Jeffrey LewisNotes from the RevCon II

I was just in New York for a few days and heard some very interesting things about the coming trainwreck at the RevCon. But I wasn’t allowed to repeat any of them!

Lucky us, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova has written another “Notes from the RevCon” post.  (See her first note here.)

While she was careful to stick to things said in public, published online and reported in the papers, it’s kind of amazing to see it all in one place.

Notes from the RevCon: The Empires Strike Back

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova

I thought my next post would be about the Middle East, but then the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) set Subsidiary Body 1 and Main Committee I on fire, so I’m back to disarmament. (Elsewhere, Main Committee II has been chewing over whether the Additional Protocol is part of the verification standard under the NPT, and the United States’ and others’ proposals on response to withdrawal from the NPT are getting a no-go from the Non-Aligned Movement in Subsidiary Body 3.)

Weeks two and three of the RevCon are allocated to the work of the Main Committees (one each for every “pillar” of the NPT) and their Subsidiary Bodies (SBs). As in 2010, the RevCon established 3 SBs this year: SB 1 to deal with nuclear disarmament in a forward-looking manner, SB 2 on regional issues (that is, Middle East), and SB 3 for balance (“all other issues,” including Article X). On May 8, the chairs of the Main Committees and Subsidiary Bodies began submitting their draft reports, and the discussion of those texts started on Monday.

MC I and SB 1 were always the ones to watch, but the show so far has exceeded expectations. As discussed in my previous post, there’s a serious diversion of views on disarmament and the way forward, and bridging those gaps is not just a matter of a language fix, however carefully crafted. Given the developments with the humanitarian initiative since 2010, and the views expressed by the majority of NPT parties in the first two weeks, the humanitarian dimension was a significant part of the first SB 1 draft report.  No, the whole report was not about the humanitarian issues only, but concern about the humanitarian impact and the associated need to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use were woven throughout the text. But most problematically for the NWS and allies, the draft report opened the door for states to consider options for a legal framework for nuclear disarmament – not quite the call for negotiating an instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons that many states wanted to see, but a bridge too far for the NWS and allies.

No one expected the NWS to particularly like the draft report, but boy, did they hate it. And how did they propose to improve the text? As befits great powers, some of the NWS reportedly went straight to the RevCon President, before the discussion of the report even started, requesting to axe SB 1 altogether (not that she has the authority to do it). Their idea was to forget this unfortunate incident with the draft forward-looking SB report ever being produced and proceed with negotiations only in Main Committee I, solely on the basis of draft text submitted by the MC I Chair. The beauty of the MC I report is that it was supposed to focus on the review of implementation of disarmament provisions of the NPT and past RevCon decisions, including the famous 2010 Action Plan, but the first draft contained only trace amounts of assessment of such implementation and a whole lot of noting and recalling of past pronouncements. (Yes, I monitored the Action Plan implementation for four years. No, I’m not bitter.) The MC I document still dared to reference the humanitarian initiative, in no less than four paragraphs, but at least there was nothing on legal frameworks.

Putting the content aside, the tone and intensity of the commentary delivered by the NWS in the past several days have been striking. The five appeared shocked that the SB1 draft contained the views and proposals they opposed, and so prominently at that. I mean, haven’t we told you there is no need for a legal framework for nuclear disarmament, and step-by-step is the only way forward? It’s one thing to ask for more arms reductions and transparency for decades, but to suggest that our weapons should be banned? And why do you people keep insisting on your concerns when you’ve been clearly told that we already know all there is to know about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons? From there, the solidarity script falls apart a bit, as some NWS – e.g. the United States – say that humanitarian concerns already underpin everything they do, while France, when they can bring themselves to pronounce the word “humanitarian,” says the humanitarian impact has nothing to do with anything.

France has been saying all kinds of interesting things, actually, such as, there is no risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons. None. Zero. Stop talking about it. Also, as far as France is concerned, there has been no new information, no new findings about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons “for decades.” (They are not alone in asserting this, but others are less public about it.) China, in the meantime, has concentrated its ire on Japan, fiercely rejecting the latter’s invitation of political leaders and experts to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Historical grudges and Japanese imperial army’s WWII atrocities were all part of the intensely awkward exchange that apparently made the front pages of the Japanese media.

