Some Immanent Risks at the 2015 NPT Review Conference

5 May

Editor’s Note:  The following piece from Angela Trang Hoai Thi Nguyen represents her initial impressions of the NPT Treaty Review at UN Headquarters.  Angela is of Vietnamese lineage, was raised in Norway, and is a master’s student of Annie Herro, a longtime associate of our office who teaches at the University of Sydney. It is always good for us (and hopefully for others as well) to see UN processes through the eyes of younger people in our office who are seeking their own place in this work. 

Well-thought and rational decision-making entails inter alia reducing as much risk as possible in order to reach the most optimal outcome. But as I have observed in the opening sessions of the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT), global decision-makers have, unfortunately, increased and reinforced the risks that could threaten the future of the NPT. With virtually no exception, member states reiterated their commitments to the elimination of nuclear weapons to achieve a nuclear-free world. However, the apparent emptiness of some of the promises given cannot be ignored. The question is whether those empty words are an outcome of so many multilateral deadlocks and disappointments or if this is intentional political rhetoric. If it is the latter then we can sensibly talk about a deliberate creation of risk factors impeding progress to achieving the objectives of NPT. If the former is true, the frustration creates disadvantages for NPT as it strives to become (as noted by DSG Eliasson and others) a “critical public good.”

Although all states emphasized commitments to building on efforts toward disarmament, the prevention of proliferation, and the general strengthening of the NPT regime, there appears to be little flexibility in their positions. Thus, the first week of NPT Review Conference did not seem particularly promising to me despite the high rhetoric, as equally high risks create both a vacuum and impediments to the realization of NPT objectives.

The risks exist in many forms. First, a mutually reinforcing mistrust derives from the need by some states to impose a nuclear security regime on the current state of global insecurity. Nuclear-weapon states continue to retain an effective (at least) minimum nuclear deterrent for as long as (these states say) the global security situation makes it necessary. Ironically, the necessity of being in possession of nuclear weapons to maintain global security only intensifies the security dilemma, in which actions by a state intended to heighten its security lead other states to respond with similar measures, creating more tensions and insecurity. Thus, while nuclear-weapon states claim nuclear deterrence is a means to maintain international security, it is recognized by the majority that it is rather the opposite.

Perplexingly, almost as soon as the NPT Review Conference opened, an NPT side event hosted by one of the leading nuclear-weapon states sought to address the “need” for further modernization of nuclear weapons and the will to do exactly that. The unavoidable obsession and blindness of the security dilemma that was played out, whereby narrowly defined national security interests jeopardize international security, creates potential grave dangers and threats. Modernization does not contribute to building trust and predictability, but fuels an undesirable Cold War mentality that we thought we had put behind us. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is no real safety. No amount of rationalizing can change this.

Given these strange events, not only does the NPT conference risk empty promises and short-sighted interests, it also risks the marginalizing of (mostly) men and women of principle striving to realize their full NPT obligations. Although, unilateral disarmament is out of question, it is a simple matter to strive to uphold one’s part of an agreed deal, especially one as important as Article VI of NPT. While the status quo is clearly unsustainable, NPT nuclear weapons states continue to insist that other parties to keep the binding obligation of non-proliferation, while they themselves refuse to see their part of the equally fundamental responsibility to eliminate weapons and achieve a nuclear-free world. Desiring change requires that all parties make an effort to assess the performance of others, but more importantly to change themselves. This requires the qualities including persistence and self-discipline, which remain in short supply in regards to the achievement of the objectives of NPT. Additionally, as being principled seems impossibly challenging for some states at this stage, it is probably utterly senseless to ask instead for true generosity of policy and spirit, another quality much appreciated as it creates attractive role models that could contribute much to a world of peace and security.

In conjunction with the NPT Review Conference, a side event on eliminating “Hair-Trigger Launch Readiness” highlighted a report by Global Zero Commission on reducing the unintentional risks of use of nuclear weapons. In many ways, the event was a wake-up call reminding all of the unimaginable dangers that can occur when our nuclear security technologies (and their ‘high alert” status) go very wrong. Gen. Cartwright recommended particular restraint during moments of high stress and short timelines, as there is almost no room for good and rational decision-making. Moreover, the potential for a false alarm in a nuclear high alert system remains ever present. Given the risks of miscalculation that could lead to a nuclear launch, the grave humanitarian consequences that would follow from our follies and limitations should be more than enough to remove incentives for a reckless response. The danger that nuclear weapons can put an end to the human race makes the threat or use of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity. Thus, it is a moral imperative that the international community no longer allows senseless measures associated with “deterrence,” such as high alert weapons status, to be employed.

Regarding humanitarian consequences, we are also at risk of reaching a cross roads. A crucial test case is North Korea (DPRK), where its inhumane governance, highly related to its objective to invest in nuclear programs, represents a crime against humanity. As time passes, starvation and repression continue to take lives and cause other grave physical and psychological sufferings. Member states must bear in mind the consequences of the UN’s unsuccessful engagement with the DPRK which only perpetuates grave violations of human rights. Although there are risks related to any Security Council action, it is important that the world not stay quiet. The best outcome would be for the DPRK  to return to the NPT and come into full compliance with both the treaty and their obligations under international human rights law.  Balancing risks and violations in the DPRK context represents a grave global challenge.

The NPT process faces several challenges of non-compliance. In the Middle East, there are at least two nuclear weapons-related issues that remain to be resolved. First, although a framework agreement with Iran has been reached, which in many ways signals a positive achievement towards fulfilling the goals of the NPT, key parameters of the deal are far from settled and hard work remains to be done. The devil is in the details, and transparency and verification will be essential to any final agreement. Secondly, Israel remains outside the NPT and continues to undermine the possibility of a WMD-free Zone with its undeclared weapons of mass destruction. The risks of non-cooperation and non-compliance are therefore most worrisome in regards to regional efforts to end proliferation and build a nuclear-free world. Moreover, although, peaceful use of nuclear energy as guaranteed by the NPT help to address serious global challenges including Ebola, cancer, and food safety, it is important to have solid verification mechanisms in place to identify cases of misuse and proliferation. Our threshold must be able to balance and identify rightful use and any non-compliant intentions.

In order to reduce some of the risks created by short-term strategic interests, insecurity, miscalculations, non-compliance and other NPT-related matters with implications for international peace and security, it is necessary to state something very obvious:  the objective of the universality of nonproliferation and disarmament cannot be achieved if all states do not abide by their commitments. As Deputy Secretary General Eliasson underscored, the process for NPT fulfillment has clearly stalled. We must therefore rebuild it on stable, common ground, reinforcing shared interests for the public good. Dialogue and cooperation are key to achieving the three pillars of NPT; thus, we must use every possible communications channel and create trust-building conditions for strategic stability and predictability.

Additionally, there is a need to push our collective ambitions. A Middle East free of nuclear weapons and WMD seems highly ambitious at this moment, but as John Kerry stated, ambitious goals are always the ones worth pursuing. Then, I believe the next phase of this ambition is to create accountability mechanisms to eliminate impunity for states in non-compliance, whether understood as breach of the treaty or inaction, accountable for their policies. As world state leaders should be greatly ambitious, their nuclear goals and standards must also be set at a high level. Only then can we remove risks to the NPT and reinforce the responsibility that lies with each member state in creating a world free of nuclear weapons.

Angela Trang Hoai Thi Nguyen

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