Day 2 at the NPT: business as usual?

Posted by Rebecca Johnson

On the second day of the NPT Review Conference, Russia, China and France joined the United States in staking out their positions at the 2010 Review Conference, while pre-election Britain has to keep quiet until it has a government to take responsibility for its nuclear weapons and policies.

Among statements from the nuclear-free countries, several focused on implementation of existing and additional nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ), especially in the Middle East.  Egypt put forward the views of the New Agenda Coalition, which focused on acceleration of the practical disarmament steps adopted by the 2000 Review Conference and reaffirmation of the “unequivocal undertaking by nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals”. On behalf of the First Committee “De-alerting Group, comprising Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria and Switzerland, New Zealand’s Minister Georgina Te Heuheu called for more action to lower the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems as an important interim step to move towards a nuclear-weapon free world.

Business as usual from Russia, France and China

Russia, which also distributed a detailed National Report on its NPT implementation, opened with an encouraging statement from President Medvedev which underscored the importance of the US-Russian reductions in deployed strategic weapons contained in the New START treaty that he and President Obama signed in April. However he also made clear that Russia’s priorities were pursuing non-proliferation and “creating a truly modern and proliferation-resistant architecture” for civilian nuclear energy. Willing to talk to the United States about reductions beyond the new START agreement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov resolutely avoided discussing a reduced role for nuclear weapons in military doctrines and policies.

Eschewing approaches that could reduce the role of nuclear weapons, Russia failed to identify concrete future steps on disarmament. Instead, it fell back on talk of strategic stability and the necessity of creating a “conducive atmosphere”, highlighting its support for expanding nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ) and finding ways to make progress on implementing the 1995 Resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. A paper responding to the Egyptian and Arab League proposals – or rather, a “non-paper” since it has no formal provenance but is believed to have Russian origins – has been doing the rounds, with speculation on whether something along these lines will be put forward by the P-5 permanent members of the Security Council (that is, the nuclear weapons states) when they issue their “P-5 statement”, which some are expecting them to do this week.

France and China brought nothing new to the table, but did their best to present their doctrines and previous actions in the best possible light.  France, credited with ensuring that the European Union’s contribution contained little substantive disarmament language, issued a national statement that listed once again France’s 6-billion euro efforts in closing its test site and production facilities at Marcoule and Pierrelatte, and President Sarkózy’s transparency initiative in reducing the arsenal to an announced ceiling of 300 warheads.  On the basis that its “doctrine is strictly defensive and stringently limits the role of nuclear weapons by restricting implementation of deterrence to extreme circumstances of self defence”, France claimed the moral high ground but had nothing further to offer apart from its determined promotion of non-proliferation controls and nuclear energy, which “can be the cement of a new international solidarity”.  Responding to developing states’ concerns about having additional restrictions imposed on them while the nuclear powers get off scott free, French ambassador Eric Danon said, “Respecting one’s obligations does not mean renouncing one’s ‘inalienable’ rights, but exercising them in a responsible way”.   With a sideswipe at President Obama’s Prague speech, France also made its familiar linkage between nuclear and other kinds of disarmament: “Tangible progress towards disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons can only be achieved in the long run – beyond emphatic statements of good intention – through a comprehensive strategy covering the resolution of regional tensions and enhancement of collective security mechanisms…”   Though some were relieved that Danon stated at the outset that France was “committed to implementing its obligations under the Treaty and the commitments made by previous review conferences, including those of 1995 and 2000”, in the corridors there are still fears that France’s determination to avoid further disarmament commitments could prove as much of a ‘spoiler’ at this review conference as Iran’s determination to avoid being named and shamed.

China’s statement from Ambassador Li Baodong contained more thoughtful analysis than usual, including linking its long-held position of advocating the “complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons” to the “world free of nuclear weapons” visions that are the mainstream mantras now of progressive Western governments.  China, which is believed to be still modernising its nuclear arsenal, had no practical commitments to bring to the table beyond its familiar pledges on no first use and unconditional security assurances to nuclear-weapons-free states.  Despite having delayed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for the past 14 years, China supported “early entry into force” of this treaty and would “continue to keep its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security and continue to make efforts to advance the international nuclear disarmament process”.  Like France and Russia, China appeared to place greater priority on “vigorously” promoting nuclear energy, identifying “concrete measures” to this end. Unlike these two, however, it seemed to endorse the objective of a nuclear weapons convention: “The international community should develop, at an appropriate time, a viable, long-term plan composed of phased actions, including a convention on the complete prohibition of nuclear weapons.”