SB 1 Chair Ambassador Benno Laggner survived the charge, with many a delegation expressing support for his work, and came back on May 12 with a revised draft, which was being discussed as I was writing this post on Wednesday. The draft is significantly weaker on the humanitarian dimension, and though it’s still not weak enough to make the NWS happy, at least they seem prepared to continue negotiations. It’s the humanitarian initiative folks’ turn to push back, and they are doing so, especially on the exclusion of a reference to the unacceptability of use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The text that replaced it says it’s “in the interest of the very survival of humanity that the near seventy-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons be extended forever,” which many interpret as an implicit endorsement of indefinite possession of nuclear weapons. In any case, it sounds like a strange celebration of not committing a mass murder since the last time we did so.

So does it all spell a RevCon failure to agree on an outcome? Improbable as it may seem, the NWS might yet decide to cut their losses and accept strong endorsement of the humanitarian concerns, in exchange for dropping references to the need for a legal framework for nuclear disarmament (in the near future). That would be a much weaker outcome than many states desire, but might still be a significant enough reflection of the change in the thinking and the debate to make it worth accepting. It would be a crack in the dike, and states could then use it to keep up the pressure and the sense of urgency into the next NPT review cycle. There is still more than a week of the RevCon left to look for that compromise.

But if there is indeed no agreement, does it matter so much, given the treaty’s history of surviving failed conferences every other cycle? Failures might have even been useful sometimes: Mexico sank the 1990 RevCon over the comprehensive test ban, and in 1995, the promise of CTBT was one of the keys to securing the indefinite NPT extension. It may be comforting to think in those terms, but this time, the failure might mean that we have reached the point at which the differences are irreconcilable. Unlike in years past, this disagreement would not be about next steps and their relative priority as much as it would be about the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and policies envisioning their use. Would state parties be able to come back from that in five years and once again agree on common principles and the way forward? The NWS might be willing to wait it out. However, can they really imagine that in five years, 150+ states would be willing to return to status quo ante and re-accept the parameters of the debate centered on security perceptions and needs of the five? Perhaps they should give it some careful thought.



  1. Ward (History)

    This is useful reporting and lovely writing.

  2. Alexis TK27 (History)

    Attempts to prohibit nuclear weapons are fundamentally attempts to prohibit war, at least “serious war” that is war whose stakes are vital to a major power, basically its population and/or territory. For such a war, a major power would want nuclear weapons to stop an aggressor from exploiting too far a tactical victory, by threatening him with unacceptable consequences if he were to persist.

    As such, it is a safe bet these efforts will remain frustrated. Enough national leaders understand that war is a part of human condition and cannot be prohibited. Attempts to reduce its role, by reciprocal security guarantees or other diplomacy, can hope to succeed to an extent, they can’t be expected to make war disappear entirely. Much less to outlaw war, which is a preposterous notion on its face: who is going to enforce such a law, and how could he do so… if not by war?

    Since nuclear weapons were invented, they are a part of war, like it or not. The fact that they have not been used for 70 years is a success of international diplomacy. Securing that success is the order of the day, it’s a realistic project, while outlawing war is not.

    The NPT is basically an awkward but working compromise between the fact of nuclear weapons having been invented, and the risk that if dozens upon dozens of States sported nuclear arsenals, one or the other may stumble into a local nuclear war. Basis of the compromise is that only a few States are NWS, in exchange for which they promise not to use those weapons if they are not attacked, and other guarantees.

    The provision about eventual nuclear disarmament can be no more than a distant prospect, approximately coordinated with advent of the Messiah. The fact that Article VI provides for negotiations to a “Treaty on general and complete disarmament” gives obligation to member states to pursue such a treaty, but let’s be realistic, this is not for tomorrow. Incidentally, if such a treaty was ever seriously negotiated, the country providing the most efforts at disarmament would have to be the one presently spending half of all humankind’s defense budgets, that is the US of A.

    And moves towards that objective indeed can only be step by step, and encompass all kinds of armament. Have genocides already occurred in History? Yes, sadly, quite a few at that. Were nuclear weapons used for those genocides? No, not a single time. We all understand the potential of nuclear weapons for genocide, however let’s remember that all genocides to date have been done without them, and they would still be possible if nuclear weapons had not been invented. Not only it’s impossible to de-invent them, even if it was possible this would not prevent the worst kind of violence known to man that is genocide.

    All the debate about nuclear weapons not being “humanitarian” to press for their prohibition is quite preposterous, sorry to say. Indeed nuclear weapons are not humanitarian… it’s their POINT, for Heavens’ sake! These are weapons of terror and horror. Not forgetting that the very fact of using a weapon… is not precisely humanitarian to begin with. If the point is that nuclear weapons kill, well yes that point is well taken.