The nuclear weapon states (NWS) manage the current nuclear order. The five nuclear powers: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, are the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) with veto power over any decision on threats to world peace. Furthermore, the P5 have absolute power over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the NPT). The treaty not only legitimizes the possession of nuclear weapons by the P5, although under the obligation to disarm, any amendments to the treaty also have to be accepted by all five nuclear states. The P5 even control non-proliferation, as proven when they, in addition to Germany, negotiated the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Any effort to ban nuclear weapons, in order to be effective, has to have the support of the NWS.
The power of the nuclear weapon states is only limited by the “grand bargain” of the NPT. This bargain, approved by all signatory states, is at the core of the Treaty. The NWS agreed to disarm and the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) agreed not manufacture nuclear weapons. Yet the current implementation of the treaty is unbalanced. Focus is on non-proliferation, with disarmament clearly at the margins. Although the number of nuclear weapons has been reduced, they are being modernized and new weapons are being developed. There is no sign of the “good faith negotiations towards complete disarmament” required by the article VI of the NPT.
The non-nuclear weapon states have reacted to this unbalance. First by raising awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use and secondly by proposing a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. A resolution introduced by Austria (and sponsored by 40 others) to start negotiations on a legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons carried the vote in the UN First Committee in October 2016. 123 states, mostly NNWS, voted for the motion, whilst 38, mostly NWS and umbrella states, voted against. 16 states abstained. While all states agree on the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world – although some see it as more utopian than others – there is clearly no agreement on how to get there.
The NWS see a ban treaty as a threat to their “right” to nuclear weapons, in spite of the fact that they control any changes to the NPT. They argue that the weapons are necessary for their safety. Furthermore, they claim that a ban treaty will undermine the NPT and even endanger any further nuclear disarmament. They support a “step-by-step” process and work through the Conference of Disarmament. The NNWS supporting a ban, on the other hand, consider the NWS to be in breach of their NPT-obligations to disarm. According to them a ban on nuclear weapons is in no way in conflict with the NPT. It is rather a step to implement the NPT as it adds momentum to the treaty´s article VI requiring nuclear weapon states to disarm.
The consequences of the October 2016 vote are uncertain. Negotiations on the treaty will take place in March and June/July 2017, most likely without the participation of the P5. The UN has no power to sanction and enforce their participation. Nevertheless, one should take note of the fact that China abstained in the First Committee vote, highlighting that the P5 are not a homogenous bloc. Of the nuclear armed states outside the NPT, Israel voted against, India and Pakistan abstained and North Korea voted in favour. Could the ban treaty negotiations be an arena, not only for banning nuclear weapons, but also for the universalization of the NPT, an eternal issue on the NPT-reform agenda? The NPT badly needs reform, especially after the 2015 Review Conference collapsed on the issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
In spite of the lack of P5 support, the UN resolution has already achieved some change. The non-nuclear weapon states have finally found a voice and they are the drivers of the debate. At a recent conference of the EU Non-proliferation Consortium held in Brussels, the very first panel dealt with the possibility of a ban treaty. The representative of Chile challenged those of the US, Russia and France, who were left on the defensive. Although the power is still with the nuclear weapon states, the NNWS have gained in bargaining power and are setting the agenda. Article VI of the NPT provides them with the legal backing. In addition, a “ban” already exists on both biological and chemical weapons.
Instead of focusing on the 2017 negotiations, it is time to think further ahead. The next step after a more general ban treaty prohibiting the development, manufacture, possession and use of nuclear weapons should be a verifiable convention on nuclear weapons, setting clear timelines for nuclear disarmament. This would operationalize the disarmament article VI of the NPT, and would, no doubt, strengthen the treaty rather than undermine it.