toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons, as mandated by article VI of the NPT. The action plan from the 2010 NPT Review Conference remains only partially implemented. The disarmament actions have suffered the most—of 22 action points, only five have seen substantial forward movement. Before 2010, the last agreement was reached in 2000—and the implementation of the “13 practical steps” from that outcome is also woefully inadequate. In 2015, states parties were unable to agree to further actions or steps.

Some nuclear-supportive allies have tried, over the years, to advance the 13 steps by different names. They have convened commissions and produced reports about iterations of what has been variously called the step-by-step approach, building blocks approach, full-spectrum approach, progressive approach, and now what Sweden terms the stepping-stones approach. Each of these has focused on the steps that nuclear-armed states need to take for nuclear disarmament.

But the nuclear-armed countries are backing away from these twenty-year-old unimplemented commitments. In October 2018, the United States described these previous agreements as being from “a different time and a different security environment than we currently face.” The US ambassador told the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security that “to make progress we need to look forward, not backwards—we must not fixate on historical language that is out of date and out of step with the current prevailing security environment.” Since then, the US government has institutionalised the concept of “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND), bringing a select group of states together to advance this approach through three working groups on the reduction of the perceived incentives for states to acquire or increase their nuclear stockpiles; the functioning and effectiveness of existing nuclear disarmament mechanisms and institutions; and potential interim measures to reduce risks related to nuclear weapons.

The “CEND” approach pulls away from past NPT and other nuclear weapon governance agreements, arguing that focusing on the reduction of nuclear weapons or abolition is misguided and instead the international community should focus on “the underlying security concerns that led to their production in the first place.” The foundational document for this approach focuses on the extremely ambitious goal of creating a world in which global politics are completely transformed so that international relations are “cooperative and free of conflict” before the nuclear-armed states can disarm. This sets a standard—the end of international tensions and conflict—for nuclear disarmament that nuclear disarmament itself would be critical to facilitating.

The UN General Assembly First Committee resolution proposed each year by the Japanese government endorses the conditional approach to nuclear disarmament and even tries to water down or backtrack on agreed NPT commitments. Many states reaffirmed at the 2021 First Committee that this resolution cannot be used at the NPT Review Conference as the basis for negotiating an outcome document.

Implementation of the NPT, including article VI, has never been predicated on first establishing conditions or an environment deemed appropriate by the nuclear-armed states. The leap backwards from decades of agreed commitments and processes “represents a huge distraction from the effort to achieve measurable progress in achieving the existing disarmament commitments agreed by all NPT parties,” wrote former Canadian ambassador Paul Meyer. To trash past agreements and refuse to comply with NPT obligations “risks creating the conditions for nuclear disaster rather than nuclear disarmament.”

The urgent need for abolition

In 2020, the Science and Security Board of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, warning, “The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape.” They asserted that due to the inaction, and counterproductive actions, of world leaders on both nuclear weapons and climate change, they felt “compelled to declare a state of emergency that requires the immediate, focused, and unrelenting attention of the entire world.”

Indeed, these crises are interlinked. Nuclear weapons contribute to environmental destruction and the climate crisis. A nuclear war would exacerbate climate change. Nuclear weapons and their production facilities have already contaminated land and water around the world. What’s needed right now is urgent action for the abolition of nuclear weapons and immediate, real action on climate change. Citizens around the world are demanding both and are engaged in activism to that end. Governments need to step up, before it is too late.

While the outlook for the upcoming NPT Review Conference appears grim, given the backdrop described above, it provides an important opportunity to demand government action for nuclear weapon abolition. At the 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, states were unable to agree on recommendations for the Review Conference. However, the recommendations published as a Chair’s summary is a well-balanced document that reflects the views of the entire membership of the NPT, rather than just the nuclear-armed and nuclear-endorsing states parties. Standing by these recommendations rather than watering them down to appease the vocal minority was a bold act, one that should give heart to the international community at a time when belligerence and bullying are the tune of the day.

The Chair of 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee issued some reflections on that meeting, in which he argued there is more convergence than divergence in states parties’ views, including their conviction of the NPT’s importance and relevance. He urged states to move away from entrenched positions and to keep an open mind in order to avoid deadlock. This is a key message. But the persistent challenge, which has only grown throughout the past two review cycles, is the refusal of states that believe in their right to possess nuclear weapons or include them in their security doctrines to change this position. This position is anathema to the NPT itself, especially to its objectives and obligations of averting the danger of nuclear war, ending the nuclear arms race, and achieving the total elimination of nuclear weapons. It is the primary reason why the NPT has not yet been fully implemented, fifty years after its entry into force. And it will be the critical sticking point once again at the upcoming Review Conference, unless the nuclear-armed and nuclear-enabling states begin to comply with international law, which stands firmly against nuclear weapons.

The rest of the world has a stake in this—but also a say. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change,” said Angela Davis. “I am changing the things I cannot accept.” This is the spirit in which non-nuclear-armed states parties need to approach the 2022 Review Conference: a spirit that builds on the courage of the 2019 Chair’s team to issue a balanced document at the last Preparatory Committee, a spirit that honours the work that so many have done over so many years to protect future generations from the scourge of nuclear war. Regardless of what we think is possible, we have the duty, and the right, to try to achieve that to which we have all agreed: total nuclear disarmament.

This article first appeared in Reaching Critical Will.

Ray Acheson is Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They provide analysis and advocacy at the United Nations and other international forums on matters of disarmament and demilitarization. Ray also serves on the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons, as well as the steering committees of Stop Killer Robots and the International Network on Explosive Weapons. They are author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages (Haymarket Books, 2022).