Asia-Pacific and the UN Nuclear Weapon Prohibition Treaty

Will the UN vote take us closer to a nuclear-free world?

Ramesh Thakur

International relations, Law, National security | Australia, Asia, The World

10 July 2017

Australia may have been conspicuous by its absence, but the treaty signed by 122 countries expresses the international community’s attitude towards nuclear weapons and affirms nuclear weapon prohibition as a moral imperative, Ramesh Thakur writes.

In an historic vote at the United Nations in New York on Friday 7 July, 122 states parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) voted to approve the text of a Nuclear Weapon Prohibition Treaty (NWPT) to ban the bomb. Among the nearly two-thirds of the NPT members were 26 countries from the Asia-Pacific, including nine of the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and seven Pacific Island states plus New Zealand and Timor Leste.

The NWPT prohibits the acquisition, development, production, manufacture, possession, transfer, receipt, testing, extra-territorial stationing, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The text will be opened for signature in the full UN General Assembly on 20 September and enter into force after 50 states have ratified it.

Australia was conspicuously not in the conference room during the four weeks of negotiations from 27–31 March and 15 June–7 July. In doing so, the country foreswore the opportunity to influence the discussions and shape the text of the treaty.

Moreover, as the opening paragraph of this article demonstrates, Australia finds itself isolated in its own Oceania and Asia–Pacific regions on the most important development on nuclear weapon policy since the signing of the NPT itself in 1968.

More on this: Australia's fearful foreign policy

Among other things, this is a betrayal of Australia’s own legacy of niche active nuclear diplomacy in the past, including the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in the mid-1990s and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in 2009.

The NPT was adopted in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. For half a century it has functioned as the normative sheet anchor of global nuclear orders, from peaceful uses to nuclear safety and security, non-proliferation and disarmament.

Globally, there has been a retreat from nuclear power (albeit with China and India as two major exceptions) since the accident in Fukushima in 2011. The lead on nuclear security was taken over by the four Nuclear Security Summits between 2010 and 2016. The NPT non-proliferation obligations have been universalised to all countries that do not possess nuclear weapons.

As well, disarmament efforts too have stalled completely. As we head towards the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s signature next year, here is a startling fact: not a single nuclear warhead has been eliminated through a multilateral agreement. In fact, no multilateral negotiation on nuclear weapons has ever been held under the NPT rubric.

To all intents and purposes, therefore, the NPT’s normative potential has been exhausted. That’s not to say the NPT is bad, but rather its limits have been reached. The challenge, therefore, has been to build on and supplement the NPT. This is what the NWPT seeks to achieve.

The failure to demonstrate continuing tangible progress on nuclear reductions has coincided with heightened anxieties about rising nuclear threats.

This is especially so in Asia–Pacific, which remains the only region where nuclear weapons have been used, are still being tested and are currently increasing in numbers.

More on this: Beware the Guns of August in North Korea

In addition, the Indian subcontinent and the Korean peninsula – where Pyongyang has dramatically increased the pace and scope of efforts to achieve a weaponised intercontinental missile delivery capability that would bring Australia and the US mainland within range of its nuclear-tipped missiles – are among the favoured sites for the next nuclear war.

The continuing and intensifying challenge of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs reminds us that nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable existential threat to humanity.

Advocates for nuclear disarmament have long argued that deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being in office on all sides at all times. The world could survive on the brink of disaster with one of the nine leaders with their fingers on the nuclear button being volatile, but risks going over the brink with two such leaders.

With Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the specialists’ warnings have become a global public nightmare. As the recent Pew Center survey of global public opinion confirms, it would be a toss-up as to who between Trump and Kim is held to be the more erratic, volatile and the greater threat to nuclear peace. Twitter-happy Trump has effectively discarded President Ronald Reagan’s crisp warning that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Although the world’s attention has been concentrated recently on North Korea, China and India too have been engaged in the most tense standoff in decades. And historically, conceptually, strategically and even operationally the nuclear relationship between China and India is deeply intertwined with that between India and Pakistan.

If they are not abolished, nothing is more certain than nuclear weapons will proliferate and be used again: some day, somewhere, somehow.

Remarkably, the romantic dreamers, who fantasise about everlasting nuclear peace under a permanent nuclear monopoly, call themselves realists.

Against the twin backdrop of the receding nuclear arms control and disarmament tide and elevated nuclear threat levels, most countries concluded that fresh ‘out of the box’ efforts were necessary. They switched roles from rule-takers to norm-setters and reclaimed nuclear agency from the ‘Powerful Five’ (China, France, Russia, UK, US) to proclaim an unambiguous prohibition norm.

More on this: Living with nuclear North Korea

The NWPT draws on the long-recognised unique role of the United Nations as the sole custodian and dispenser of collective world legitimacy. It expresses in simple but powerful language the international community’s abhorrence of nuclear weapons and affirms the nuclear weapon prohibition norm both as a moral imperative for all states and as a legally binding obligation of all signatories. It thus restates the vision and dream of a nuclear-weapon-free world that has animated the international community for decades and that finds expression in Article VI of the NPT.

At the same time, we must acknowledge the point of the objection by a strong minority of nuclear-armed states and their allies, including several in the Asia–Pacific, that the NWPT will not in and of itself lead to the elimination of any nuclear weapons.

That said, nuclear-weapon-possessing countries can take several practical steps to ease rising nuclear anxieties by reducing nuclear risks. They can and should immediately freeze nuclear stockpiles at existing numbers, secure the remaining ratifications to bring the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force, extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement, negotiate a new treaty to ban fissile materials production, take nuclear warheads off high-alert status, adopt no-first-use policies, refrain from introducing destabilising new nuclear weapons, and commence negotiations on nuclear weapon reductions.

If the nuclear-armed and umbrella states wish to rescue the NPT as the preferred framework and process for nuclear arms control, it is for them to demonstrate practical outcomes, through deeds not just words, by bringing the step-by-step approach to some such productive conclusions.

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