Building the Case for Nuclear Disarmament: The 2014 NPT PrepCom

Jenny Nielsen and Marianne Hanson

The first week of the third Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2015 Review Conference (RevCon, held every five years) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has witnessed a heavy emphasis on issues relating to the disarmament pillar. In particular, the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, highlighted by a wide-ranging, cross-grouping, multi-aim initiative which continues to consolidate itself in the non-proliferation regime, has come to the fore. Frustrated with the lack of progress towards NPT Article VI commitments to complete nuclear disarmament, the initiative has invigorated attention to the urgency of nuclear disarmament and a need for a change in the status quo. NPT member states and civil society continue to engage actively in publicizing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons as an impetus to progress towards nuclear disarmament.

The Humanitarian initiative

Austria has announced the dates of a Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, to be held on 8-9 December 2014 in Vienna. This conference will follow the March 2013 Oslo conference and the February 2014 Nayarit conference, which were both notably boycotted by the five NPT nuclear weapons states (NWS: the UN Security Council permanent members, or P5).  Whether any of the five NWS will participate in the Vienna conference, remains to be seen. Given the Chair’s summary of the Nayarit conference, which includes some of the Mexican chair’s personal perceptions on the humanitarian initiative’s aims, the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs may find that appealing to the NWS to attend will be a challenging task.

UN General Assembly. Source: Wikipedia

UN General Assembly. Source: Wikipedia

At the PrepCom, the Mexican delegation explained that the Chair’s Summary of the Nayarit conference, ‘reflects the opinion of the overwhelming majority of delegates, in the sense that these discussions should lead to the commitment by States and civil society to achieve new standards and standards through a legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons in the same way, as in the past, the weapons that have been eliminated were first banned’. Furthermore, the Mexican delegation to the PrepCom stressed that ‘the time has come to initiate a diplomatic process, to define specific time lines and the most appropriate fora to achieve this work’.

Since the inclusion of the humanitarian consequences issue in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT RevCon and the reinvigoration of this initiative in the PrepComs since then, the NWS have been cautious of the initiative’s coordinated activities and continue to question the aims of the initiative.  In particular, the NWS will not readily engage in the initiative as long as they interpret or perceive it to be the pathway towards a delegitimization process and, ultimately, a ban on nuclear weapons’ possession and use. For this reason, controlling the initiative’s external communication of its aims and activities will need to be carefully managed in order to sustain its broad, cross-grouping support-base and participation. This, in turn, will enforce its credibility and longevity in the regime towards the goal of progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Suing for Nuclear Zero

Cactus Dome, Runit Island, Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands - a concrete-capped burial pit for radioactive waste from US nuclear tests.

Cactus Dome, Runit Island, Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands – a concrete-capped burial pit for radioactive waste from US nuclear tests. Source:  US Defense Special Weapons Agency (via Wikipedia)

On 24 April, a few days before the NPT delegations convened at the UN for the PrepCom, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed cases in the International Court of Justice and the U.S. Federal District Court claiming that all nuclear-armed states—including the four non-NPT states: India, Israel, DPR Korea, Pakistan—‘have failed to comply with their obligations […] to pursue negotiations for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons’.  These cases, referred to as the Nuclear Zero lawsuits, are based on treaty law obligations (for the five NPT NWS) and customary international law (for the four non-NPT member states). The Labour Party of New Zealand (currently in opposition) has pledged support for the lawsuits. Civil society groups at the NPT PrepCom have heralded the motion.

As a testing ground for U.S. nuclear weapons (between 1946 and 1958), the Republic of the Marshall Islands bears firsthand experience of the effects of radiation. On the first day of the PrepCom, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, delivered a powerful statement including a personal account of his own childhood memories of U.S. nuclear testing. Given the close US-Marshall Islands economic and defence ties, including an agreement for use of the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll missile test range, it is an interesting bilateral development.

In her 29 April statement to the 2014 PrepCom, U.S. Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller asserted that ‘it is the United States’ deep understanding of the consequences of nuclear weapons use—including the devastating health effects—that has guided and motivated our efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate these most hazardous weapons’. Gottemoeller stressed that ‘it is imperative that we make sure people remember the human impact of nuclear weapons’. In a nod to the Nuclear Zero lawsuits she added that her ‘recent trips to the Marshall Islands and Hiroshima were potent reminders of the need to persevere in confronting this challenge’. The inclusion and attention to these issues in the U.S. statement is an indicator of the prominence and importance of the humanitarian dimension initiative. Notwithstanding universal formal engagement, the initiative is percolating through national statements and embedding itself in discourse widely.