Reducing the salience of nuclear weapons

In addition to the proposals from the New Agenda Coalition and De-alerting Group, many national statements have underscored the importance of nuclear disarmament and the necessity of reducing the role and salience of nuclear arms.  Ukraine echoed many statements from non-aligned countries in calling for unconditional security assurances for states which have renounced nuclear weapons to be made legally binding. Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko drew attention to Ukraine’s own decision to get rid of its stocks of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and said that the strengthening of safety and security of nuclear materials and facilities are a priority.

The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Dr Dipi Moni, went further.  Influenced no doubt by having three nuclear-armed states in its immediate neighbourhood, the Bangladesh Parliament had unanimously taken the position that “any use of nuclear weapons would constitute an international crime, including crime against humanity, crime against peace, war crime and genocide”.

Qatar, which stressed both regional and international disarmament, argued that the Review Conference should adopt an action plan to eliminate nuclear weapons: “We hope that we will not wait long before we celebrate a universal treaty for disarmament and prohibition of nuclear weapons, for this has legal and political importance.”

Norway’s State Secretary Gry Larsen referred to Norwegian civil society’s expectations that the Review Conference should set a “new forward-looking nuclear agenda” and characterised the government’s approach in terms of reaffirming the political objective of a world without nuclear weapons and agreeing a programme to make progress towards this objective in the next five years.  Taking credit for raising the disarmament profile of NATO, Norway referred to its joint working paper with Poland on “a step-wise and balanced approach to eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe” and its joint paper with the UK on nuclear disarmament verification.

After praising the US transparency initiative and calling on the other weapon states to do likewise, Germany took a stronger stand than most on sub-strategic (also called tactical) nuclear weapons in Europe. Bluntly declaring that these “no longer serve a military purpose and do not create security”, Germany’s Minister of State Werner Hoyer called for “the role of nuclear weapons to be further scaled down in NATO’s Strategic Concept” and stated his country’s intention “to bring about, in agreement with our allies, the withdrawal of the tactical nuclear weapons still stationed in Germany”.

South Koreas Minister Cho Hyun focused on efforts to constrain and eliminate North Korea’s nuclear programme, but had nothing new to say on the wider disarmament context and notably failed to mention UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s five point disarmament initiative.  Japan, which annually sponsors an NPT-supporting resolution in the General Assembly, made reaffirmation of the 2000 “unequivocal undertaking” the centrepiece of its proposals, together with commitments by the nuclear powers to “reducing or at least not increasing their nuclear arsenals” and to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, welcoming the US Nuclear Posture Review in this regard.  Responding to Iran’s comments about US military bases in Japan, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Tetsuro Fukuyama underscored the importance of Japan’s “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” of “not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan”.  Though over 1,500 Japanese citizens, including parliamentarians and the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have traveled to the United Nations to participate in demonstrations calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention, the Japanese government appears more focused on finding ways to promote nuclear energy without compromising security and non-proliferation objectives.

Though noble sentiments are being expressed in far more presentations than I have space for here (see Reaching Critical Will’s website for the verbatim speeches, working papers, NGO commentary and a host of other resources), the non-nuclear countries appear to lack a unifying objective and strategy, though the 110-member NAM are backing both the objective of a nuclear weapon convention and reaffirmation and implementation of the “13 Steps” agreed by NPT parties in 2000.  Though Germany called for “a new decade of disarmament now” and practically everyone has in some form or another endorsed the “vision” of peace and security in a world free of nuclear weapons, few countries are coming to this review conference with strategies for how to achieve that in reality. Though they all recognise the need to get a grip on preventing nuclear threats and dangers, the statements so far have generally retreated into high-minded rhetoric, restrictive approaches to control nuclear materials, and steps agreed ten years ago (and largely unfulfilled).  Setting sights so low might make it easier to get agreement on a final document, but if that is the sum of NPT governments’ ambitions, such low expectations could have the unintended political consequence of reducing the viability of the nonproliferation regime in the future.

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