NPT: a launchpad for nuclear abolition?

IssueFebruary 2010
Feature by Rebecca Johnson

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is scheduled to hold its next review conference from 3-28 May, just when Britain is likely to have a general election. For many governments and NGOs, the NPT will be a major focus for their work in 2010. But should it be the main focus for disarmament activists? What, realistically, can be achieved at the 2010 review conference?

Even when important commitments have been adopted at NPT conferences, as with the “13 Practical Steps on Disarmament”, agreed in 2000, the treaty lacks the powers and tools to ensure their implementation.

Stuck in a time warp

The 2010 review conference will no doubt generate great sound and fury, but to avoid disappointment we need to recognise that the NPT is stuck in a Cold War time warp of trying to control and manage nuclear arsenals and proliferation, while failing to address the deep-seated problems of nuclear power, status and deterrence doctrines. It is true that Article VI of the NPT contains a promise to negotiate in good faith on nuclear disarmament, but this has been flouted by the nuclear weapon states for 40 years and the treaty has no legal mechanisms or target dates to ensure such obligations are implemented.

Moreover, Article IV, which was originally designed to reassure non-nuclear states that if they pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons they would not be prevented from developing nuclear technologies for energy and medical uses, is now being evoked as if the promotion of nuclear power is both a right and an obligation.

With a new US administration and a growing number of leaders expressing support for creating a nuclear-free world, there are opportunities to push for negotiations to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.

Yet for many the main focus will still be on incremental steps identified as important 15 years ago, such as US-Russian reductions, the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) and a fissile materials production cut-off. There may be some discussion of nuclear doctrines, devaluing nuclear weapons, and maybe reducing the role and alert status of existing arsenals.

Though useful, such steps do not address the deeper problems of nuclear possession and proliferation. They are compatible with Britain renewing Trident and NATO states relying on nuclear weapons for first-use deterrence doctrines. The NPT continues the cold war approach to managing nuclear weapons when we need new thinking – and more credible institutions – to transform non-proliferation into abolition.

While it is good that NGOs are mobilising to bring mayors, Hibakusha [atomic bomb survivors] and eminent peace campaigners to New York, where there will be a public demo on 2 May, we should recognise that of itself, the NPT process is not capable of bringing about nuclear disarmament.

Act local

Burning up fossil fuels to get to New York may be necessary for some, but what we do closer to home will be far more important.

A high priority remains preventing the renewal and modernisation of nuclear weapons systems, so in Britain the disarmament movement needs to intensify opposition at the Aldermaston and Faslane bases and make the cancellation of Trident replacement into an all-party issue.

A big turnout at the 15 February Aldermaston blockade will increase the pressure on the UK government in the run-up to the review conference.

In the broader international context, disarmament activists should seize the opportunity to use 2010 as a launchpad to get negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention (NWC) into the mainstream.

With this in mind, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and key NGOs are working on a two-phase strategy that engages with the NPT while also building a stronger movement of activists, elected representatives and NGOs to take the campaign for a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty to the public as soon as the review conference is over.

A draft paper put forward by the chair of the 2009 NPT preparatory committee meeting (PrepCom) included support for a nuclear weapons convention, which was then deleted at the behest of some nuclear weapon states.

If over 100 governments incorporated the call for negotiations on a nuclear weapons treaty into their statements, it would be much harder to leave out of NPT documents in 2010.

It is therefore important for NGOs to persuade NPT delegations and regional groups to include positive references to a nuclear weapons convention in their position papers, and if possible to persuade them to make 2020 the target date for conclusion of this treaty.

If direct governmental approaches don’t bear fruit, contact elected representatives (for example parliamentarians and mayors) to get them to advocate this position. The aim is not to endorse a particular model of a nuclear weapon convention or get identical language into all the statements, but to build momentum by accumulating proposals that recognise the need to negotiate a nuclear weapons treaty in some form. If the concept of a nuclear weapons convention is endorsed by the NPT, that would be an important step, but there would still be a lot of work to get negotiations underway. In the event that politics and diplomatic tactics make it impossible for the review conference to adopt any meaningful agreements at all, it will be even more necessary to build a stronger disarmament movement.

ICAN is therefore coordinating a worldwide day of action on 5 June, a week after the NPT closes.

While the actions will be chosen locally – at nuclear bases, government offices, or the embassies of nuclear weapon states, for example – the message will be internationally-coordinated to build on (or parachute over) the NPT outcome and intensify the global call for negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention.

Topics: Nuclear weapons