Article VI commitments

Strategically timed for impact during the PrepCom and in furtherance of commitments to transparency, on 29 April, the U.S. State Department released newly classified information on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. As noted by the Federation of American Scientists, the new figures revealed by the Obama administration boil down to only 309 warheads fewer than the 5,113 reported in 2010. While underwhelming for some in civil society given high expectations on deliverables under Article VI, the U.S. reporting on stockpile figures should be welcomed and acknowledged as a positive move by one of the five NWS.

The New Agenda Coalition (NAC, comprising Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa) submitted a meaty working paper on Article VI to the PrepCom. As highlighted by the Irish delegation, this suggests four options for the way forward, outlining ‘prospects for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, a looser framework arrangement of mutually reinforcing instruments, or a hybrid of any or all of the above’. The NAC offers these options for discussion without prescription for one outcome. Ireland argues that discussions must begin immediately in order to identify what is needed and how to frame this. Warning that ‘we will not, under any circumstances, countenance a simple roll-over of the 2010 Action Plan’ at the 2015 RevCon, Ireland stressed that ‘to do so would inflict even further damage on the NPT as a credible driver of disarmament and non-proliferation efforts’.

Mushroom cloud and water column on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Operation Crossroads Baker, 25 July 1946. Source: US Department of Defense (via Wikipedia)

Mushroom cloud and water column on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Operation Crossroads Baker, 25 July 1946. Source: US Department of Defense (via Wikipedia)

With 128 states supporting the joint statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons at the UN General Assembly First Committee in October 2013, the second week at the PrepCom is likely to witness growing support for the initiative’s statement, but only if its wording can balance the political and strategic needs of all of the wide-ranging states. Notably, at the 2013 PrepCom, Japan opted not to pledge formal support to the statement due to trepidation about a clause in the initiative’s statement which was interpreted as having implications for its strategic alliance and coverage under the US nuclear umbrella. Alienating key states – especially US allies – by expressing views too categorically will not serve the humanitarian initiative well. At the same time, it is hard to deny the frustration felt by most states at the lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Civil society engagement

Akin to the wide range of support and engagement for the humanitarian dimension initiative shown by states parties, civil society groups have made many broad-ranging contributions to highlight the initiative’s aims. Chatham House published a thorough report on the risks of inadvertent, accidental or deliberate detonation of nuclear weapons based on an assessment of historical cases of near nuclear use, offering recommendations for mitigating these risks. The European Leadership Network (ELN) released a group statement (supported by 52 high-level signatories) with a list of broad ranging recommendations for necessary steps for a successful 2015 NPT Review Conference. Warning that the humanitarian dimension initiative ‘has become a deeply divided issue among NPT states-parties’ and arguing that ‘this division is damaging the diplomatic atmosphere’, the ELN calls on the P5 to participate in the initiative’s third conference in Vienna in December.

Across the Atlantic, a coalition of US-based civil society organizations published an open letter to President Obama calling for action on nuclear disarmament, including amongst several suggestions, participation in the Vienna conference. The coalition highlights the deterioration in US-Russia relations, given continuing and foreseeable NATO expansion and in light of the crisis in Ukraine, noting concern for prospects for future bilateral arms reduction negotiations.

Other disarmament advocacy groups including Reaching Critical Will and ICAN are steadfastly calling for a process of negotiations for a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons. Demanding a nuclear ban, the Geneva Nuclear Disarmament Initiative, aka Wildfire, continues to head-on challenge and mock the status quo of the NPT review process, exposing inconsistencies in nuclear policies by NPT states, with a focus also on NNWS relying on extended nuclear deterrence, particularly Australiaand those NNWS hosting NATO theater nuclear weapons, such as the Netherlands.

A major challenge faced by the PrepCom’s Chair, Peruvian Ambassador Roman Morey, will thus be to reconcile these disparate approaches and views while preserving the essential aims of the humanitarian initiative. There is a clear need to engage the NWS and seek their attendance at the Vienna conference in December and to steer diplomacy as well as civil society activism towards an achievable path for the elimination of nuclear weapons. If the PrepCom concludes with recriminations and division, it will bode ill for next year’s NPT Review Conference.


Jenny Nielsen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Previously, she was a Research Analyst with the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), 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, where she co-edited the 2004-2012 editions of the NPT Briefing Book.

Marianne Hanson is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University Of Queensland and Director of the University’s Rotary Centre for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution. She has published widely in the field of international security, with a focus on weapons control, and is currently engaged in a book project examining the emergence of the humanitarian initiative in nuclear weapons debates.

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