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Are the nuclear weapon states rattled?

May 3, 2012

Just a few of the ICAN campaigners who have been advocating for a global treaty banning nuclear weapons at the NPT PrepCom in Vienna. (L to R: Arielle Denis, Arife Köse, Akira Kawasaki, Tim Wright, Sharon Dolev, Alex Reidon, John Loretz, Ghassan Shahrour, Nasser Burdestani)

Something is happening at the NPT PrepCom, and the nuclear-weapon states do know what it is.

The idea that nuclear weapons represent a humanitarian catastrophe—language that was actually part of the outcome document of the 2010 NPT Review—has been taken up as a thematic focal point of this PrepCom, not only by NGOs but also by a growing and energized group of states.

From what we can tell, the nuclear-weapon states have been taken by surprise by this development and are not very happy about it.

One week before the PrepCom opened, Norway’s foreign minister announced that there will be an international conference on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in early 2013.

That term—catastrophic humanitarian consequences—has appeared in some form in statement after statement. It was prominent in yesterday’s NGO presentations, and has been part of the dialogue in a large number of side events. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), during its international campaigners meeting the weekend before the PrepCom opened, adopted the humanitarian message as the thematic focus of its campaign strategy, and has come to the PrepCom to encourage states to adopt such language in their statements.

At least one group of states had already set the same task for themselves. A “Joint Statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament” introduced by Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, the Holy See, Egypt, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, South Africa, and Switzerland on Wednesday has already caused a stir. Those countries have declared their intent to take both the humanitarian perspective on nuclear disarmament and the 2010 NPT action plan seriously, and other states are beginning to associate themselves with the statement.

The entire statement is worth reading, but here are some excerpts:

Nuclear weapons have the destructive capacity to pose a threat to the survival of humanity and as long as they continue to exist the threat to humanity will remain. This, coupled with the perceived political value and prestige attached to these weapons, are further factors that encourage proliferation and non-compliance with international obligations.

…Moreover, nuclear weapons are useless in addressing current challenges such as poverty, health, climate change, terrorism or transnational crime.”

The statement refers to the resolution adopted in November by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and echoes its conclusion:

It is of utmost importance that these weapons never be used again, under any circumstances. The only way to guarantee this is the total, irreversible and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons….”

The nuclear-weapon states appear to be rattled by the way in which this theme has energized the PrepCom. They are pushing back, in an attempt to keep the conversation focused on proliferation, nuclear terrorism, their claims of compliance with Article VI, and incremental steps that can “create the conditions” for disarmament. But they are also signaling in a number of ways that they’re worried, and what worries them is the possibility that the terms of the debate could shift from a national security to a humanitarian framework. If that happens, and nuclear weapons become fully delegitimized inside and outside the NPT, the security and deterrence-based arguments for postponing their elimination will become irrelevant.

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