Facing up to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear policies and mistakes

Author(s): Dr Rebecca Johnson
18 May 2012

“Smooth” was the word most frequently used by diplomats when the two-week PrepCom meeting of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) closed in Vienna.  It was an odd word for a meeting in which strong concerns had been raised about the humanitarian consequences of the spread, use and deployment of nuclear weapons, and the counterproductive policies of the handful of governments that still want to perpetuate these weapons of mass destruction – for themselves, if not for others. 

During the PrepCom, hard words had been spoken about non-compliance, proliferation and the nuclear programmes of Israel, Iran and North Korea, while accusations were also levied at the nuclear-weapon states parties to the NPT (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States) for modernising instead of eliminating their nuclear weapons.  As representatives of Japanese civil society spoke movingly about the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that resulted from the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011, government delegates shifted uncomfortably in their seats and spoke of the need for more attention to nuclear safety.

Though much was discussed, there was little sign of the histrionics and competitive power games that marred the previous Vienna PrepCom in 2007 , when US diplomat John Bolton on behalf of President George W. Bush lit a sneaky fuse over the agenda and then sat back grinning while Iran and the meeting’s Chair, Yukiya Amano, fired pointless rounds at each other while others fumed in frustration.  Iran’s Vienna ambassador, Ali Soltanieh , was much in evidence again this year, but the dynamic was very different. Soltanieh was full of praise for the Chair, Australian diplomat Peter Woolcott, thanking him for his “inclusive consultations” and “constructive engagement”, a judgement shared by many other closing statements. Amano is still in Vienna but wasn’t at the NPT.  Recently installed as the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Amano now has a different forum and broader set of tools with which to confront Iran and constrain its nuclear programme.  He also has to deal with the fall-out from the Fukushima nuclear disaster that resulted from Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The most positive change in recent years has been in US attitudes after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.  Led by Ambassador Susan Burk , Obama’s NPT delegation shared credits with Egypt as principal players in the consensus outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference , especially in negotiating on an Arab proposal for a conference to be held in 2012 for all states in the region to discuss making the Middle East a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

The stakes did not appear as high this year. Apart from adopting an agenda for the next three meetings (which was achieved in the first hour), the 2012 NPT PrepCom did not have to negotiate any consensus agreements, so the main business was discussion. Woolcott and his team summarised the main points, but decided to avoid conflict by issuing the summary as a working paper instead of trying to get agreement on its text.

Two issues of increasing interest and concern reflected in Woolcott’s summary and discussed in my previous articles are the 2012 Helsinki Middle East conference and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, including nuclear use, accidents and continued modernisation of current arsenals.  While the report from Finnish ambassador Jaako Laajava on his indefatigable consultations for the Helsinki Conference were much appreciated, Woolcott’s summary acknowledged the concerns raised about the “outstanding issues including agenda, modalities, outcome and follow-on steps”, and underlined “the importance of inclusivity” – diplomatic language for making sure that Iran and Israel as well as all the Arab states would be fully involved. 

Israel is not party to the NPT, where Palestine has ‘observer’ status, so the Helsinki conference is being convened under UN auspices so that Israel has no excuse not to attend. A major worry is that no dates have been agreed and though Laajava hinted at December 2012, that month is already crowded with religious holidays and  diplomatic meetings, including a “Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety” hosted by Japan.  Iran has already thrown a spanner in the works by arguing that the Helsinki conference should be regarded as a “subsidiary forum” of the NPT, with NPT rules of procedure. That proposal is a non-starter, but it could cause difficulties for Laajava’s conference preparations. It is also a worrying sign that Iran may be laying down such demands and conditions to provide justifications if it decides not to participate in the Helsinki Conference. 

