In piaffe: multilateral nuclear disarmament dialogue in the year of the horse

Shortly after the lunar New Year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon challenged the Conference on Disarmament to run with the ‘spirit of the blue horse’ towards substantive engagement on multilateral nuclear disarmament in 2014. While the regime may not achieve this speed, there are initiatives underway this year that may well help nuclear disarmament dialogues pick up speed ahead of the 2015 NPT review conference.  

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon speaks at the first plenary session the 2014 Conference on Disarmament. Source: UN Geneva

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon speaks at the first plenary session the 2014 Conference on Disarmament.
Source: UN Geneva

On 21 January, on his way to the Geneva Conference on Syria, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stopped in at the Palais des Nations to address the Conference on Disarmament (CD). In doing so, the UNSG affirmed his support for multilateralism and encouraged the CD—the single multilateral disarmament forum—to break the deadlock and commence substantive negotiations. On the occasion of the lunar New Year, the Secretary-General challenged the CD delegations to ‘arm yourself with the spirit of [the] blue horse and…run fast and run far’.  But instead of running fast or far, the current status of the multilateral global nuclear disarmament dialogue is ‘in piaffe’ – trotting elaborately on the spot.

However, some, including Angela Kane, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, question whether a nuclear disarmament regime even exists. In her prepared speech to the 2013 EU Non-proliferation and Disarmament Conference, Kane argued that the current “system of institutions and norms to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, coupled with a promise to pursue the elimination of such weapons at some uncertain but distant time—if ever—subject to preconditions” should be more accurately called a ‘Partial Nuclear Arms Control Regime’ rather than a nuclear disarmament regime.

Kane posited that the “negotiated ceilings on deployments of strategic nuclear weapons of two countries, with no international verification, and no participation by the other three recognized nuclear-weapons States…or the non-NPT states” are not global, nor constitute disarmament or a regime. The sustainability of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the credibility of the NPT review process is often questioned in light of efforts which ‘seek just to tighten non-proliferation controls’ and address horizontal proliferation. In her September 2013 speech, Kane warned that such an approach ‘would erode what is left of the legitimacy of the regime’.

The CD’s impasse continues…

In 2014, the continuing deadlock in the CD may lead to such erosion of legitimacy, as well as frustration with existing forums for dialogue and progress. This year’s President of the first session of the CD, Israeli Ambassador Eviatar Manor, met with lack of consensus on a programme of work for 2014, due to diverging views. The formal programme of work at the CD remains deadlocked over the inclusion of a call for measures to start negotiation for a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), a proposed international agreement that would prohibit the production of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. Pakistan objects to this as it would cap its fissile material stocks at a disadvantageous level vis-à-vis India.

As US Acting Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, declared at the CD on 4 February, the FMCT is ‘the next logical – and necessary – step in creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons’ and remains ‘an essential prerequisite for global nuclear disarmament’. Gottemoeller reminded the CD that Action 15 of the 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) Action Plan mandated that the CD begin immediate negotiation of the FMCT. As the 2015 NPT RevCon approaches, this Action seems to remain aspirational.

The Nayarit Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

Many NPT non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) remain frustrated with the lack of transparency and progress around the P5’s implementation of NPT Article VI commitments. These stipulate that all NPT states parties shall pursue negotiations towards ending the arms race and to nuclear disarmament ‘in good faith’. They see the ‘humanitarian dimension’ initiative on nuclear disarmament and the Open Ended Working Group, a UN General Assembly initiative to develop proposals for multilateral nuclear disarmament, as alternative means to address such concerns. The lack of engagement with —and arguable outright dismissal of – such initiatives by the P5 will continue to widen existing fissures and discord in the NPT review process.

Oslo nuclear conference

ICAN and BANg! campaigners thank delegates at the Oslo conference in 2013 Source: Peaceboat

The Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held in Nayarit, Mexico on 13-14 February. The conference aimed to deepen ‘our understanding of the effects of nuclear weapons, by approaching the global and long-term consequences of a nuclear detonation, accidental or deliberate, from the perspective and variables of the 21st Century society’. As in its 2013 inaugural conference in Oslo, government officials, IGOs and civil society participated with ‘multi-sectorial delegations, at expert-level, with specialists in areas such as public health, humanitarian assistance, environmental issues, and civilian protection, among others, as well as diplomats and military experts’. As clarified on the official website, the Nayarit Conference did ‘not produce a negotiated outcome, but a factual summary under the responsibility of the Chair’.

146 states participated in the Nayarit Conference, including India and Pakistan. Notably, as in the Oslo conference, the five NPT nuclear weapons states did not attend.  In 2013, the P5, in solidarity and following consultations amongst each other, boycotted the conference in what could be described as bloc policy, claiming the Oslo conference would ‘divert discussion away from practical steps to create conditions for further nuclear reductions’. This P5 declaratory rationale is also expressed in relation to the Open Ended Working Group and the humanitarian initiative more broadly. Many perceive the lack of P5 engagement with such initiative as a P5 concern that the initiative is a fast-track to a ban on nuclear weapons – as advocated by many civil society groups and some NNWS.

