The nuclear refuseniks

09 November 2016

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Professor Ramesh Thakur is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) in Crawford School. Prior to joining the school he was a Commissioner and one of the principal authors of The Responsibility to Protect (2001), and Senior Adviser on Reforms and Principal Writer of the United Nations Secretary-General’s second reform report (2002).

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In voting against the UN resolution calling for negotiation of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, Australia, Japan and South Korea are swimming against the global tide of opinion and that of their Asia and Pacific neighbours, argues Ramesh Thakur.

On 27 October the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly adopted, by a landslide 123-38 (16 abstentions) vote, a Resolution that calls for negotiations on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Two conferences will be convened in New York (27–31 March, 15 June–7 July 2017). The resolution fulfils the 127-nation humanitarian pledge “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.”

This is the most significant multilateral development on nuclear arms control since the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995 and the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. It aims to fulfil the dream of a world freed at last of the existence of nuclear weapons that constitute an existential threat to humanity. Revived for a shining moment by President Barack Obama in Prague in 2009, the noble dream has steadily faded since then with ongoing nuclear modernisation, growth in warhead numbers, continued testing and a rise in geopolitical tensions in several high-risk theatres involving nuclear powers in eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.

But the international community did not abandon hope and redoubled efforts to bring the nuclear arms race under control and ban the bomb. The current global tensions with their nuclear overtones make any further progress more challenging but they also heighten the urgency for action. The strengthening international sentiment against nuclear weapons was evident at the UN working group’s disarmament meeting in Geneva in August, when a report calling for ban negotiations to begin was adopted by a 68-22 vote. Strenuous efforts since then to cajole, coax, bribe and bully countries to change their vote in the General Assembly in October failed spectacularly as no fewer than 57 countries co-sponsored resolution L41.

A detailed breakdown of the UN vote is quite revealing. Of the five NPT-licit nuclear weapons states, four voted against the resolution: France, Russia, UK, and US; China abstained. Among the four non-NPT nuclear-armed states, Israel voted against, India and Pakistan abstained and, remarkably, North Korea voted yes. Of the 177 countries that voted on the resolution, 34 are from Asia and the Pacific. Twenty-six voted yes, four each voted against (Australia, Japan, Federated States of Micronesia, South Korea), and abstained (China, India, Pakistan, Vanuatu). The European Parliament has adopted its own resolution [415-124 (74 abstentions)] calling on member states to participate constructively in the 2017 negotiations.

Thus Australia, Japan and South Korea voted in solidarity with their US nuclear protector and against the overwhelming global tide of opinion and also against the dominant sentiment of their Asian and Pacific neighbours. They have therefore placed themselves on the wrong side of history, geography and humanity. Their vote might also attract charges of hypocrisy the next time they criticise North Korea’s nuclear program.

This historic UN decision adds to global efforts to delegitimise nuclear weapons, contain and reverse their spread, and begin the process of first banning and then eliminating them and dismantling their infrastructure. A legal ban will further reinforce the normative boundary between conventional and nuclear weapons, strengthen the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons, and reaffirm both the non-proliferation and disarmament norms.

All 191 NPT States Parties have committed in Article VI to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” In 1996 the World Court advised, unanimously, that “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control” (emphasis added). The 27 October UN resolution conforms to this obligation and attempts to give practical expression to it.

Objections to it lack merit and should be seen as a failed tactic to delay abolition indefinitely. The nuclear powers have done their utmost to deny there is any binding legal obligation under the NPT to abolish the bomb within a foreseeable timeframe. Having taken that stand in principle and backed it in practice by keeping, enlarging and modernising substantial nuclear weapons stockpiles, they have few takers for the argument that the world should not act to fill the existing legal gap. Their sophistry fuels the anger and impatience of the others at the lack of concrete progress.

The nuclear powers parrot one another’s argument that as long as nuclear weapons exist, their stockpiles are needed both to protect national security and to keep the nuclear peace. US umbrella states – allies that shelter under the American nuclear umbrella – echo this in saying that while nuclear weapons exist, they must rely on the protection of US nuclear weapons. But no one is calling for unilateral US nuclear abolition. The entire edifice of the “while nuclear weapons exist” argument crumbles once the goal is synchronised global abolition. The policy challenge changes to managing the transition process so as not to jeopardise any country’s national security nor undermine international security.

Delegitimising nuclear weapons is central to the longer-term goal of abolishing this uniquely inhumane and devastating weapon of mass destruction. The decision to start negotiations is recognition that a ban treaty can be one useful building block for creating the structures necessary to support a world free of nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons were prohibited back in 1993 by a universal convention which entered into force in 1997. It is widely hailed as an outstanding success, even though the actual elimination of all chemical weapons is yet to be completed.

Similarly, a nuclear legal ban treaty’s implementation will require action by those who possess nuclear weapons. But it will strongly affirm the moral case against the development, acquisition, possession and use of nuclear weapons. It should revive flagging momentum and re-energise efforts to move from a ban to total elimination of nuclear warheads and dismantlement of the nuclear weapons infrastructure.

Contrary to the nuclear powers’ endless excuses, the international community considers a ban treaty urgent, essential and in current circumstances the only practical way forward for achieving real disarmament. It will complement and not undermine the NPT and should provide an impetus to efforts to an eventual Nuclear Weapons Convention that is universal, non-discriminatory and fully verifiable.

This article was first published by Policy, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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