The five-yearly conference reviewing the world’s major treaty on nuclear weapons managed to just squeak out a consensus declaration on Friday after a month of deliberations. Diplomats, politicians and NGO activists all seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that it hadn’t ended in disarray like the last one did in 2005.
189 nations reaffirmed their commitment to eliminating all nuclear weapons and set a 2012 deadline for holding a regional conference to eliminate nuclear weapons from the Middle East.
But one thing is clear: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (aka NPT) is not going to rid the world of nuclear weapons any time soon.
The negotiations in New York showed it was in many ways business as usual. The P4 nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, UK and France) circled the wagons and stripped out most of the text that would have committed them to specific actions to reduce their arsenals. This, as it always does, gave the unofficial nuclear states (India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel) the excuse to do nothing about reducing theirs.
The final result? A lot of vague and aspirational statements. And given that the nuclear states made almost no progress on the last set of commitments made in 2000, it doesn’t give much hope that the NPT will deliver progress on the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
There are two main reasons. First, the “recognised” and the “unofficial” nuclear weapons states are stuck in gridlock. Second, in this kind of situation the consensus-based approach of the UN inevitably produces a lowest common denominator result because it hands an effective veto to the most intransigent negotiator.
Which is why there is now a growing move to launch a parallel process to prepare a Nuclear Weapons Convention – a new global treaty designed to lead to the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. Advocates argue that the treaties that led to the successful global bans on landmines and cluster munitions offer a useful model in which like-minded governments and civil society lead the way, mobilising international opinion to stigmatise the weapons and over time recruit a majority of states to the cause.
Nuclear weapons of course are different. Nuclear deterrence is still key to the military strategies of the super powers and the elimination of nuclear weapons will require new thinking to take the place of deterrence.
In a speech last night to the Institute of International Affairs Labour leader Phil Goff called for the Government to join the group of nations pushing for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. At the review conference in New York an overwhelming majority of nations endorsed the idea of a Convention, and Phil said New Zealand should work with countries like Switzerland, Norway and Austria who were leading the way.
He said the National Government had been disappointingly timid in this area. New Zealand officials at the NPT Review in New York did some good work on the conference floor forging agreement among the parties, but New Zealand was too quiet when it came to advocating a more comprehensive and determined effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.