Winning starts with beginning

“Winning starts with beginning” was the fortune folded into a cookie that my mother has in her kitchen. She looks at it daily, and it is a reminder that the only way we can achieve our goals is to start working towards them.  While attending the preparatory committee meeting of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recently, I began to wonder if many of the states speaking are still on the right path. Some suggestions about simply rolling over the 2010 agreements and not actually taking stock of progress made (or not made) seem to demonstrate a lack of thinking. One could even guess that it is a loss of hope.

Not all statements and papers however were quite so disheartening. Some ideas, developed and discussed at a variety of forums over the past few years, seem to be gaining more traction in the NPT context. The most interesting and constructive of these was, in my opinion, the working paper on Article VI of the New Agenda Coalition.

(For those not engaged in the day to day nuclear disarmament discussions, Article VI of the NPT is the promise made by more than half of the countries in the world with nuclear weapons to negotiate nuclear disarmament. Failure to start, or conclude these multilateral negotiations on nuclear weapons elimination is one of the main challenges facing the NPT.)

The New Agenda Coalition (NAC) paper puts forward some clear and concrete language. For example, it cites the absence of the NPT nuclear armed states in the forums established to discuss and move forward the nuclear disarmament agenda. This led the NAC to “call into question the seriousness with which the nuclear-weapon States approach their unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” and recognised that this “state of affairs is neither acceptable nor sustainable”.

If winning means achieving and maintaining a nuclear weapons free world, where should we begin? For decades, the focus has been on a step by step approach. These steps have included things like prohibiting the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, or outlawing nuclear testing. A Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty has been negotiated, signed by many, but still has not entered-into-force. It is not yet binding international law, although the majority of capable States have refrained from full scale testing. (One treaty loophole is the subcritical testing that could assist in the modernisation of nuclear arsenals- contributing to the qualitative nuclear arms race still ongoing).

Another step, in this approach, is the negotiation of a fissile materials treaty. On the agenda for decades (I’ve heard that Ireland raised this in the 1950s, but I haven’t been able to find the quote yet). The idea of removing the materials to make the bomb go boom in such an inhumane and indiscriminate way sounds like a great thing. No negotiations though. Not for decades. In fact, the closest thing to negotiating such a treaty is the Group of Governmental Experts on the issue, but their mandate clearly states that it will “make recommendations on possible aspects that could contribute to but not negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”.

I strongly question whether winning will begin with these steps. Instead, it may be time to give serious consideration and begin walking towards a nuclear weapons free world by another route. The NAC paper outlines several options- a comprehensive convention, a simpler nuclear ban treaty, a framework of agreements or a hybrid of some/ all of these. For me, it seems the best way forward right now is a treaty banning nuclear weapons as a beginning to winning a nuclear weapons free world.