UN General Assembly Hall during the closing meeting of the 10th NPT Review Conference on August 26, 2022.
Over the last four weeks, 191 countries met at the United Nations in New York for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. The month-long meeting ended without an outcome document, as consensus couldn’t be reached, primarily on issues related to nuclear disarmament.* The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) participated in this important conference, delivering a statement that highlighted the urgency of nuclear disarmament in the current moment and organizing and participating in several side events focused on related issues. Given the failure of the NPT Review Conference to deliver meaningfully on nuclear disarmament, NAPF calls upon all NPT states to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons or TPNW. This treaty came into force in January of 2021 and has been ratified by 66 countries and counting. All other NPT states parties should join their ranks.
This August marked the 77th anniversary of the unconscionable atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which as Einstein put it, “changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” In the intervening decades, more countries joined the nuclear weapons club, with the United States and the Soviet Union proliferating in the extreme, reaching – near the end of the Cold War – arsenals of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons each. Over that time, we experienced numerous close calls, including the most famous one – the Cuban Missile Crisis – and many experts agree that good luck played a big role in averting a nuclear apocalypse. “But luck is not a strategy,” the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned at the opening session of this review conference. Given that a nuclear weapon state (Russia) has brutally attacked and invaded a non-nuclear weapon state (Ukraine), that the war has implicated other nuclear weapon states as well, and that there are additional rising geopolitical tensions, we need a far better strategy. In fact, the only reasonable answer to the present state of affairs is nuclear disarmament.
In 1970, the NPT came into force, setting up a two-tier system of five countries – that had nuclear weapons by that point and were allowed to keep them – and the rest of the world. However, this arrangement was meant to be a temporary one and the five nuclear weapons states (China, France, Soviet Union – now Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) were – and remain – obligated to pursue nuclear disarmament, according to an article of the treaty, Article VI. Fifty-two years later, the nuclear weapon states have not only not fulfilled their NPT obligations, but they are doing precisely the opposite of pursuing disarmament. No wonder an agreement couldn’t be reached at the NPT conference.
But there is good news on the horizon. In 2017, 122 countries negotiated the TPNW and the treaty went into force in January of 2021. What these states essentially said is that nuclear weapons have no place in this world and must be eliminated. This view has been shaped by deep knowledge and understanding of humanitarian harm of nuclear weapons from their use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to their testing around the world, from places like the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and French Polynesia in the Pacific, to the deserts of the American southwest, Algeria, Australia, western China, and Kazakhstan. Moreover, the past use and testing – whose devastating consequences persist to today – is just a sliver of the harm that would be unleashed upon humanity should nuclear weapons be used in the future.
First, the weapons in today’s nuclear arsenals are much more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and there are 13,000 of them rather than just a few. Second, at present, the nuclear weapon states have delivery systems that can deliver up to ten warheads to different locations – locations that are either far or close to one another. Finally, unlike with what happened in Japan, where there was no possible nuclear retaliation, there would almost certainly be a response to a nuclear attack anywhere in the world. And unlike with nuclear tests, where efforts were made not to cause widespread fires, nuclear weapon attacks on cities would cause such widespread fires so as to shut off food production and agriculture, leading to widespread famine and the death of billions of people.
This is the second review conference in a row, following the 9th NPT Review Conference in 2015, that has failed to reach consensus. The urgency for disarmament couldn’t be higher and our commitment to it must be reinvigorated rather than allowed to falter. There is a way forward with the TPNW and we look forward to doing our part to strengthen and implement this treaty in full.
* Technically, Russia blocked the outcome document over what their delegate referred to as “politicized” paragraphs regarding the Zaporizhzhia power plant. Subsequent statements from individual countries such as Costa Rica and South Africa, to joint statements by TPNW states, New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Aligned Movement, reflected deep concern about the lack of progress and ambition on nuclear disarmament and the fulfillment of NPT’s Article VI obligations. I was particularly inspired by the South African statement, which quoted Nelson Mandela as saying, “Why do they need them, anyway?”
For all NPT statements, go to Reaching Critical Will, NPT 2022 Statements