Humanitarian Paradigm Shift on Nuclear Weapons Policy or Hot Air?

Jenny Nielsen

Jenny Nielsen is a Research Associate with BASIC (British American Security Information Council)

States parties of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) failed to reach a consensus document—one widely recognized metric for a ‘successful’ review conference—at the Treaty’s quinquennial 2015 Review Conference (RevCon) at the UN in May. Several issues proved politically contentious—and ultimately obstacles to compromise—during the RevCon. One perennial issue of contention between states parties is the perceived pathway for implementing nuclear disarmament commitments. Since the inclusion of a reference to the ‘deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons’ in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT RevCon, a cross-regional and cross-grouping initiative of states parties has gained momentum and coalesced in support of stressing the humanitarian imperative of nuclear disarmament, forming an evolving ‘initiative’ at the relevant multilateral fora (UNGA First Committee, Conference on Disarmament and NPT review process). Many states (111 states as of July 2015, notably including Iran) engaging with the humanitarian initiative are actively pledging further for the pursuit of effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.  At the 2015 NPT RevCon, this broad-based initiative gained formal support from 159 NPT-member states, co-sponsoring a joint statement led by Austria. Through the joint statement to the RevCon and national statements, these states formally voiced their concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Significantly, as in previous formal statements to the UNGA and the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meetings of the 2015 NPT review cycle, it is argued that ‘it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances’. This is based on recent studies and evidence relating to health, environmental, resource security, consequence management, as well as risk assessments—presented at the three international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons—that ‘the catastrophic effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, cannot be adequately addressed’.

As in the previous UNGA First Committee sessions, Australia led a separate joint statement on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons on behalf of 26 NPT-member states at the 2015 RevCon. As in the previous Australia-led alternate statements on this issue, this grouping of states stress that both the security and humanitarian dimensions of nuclear weapons need to be addressed in order to create the conditions for further reductions and the eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals. Although welcoming the Austrian-led joint statement on humanitarian consequences, the Australian-led joint statement elaborates that ‘there are no short cuts’ to the shared goal of nuclear disarmament, and that ‘eliminating nuclear weapons is only possible through substantive and constructive engagement with those states which possess nuclear weapons’. These 26 states argue that ‘hard practical work’ towards ‘a world free of nuclear weapons must still be done’ ‘methodically and with realism’ in order ‘to attain the necessary confidence and transparency to bring about nuclear disarmament’. 

Some advocates of a near-term legal nuclear weapons ban process might argue that the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime is already undergoing a paradigm shift on the social construct and perceptions of nuclear weapons. One could argue that, despite the growing momentum of the humanitarian initiative and its activities, we are far from a discourse and paradigm shift. Whilst the humanitarian imperative has definitely and significantly raised the humanitarian dimension on the agenda within discussions in key multilateral diplomatic fora and relevant international conferences, there is no evidence to suggest that postures and perceptions held by states—particularly nuclear weapons possessors and those states under extended nuclear deterrence arrangements—vis-à-vis the value and role of nuclear weapons by states, have shifted. Whilst pre-existing postures by many NPT non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) have notably been articulated through the humanitarian imperative and the initiative’s discourse—perhaps in some instances as a result of civil society’s sophisticated and concerted efforts—there is no evidence to assert that the discourse and paradigm on nuclear weapons has shifted. As much as we would wish, postures, underlying assumptions, social constructs and perceptions vis-à-vis nuclear weapons and their political and military value haven’t changed, particularly by those in possession of (and also by those reliant through extended deterrence on) nuclear arsenals. No Kuhnian paradigm shift has taken place in the nuclear policy world. Not yet.

The momentum of the evolving and sophisticated humanitarian initiative within the nuclear non-proliferation regime is significantly raising the humanitarian imperative in discussions within the nuclear non-proliferation multilateral fora. At the 2015 NPT RevCon, the joint P5 statement was notably dismissive of the discourse consolidated by the initiative (and the wording agreed by consensus in the 2010 NPT RevCon Final Document) by deliberately using the term ‘severe consequences’ instead of ‘catastrophic humanitarian consequences’. Words matter in diplomacy and this choice of terminology was particularly unfortunate vis-à-vis already fraught ‘atmospherics’ in the NPT review process. As the nuclear non-proliferation constituencies and the strategic deterrence constituencies remain disparate constituencies engaged in enclave deliberation, even the gradual consolidation of a normative and human security imperative vis-à-vis nuclear weapons discourse by NNWS in the NPT review process and the UNGA and efforts to stigmatize nuclear weapons, will continue to struggle to make an actual impact on the strategic nuclear deterrence constituencies. The efforts to stigmatize and delegitimize nuclear weapons by the evolving humanitarian initiative will however continue to press nuclear weapons states (NWS) in the multilateral context.                                        

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