This line seems underlines the crux of the debate at the NPT. Is it ever acceptable to use nuclear weapons? If so, when?
During the Friday’s penultimate Main Committee 1 session, a number of Ambassadors asked the nuclear-armed states to explain how they can continue relying on nuclear weapons, knowing the catastrophic humanitarian consequences they cause. Austria’s Alexander Kmentt asked very clearly “what are the circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used, in the interests of humanity?”. South Africa’s Ambassador Minty posed a question on many an NPT goers mind (for decades) “When will we get nuclear disarmament?” as he reminded the nuclear-armed that humanity would indeed like an answer to that question.
Austria reiterated the key points from the largest ever nuclear disarmament statement, where 159 nations together repeated “nuclear weapons should never be used again, under any circumstances”. It was a sentiment repeated by the Africa Group, CARICOM, and by the majority of delegations who took the floor during the session.
However, there were those who pushed back against the idea. A minority of States that still rely on nuclear weapons in their security strategies or alliance doctrines.
The UK was the most vocal of these, taking the floor and suggested that if there are different interpretations on what the treaty means, that would weaken the treaty regime. He called for any reference to the issue of growing concern on the humanitarian consequences to be moved to the chapeau part of the document- and (reiterated) his desire to de-link this from the disarmament obligations the recognised nuclear armed states are subject to. He also prepared the conference for the inevitable blame-game should there not be a final document, but willingly putting the UK at the forefront of accepting responsibility for defending nuclear deterrence even though the 2010 NPT consensus document demanded a move away from nuclear weapons in security strategies.
Many States also referred to the legal gap on nuclear weapons. Ireland suggested that not recognising a legal gap is ignoring the reality of what article VI of the treaty demands- a framework, negotiated by each of the parties, for effective measures, in good faith. Egypt noted that there are clearly differences of opinion on what constitutes effective measures, and perhaps the chair could be broad in the next draft of the text.
The Chair was a bit broader in the next draft, issued on Friday afternoon. The new text shuffles some early paragraphs (2-4) that could be considered as a clear objection to ongoing nuclear sharing practices between the US, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. The new draft (as all drafts do during negotiations) gets weaker in a few places as well.
The language reiterated by so many states, that nuclear weapons should never be used again, under any circumstances does not appear in the revised text in quite that way. Instead, in paragraph 24, and in the context of the deep concern about the thousands of nuclear weapons still in stockpiles despite reductions, “the Conference expresses its deep concern at the humanitarian consequences that would result from any nuclear conflagration.” This language is significantly weakened from the earlier version, supported by 80% of UN members. That statement however is now welcomed in the draft (paragraph 31) and the recognition of the consequences is broadened to now include implications for human survival and for the environment, while leaving out the socio-economic implications of any use.
Overall, the members of this NPT are still divided about the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence policies were directly defended by the UK while some nuclear reliant states made indirect references to taking into consideration security needs before implementing any further disarmament steps. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority has made it crystal clear, because of their catastrophic consequences, because not state or agency can adequately address the effects of any detonation, they should never be used again. In 2010, a commitment was made to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in security strategies and doctrines, five years have passed and this stocktaking has shown that the majority of governments are running out of patience. Humanity deserves to know when we will get nuclear disarmament and there is a clear majority who are willing to move forward to lay the groundwork through prohibiting nuclear weapons. Those few holdouts that object to progress will need to heed Thomas Paine’s advice and “lead, follow, or get out of the way”.