The Good Faith Issue

This article was published in Government Gazette, October 2012

Nuclear disarmament. The phrase alone can trigger reluctance, skepticism or a ‘not in my lifetime’-attitude in any civil servant or politician. Like actors who believe that saying Macbeth within a theatre causes bad luck and therefore refer to Shakespeare’s play about insanity and politics as the Scottish Play, politicians and diplomats might want to refer to the Good Faith Issue to avoid saying ‘nuclear disarmament’. After all, it was in good faith that the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) signed the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in which the nuclear weapon states (NWS) promised to start talking disarmament. The bargain in the NPT is – lest we forget – that the NNWS agreed not to obtain nuclear arms, in exchange for the sharing of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes by the NWS and the promise to negotiate complete disarmament. The NPT has been in force since 1970, but no process on the Good Faith Issue has started. Here, the EU should claim its throne.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair
Of course, in the field of non-proliferation and arms control there have been significant treaty-based achievements. The biggest push in reduction of the number of warheads however has been voluntary, when in 1991 US President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced unilateral though reciprocal disarmament measures, known as the presidential nuclear Initiatives (PNI’s). Those were the better days.

In the past two years, NATO has gone through a process called the Defence and Deterrence Posture Review. Flowing out of its new Strategic Concept, this process should have been an assessment of NATO’s security threats, and the ‘appropriate mix’ of conventional and nuclear arms necessary to counter these. For many, the concrete question behind this was what it would take to get the US to withdraw it’s remaining 200-or-so tactical nuclear weapons from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Turkey. Despite the explicit call for removal by the Dutch parliament, the German Bundestag and the European Parliament amongst others and the cooperative position of the US, the review failed to facilitate withdrawal.

One lesson from this process is that despite massive efforts by civil society, think-tanks and many a politician the Good Faith Issue is held back by the unfathomable ways of international diplomacy. While these weapons are military useless and subsequently have no practical deterrence value, NATO-diplomats keep clinging to the conviction that they still serve to keep some kind of balance with Russia.

Meanwhile the continued presence of these weapons, regarded by many as conflicting with NPT obligations, undermines Europe’s credibility as non-proliferation and disarmament champion. Moreover, progress on this issue blocks broader pan-European discussions on whether it actually needs nuclear deterrence at all, be it by the US ‘extended deterrence’ to its allies, or UK or French national policies.

Turn, hell-hound, turn!
It is as if those who should live up to the promise to disarm are afraid to believe they can. But as with Macbeth who misinterpreted the witches’ prophecy to the point that he couldn’t be slain by a man, the international diplomatic community might be looking to the wrong forums for the Good Faith Issue. Maybe its neither in NATO nor in NPT-context that the path to the Good Faith Issue lies.

The dismissal of nuclear weapons lies not in rephrasing or rethinking security strategies. As long as the NWS find in their own supreme national security interests a justification for the possible use of nuclear weapons, they will find the need to maintain a nuclear arsenal. This is also why the International Court of Justice in 1996 could not rule that the use of nuclear weapons would be against the rules of international humanitarian law per se.

However, as the International Committee of the Red Cross emphasized in a resolution last year, it is difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of ‘distinction, precaution and proportionality’. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how any country or society could justify the incalculable human suffering that can be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons. The key to the Good Faith Issue lies simply in admitting that the humanitarian consequences of any use of a nuclear weapon would be unacceptable.

Then, as with Macduff against hell-hound Macbeth, a champion must arise. Lying between the US and Russia, bordering the Middle East, comprising both NWS and NNWS, both NATO and non-NATO members, current convener of talks with Iran, the EU has it all. A first step might be the mere facilitation by the EU of talks on a new set of US – Russian PNI’s. Since the EU is facilitator of the talks with Iran, it should have both the professional capacity plus personal confidence from the two states to do so.

Second, the EU should convene an international round of consultations on when and how to start with negotiating an all-compassing treaty for a ban and elimination of all nuclear weapons. Representing 27 countries from the former envisioned battle ground of a nuclear WW III, the EU can act in complete good faith, and get the hurlyburly done.