With Israel determined to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability, and Iran needing to demonstrate that it has only plans for nuclear energy “for peaceful purposes”, there could be significant political and security incentives for both to participate in the Helsinki conference, but so far the two governments are hedging their bets, hoping to minimise the opportunities for regional or international pressure.  Some NPT parties took heart from Iran’s generally constructive engagement at the Vienna NPT meeting. In addition to being respectfully treated in Woolcott’s consultations, which helps when engaging with proud and prickly people as well as nations, recent political developments have contributed to a more conducive environment for engaging Iran. Ending 15 months of stand-off, on April 14 2012 Iran met with high level representatives from Russia, China, the United States and from the “E3” governments of Britain, France and Germany. This meeting, held in Istanbul, was described by European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton as “constructive and useful ”. 

The NPT PrepCom, according to Woolcott’s summary, welcomed this “E3+3” engagement with Iran as an “opportunity to take concrete steps, guided by a step-by-step approach and the principle of reciprocity, to negotiate a sustainable solution” and “restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of the Iranian nuclear programme”. A further E3+3 meeting scheduled for Baghdad on May 23 provided Iran with additional incentives to work constructively with NPT states in the Vienna PrepCom. At the same time the Iranian delegation made sure to use the NPT forum to criticise the nuclear-armed states for perpetuating nuclear weapons and threats with their doctrines of nuclear deterrence, nuclear sharing and the perpetual modernisation of their nuclear weapons despite over 40 years of treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith.  Soltanieh might have been “playing to the gallery”, but he was also highlighting contradictions and problems that a growing number of non-nuclear countries have been pushing up the agenda – from inside NATO as well as from the nuclear-weapons-free zones that now cover more than half the world.

Taken as a whole, most of the 101 paragraphs of Woolcott’s summary were carefully worded to tick the NPT’s political boxes. Much of the language reiterated long-held positions that have failed to ignite much progress over recent decades. In comparison with NPT meetings held prior to the 2010 Review Conference, however, far higher emphasis is being placed on the humanitarian dimensions and international law, amid concerns that some states are modernising and replacing weapons in their nuclear arsenals while claiming credit for making reductions. The importance of addressing “the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” in the NPT review cycle was stressed, and underlined the majority view that “any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be inconsistent with fundamental rules of international humanitarian law”. During the debates, UK and US representatives had claimed that they would only use nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances” which they claimed would be compatible with international law, citing the 8 July 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.  Starting with 16 nations from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America signing up to a new joint statement on the “humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament” , and the announcement of a conference to be held next year in Oslo on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, this issue was taken up by many more delegations during the PrepCom, and by public and side-bar meetings organised by the governments of Switzerland, Norway and by civil society groups.

Many states also stressed the principles of “irreversibility, verifiability and transparency” and the need “for negotiations of a phased programme for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons with a specified time frame, including a nuclear weapons convention”. They also expressed “concern over the continued modernisation of nuclear arsenals, including in connection with the ratification of nuclear arms reduction agreements, and the development of advanced and new types of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and related infrastructure” and “pointed out that “reductions in deployments or in alert status could not substitute for the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons”.

Like most diplomatic meetings on the international calendar in Vienna, New York and Geneva, the 2012 NPT PrepCom did not make much headway on the serious issues of non-proliferation, disarmament and security. At best such set piece events act as sounding boards for the main issues of concern, allowing governments and civil society to strategise on ways to have real political impact somewhere else. The chief importance of this Vienna PrepCom was its discussions about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear policies and mistakes and the reminders of the global impact of national or regional nuclear developments.  Nuclear business as usual is being challenged more vociferously by the “have-nots”, while the nuclear-armed states are having to deal with realities that refuse to be swept under the misleadingly fluffy carpet of “nuclear deterrence”.

Judging from the concerns highlighted at this year's NPT PrepCom, the next few years will see fundamental changes in how nuclear issues are addressed. With the UK unable to afford a pointless new generation of Trident, NATO stuck in a nuclear time warp, President François Hollande offering new approaches that might open up a security rethink in France, and Russia and the US wrangling over missile defences and how to cut the thousands of nuclear weapons they both need to clear out of their expensive cold war arsenals, such changes will benefit the nuclear-armed states as well -  if only they could see it!

This article was originally published in Open Democracy.