This concern was confirmed by the UK FCO Minister Hugh Robertson who on 12 February elaborated that the UK remains ‘concerned that some efforts under the humanitarian consequences initiative appear increasingly aimed at pursuing a Nuclear Weapons Convention prohibiting nuclear weapons outright’. UK MPs, including James Arubuthnot, the Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, and Sir Nick Harvey have already strongly criticized the UK government’s decision not to participate in Nayarit.


Chair of the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons Chair, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, presenting his factual summary of the Conference. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico

The final five paragraphs of the Chair’s “factual” summary from the Nayarit conference, which veer off to include the chair’s perceptions certainly lend some validity to the perceptions, confusion, and concerns voiced by the P5 about the aims of the initiative. However, to be clear, such support for pre-emptive ‘outlawing’ of nuclear weapons was not representative of views and interventions voiced by several states that participated in the Nayarit conference, including Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. Such mixed signalling and conflicting narratives about the conferences and the broader purpose of the initiative may have implications for the future continued—and broader engagement—by those NNWS who support the ethos of the humanitarian dimension initiative but who are not on board the ‘ban-express’.

In a January 2014 statement to the CD by Ambassador Alexey Borodavkin, the Russian perspective is expressed clearly: ‘the catastrophic character and unacceptability of any use of nuclear weapons is self-evident and requires no further discussions’. Ambassdor Borodavkin, further warned that ‘we should not be distracted by the discussion of humanitarian consequences from the primary goal of creating due conditions for further nuclear reductions’. Highlighting the diverse perspectives on what constitutes obstacles to progress towards dialogue on nuclear disarmament, Russia, as outlined by Borodavkin last month, considers plans to build a global missile defence system as a ‘negative factor which is undermining strategic stability’, and ‘the most tremendous challenge standing in the way to [a] nuclear-free world’.

P5 preference for the ‘step-by-step’ process

Amb. Rose Gottemoeller, speaking at a joint press conference by the five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states at the United Nations. Source: United States Mission Geneva

Amb. Rose Gottemoeller, speaking at a joint press conference by the five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states at the United Nations. Source: United States Mission Geneva

The consensus among the P5 is that progress in fulfilling NPT Article VI commitments, is via the P5 ‘step-by-step’ process in line with the 2010 NPT Action Plan.  As Rose Gottemoeller, declared in February at the CD, ‘there are no shortcuts to reaching our shared goal of a world without nuclear weapons’ and the pathway is an ‘incremental process’. She describes these P5 conferences as ‘essential means for laying the foundation for future agreements’ that could envelope NWS beyond the bilateral arms control process. The Chinese government will host the fifth conference of the P5 process in April 2014 ahead of the third Preparatory Committee to the 2015 NPT RevCon.

The P5 are developing a common glossary of nuclear weapons-related terms. Gottemoeller admits this ‘may not sound important or interesting, until you consider that verifiable multilateral nuclear disarmament will require clear agreement on the definitions and concepts for the vital aspects that must be covered in future treaties.’

Transitioning from piaffe to trot

While dialogue on nuclear disarmament is currently in piaffe, and Ban Ki-moon’s ‘fast run’ in 2014 may remain aspirational, engagement and confidence-building measures could yet advance dialogue to a forward ‘trot’ ahead of the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Significant regime measures which could catalyse a shift towards improved dialogue and consensus-building on multilateral nuclear disarmament include:

  • Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratifications (or overtures towards ratification) by Annex 2 states—the eight states remaining (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, US) for CTBT entry into force;
  • Adoption of a programme of work at the CD; or even
  • Progress on the Helsinki conference for an establishment for a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East (including CWC accession by Israel).

In support of restoring legitimacy and boosting credibility in the non-proliferation regime beyond this NPT review cycle, there is an underlying need to bridge existing divides and boost engagement between the two separate constituencies on the nuclear weapons policy debate: those advocating for nuclear deterrence postures and those advocating for nuclear disarmament. Both constituencies ultimately seek security, but there is a distinct lack of informed, respectful and frank dialogue.

The two constituencies rarely engage in sincere dialogue on core issues at the basis of each posture, including on how security is provided. Their discourses remain distinct and divergent. One could characterise them as being engaged only in ‘enclaved deliberation’. By addressing key assumptions, social constructs and understandings of each policy posture on the nuclear weapons debate — including an assessment of notions of what constitutes strategic stability and options for security not based on an ultimate reliance on nuclear weapons—perhaps honest dialogue can take shape instead of mere regurgitation and mutual dismissal of postures.

Jenny Nielsen is a Research Analyst with the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Previously, she was a Programme Manager for the Defence & Security Programme at Wilton Park and a Research Assistant for the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies (MCIS) at the University of Southampton. At MCIS, Jenny was tasked with the co-editing the 2004-2012 editions of the NPT Briefing Book. She holds a PhD from the University of Southampton which focused on US nuclear non-proliferation policy vis-à-vis Iran in the 1970s.

Featured image:   UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon speaks at the  High Level review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation on Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Source: United Nations Photo

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