The Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) for nuclear disarmament is holding sessions this week at the United Nations Office in Geneva. States are gathering to discuss the steps necessary to create a world free of nuclear weapons. The OEWG will submit a report summarizing the discussions and agreed recommendations to the UN General Assembly for consideration. On Thursday, the OEWG discussed the role of nuclear weapons in the security context of the 21st century.
Ecuador stated that nuclear weapons were a Sword of Damocles that hangs “over all human survival.” Mexico spoke out against nuclear modernization projects, claiming that these plans increase the likelihood of eliminating humanity entirely. Ireland noted that nuclear command and control structures have failed cyber probes. Palau said that “a nuclear armed world will always be a world on the brink of catastrophe.” These states all argued that a ban treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons would bolster national and global security and should be recommended to the UN General Assembly by the OEWG.
Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Progressive Approach’ countries rejected a ban treaty and reiterated their commitment to maintaining nuclear weapons for “national security.” Hungary likened denying the security value of nuclear weapons to denying climate change. Perhaps the most revealing intervention came from Bulgaria, claiming that it “cannot at this point in time subscribe itself to the statement that nuclear weapons should never be used under any circumstances.” Bulgaria’s approach is perplexing. Bulgaria both claims to want a world free of nuclear weapons and to reserve ability of some states to use these weapons of indiscriminate violence. Instead of living in a world constantly threatened by nuclear war, South Africa proposed that we create a world free of nuclear weapons to promote a very basic right to life. South Africa believes that “there can be no right hands for wrong weapons.”
Poland, which also backs the ‘Progressive Approach’, stated that it must rely on nuclear weapons not because it wants to, but because it has to. Poland cited fears of Russian aggression and border conflicts. Egypt responded, claiming that it faced significant security concerns in the Middle East and yet it is not under the protection of a nuclear umbrella. Jamaica and Egypt both questioned why they should not pursue nuclear weapons. After all, they argued, if nuclear weapons promote security then proliferation should be encouraged.
General John Cartwright, a guest speaker during the session Thursday, responded by saying something rather insightful. He stated that Jamaica does not need nuclear weapons to have a deterrent because Jamaica has military alliances and other non-nuclear capabilities. Notably, General Cartwright said that deterrence theory was based off of “circular logic.” Egypt noted that the origins of deterrence theory predate nuclear weapons. From the outset, nuclear weapons were not even created for deterrence. Still, some countries do not understand that deterrence can exist without the risks posed by the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Nuclear weapons represent an unparalleled violence. They threaten the existence of seven billion global citizens at every moment. The likelihood of accidental or intentional nuclear war is rising as nuclear weapons modernization projects seek to make nuclear weapons more usable. Further, nuclear weapons do not even provide an adequate response to the security threats posed by the 21st century. Countries simply can not nuke non-state actors.
As Palau stated, security cannot and must not be predicated on the basis of illegitimate weapons. The best way to attain a world without these illegitimate weapons is to ban them. The “Progressive Approach” countries claim to not support a ban for rather perplexing reasons. Estonia argued that it did not support a ban treaty because it would not affect the disarmament regime. Immediately after, Estonia said that a ban treaty would undermine the NPT by pushing the nuclear weapons states away from future negotiations.
This argument, that a ban treaty would do nothing and simultaneously would undermine the NPT, has been repeated many times by the so called “Progressive Approach” countries. The reality is quite the opposite. As Mexico stated, a ban treaty would strengthen the NPT, not weaken it. A ban treaty is directly in the spirit of Article VI of the NPT. A ban treaty would help foster international norms and laws against the possession and use of nuclear weapons.
Countries advocating for the ‘Progressive Approach’ do not intend to make positive contributions to the OEWG, which is tasked with taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. Their repeated demands that nuclear weapons are required for their national security are a clear demonstration of where their allegiances lie. These countries are sadly not committed to the goals of the OEWG, to Article VI of the NPT and to codified international law prohibiting the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons.
Joseph Rodgers is currently in Geneva, Switzerland attending the OEWG. He has worked on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and waste issues for the Arms Control Association, Tri-Valley CAREs, The Committee to Bridge the Gap, and the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. Joseph is pursuing a masters degree in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey.