Strategic Space

Nuclear Ban Treaty Conference and Universal Nuclear Disarmament

20 Mar, 2017    ·   5247

Dr Manpreet Sethi looks at the limitations of the proposed conference


Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS

A nuclear weapons free world (NWFW) has been on the global agenda since 1945. Only, it has never been a global priority. In 2009, when the president of the militarily most powerful country talked about it in Prague, there was a brief upsurge of hope. But, the moment passed all too quickly and by the time President Obama demitted office, he had been persuaded to approve an unprecedented modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. President Trump is likely to stay the course. Not surprisingly, Russia is keeping nuclear pace. And, China is keeping them company with the induction of new conventional, nuclear and dual-use capabilities. All three are also experimenting with newer technologies ranging from hypersonics to underwater nuclear drones.

Ironically, it is at this juncture that a conference to negotiate a treaty prohibiting the possession, use, development, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons is scheduled to be held in the last week of March 2017. Engaged as all the nine nuclear-armed states are in nuclear modernisation, it is not surprising that this initiative is being led by a set of non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), mostly from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and some from Europe. The conference is the outcome of the UNGA resolution 71/258 that was adopted on 23 December 2016. The Resolution itself arose out of three meetings in 2016 of the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on disarmament. The OEWG was the result of the three conferences that were held as part of the Humanitarian Initiative (HI) since 2013. The HI brought focus to the fact that any nuclear detonation would be a catastrophic disaster beyond human handling capability. It also highlighted the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons given that the NPT itself does not delegitimise these weapons, certainly not for the five recognised NWS. It only prohibits their possession by the NNWS parties to the treaty. The nuclear ban treaty plans to plug this gap.

While the organisation of a conference to conclude such a treaty is by no means a trivial event, there are still many a slip between the lip and the cup of disarmament. For one, except for North Korea, none of the other eight nuclear-armed states has accepted the idea of the treaty. While China, India and Pakistan abstained on the UNGA resolution, France, Russia, UK, US (as also NATO allies and other states under the nuclear umbrella) opposed the Resolution. One of their major reservations arises from what such a ban would mean for extended deterrence. How will NNWS that join such a treaty but are in alliance with NWS reconcile both sides? Will the treaty restrict such an arrangement? Will states enjoying the benefit of extended deterrence be forced to choose between remaining in the alliance or joining the treaty? But, for them to join the treaty and abandon the nuclear umbrella without resolving their security concerns from nuclear weapons of adversaries would not be feasible. Japan and ROK face this dilemma. North Korea may have supported the Resolution, but whether it will join the treaty that outlaws its strategic assets appears unrealistic for now. So, what do Japan and ROK, and others like them, do?

A second limitation of the treaty is that it pitches itself as a normative treaty, rather than one that is able to enforce dismantlement of nuclear stockpiles in a verifiable manner. It only prohibits nuclear weapons without worrying about what happens to the existing stockpiles. This then is a less than optimal approach and certainly of a much lesser order than the more comprehensive, proposed model Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). The NWC obliges NWS to destroy their nuclear arsenals in five phases – take the weapons off alert; remove them from deployment; de-mate them from the delivery vehicles; disable warheads; remove and disfigure pits and place fissile material under international control, besides prohibiting production of weapon-grade fissile material. It also envisages a dedicated agency to oversee the process and ensure compliance.

A third related problem comes up on how the nuclear-armed states themselves join the treaty. The treaty makes their nuclear holdings illegal, but the possessors are under no obligation to dismantle and destroy them. To have a treaty without verified dismantlement cannot be a serious move towards disarmament since it will not provide the requisite confidence to the nuclear possessors to downgrade nuclear weapons in their national security strategies. Banning the weapon without resolving these issues of insecurity will have its limitations. In contrast to this, in fact, is a far more practical Indian proposition that calls for a ban on the use or threat of use of the weapon. So, while the possession remains legal, the weapon serves no useful purpose since its use is illegal. Such an approach undercuts the salience of nuclear weapons and can be far more effective a step towards disarmament.

Given the above limitations of the proposed instrument, India has reservations about its ability to achieve the objective of an NWFW. While India wholeheartedly supports the cause of universal nuclear disarmament, it is not convinced that this is the way to do it. In fact, India believes that the means are as important as the end and this kind of a sledgehammer approach might not be the optimal way of doing so.

Nevertheless, India is maintaining an open mind on the issue, as was evident from its participation in the organisational meeting of the conference in February. It might not be a bad idea for India to sit in on the conference too. This would not only showcase India’s credentials regarding its steadfastness in exploring all avenues that can lead to an NWFW, but also provide it with a platform to voice its own concerns about the treaty, instead of the instrument being presented as a fait accompli. Disarmament is too important a matter to either be left alone, or be left to only a few.

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