APPG meeting: Making Progress towards nuclear disarmament

On 13 February, the APPG on Global Security and Non-Proliferation held a meeting to discuss the current climate for disarmament and the upcoming NPT review conference in 2020.

At the meeting, Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), highlighted the deterioration of the security environment and the increased risk of nuclear use. She thanked parliamentarians for engaging with the Campaign and contrasted this experience with the Nobel Peace Prize reception which was boycotted by the UK Government. She argued that the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons sits uncomfortably with certain democratic values, discussing how early UK nuclear tests were conducted at the expense of the attending service members’ health, many of whom had long-lasting and generation-spanning health problems as a result. She pointed out that younger generations’ views on nuclear weapons were shifting and that they were less accepting of continued nuclear possession.

Against this backdrop, she explained that the goal of the Ban Treaty was to shift global norms around nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons use, similar to the impact the Chemical Weapons Convention has had on norms around chemical weapons possession and use. She emphasised that the Ban Treaty bolstered rather than undermined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), by filling in legal gaps of the current disarmament and non-proliferation regime. The Ban Treaty would legalise an unequivocal rejection of nuclear weapons and thus strengthen the disarmament and non-proliferation obligations encoded in the NPT.

During the Q&A, Ms Fihn clarified that the Ban Treaty did not necessarily require unilateral disarmament, but made it politically unappealing to acquire and keep nuclear weapons. She highlighted the benefit of increased civil society engagement in nuclear policy discussions as it leads to a more informed and engaged citizenship. While acknowledging that the UK had taken significant steps towards disarmament since the 1980s, she cautioned against complacency. Holding on to nuclear weapons maintains a risk with unbearable consequences that only increases with time. She counselled against normalising nuclear weapons possession and the risks this posed for validating the behaviour of states like North Korea.

Tom Plant, Director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI, said it was important to frame conversation on disarmament in terms of reducing nuclear weapons risks, rather than opposing pathways. He agreed with Ms Fihn that nuclear weapons risks have increased substantially in recent years with a number of states increasing the saliency of nuclear weapons in defence doctrines. However, he did not agree that the Ban could yet be considered a positive step towards addressing this challenge. The Ban Treaty is a fact of the international political landscape, and he suggested that the UK and other states opposing the Ban should plan on that basis. He suggested that Ban Treaty states need to clarify the Ban Treaty’s relation to the NPT, and whether they would address weaknesses, such as verification provisions, to eliminate the prospect of “forum-shopping” by states.

Mr Plant agreed that the UK had made a number of steps towards disarmament. Compared to other nuclear-armed states the UK appears the most conflicted over continued nuclear possession. Yet, there remain a number of obstacles to making progress on disarmament. He suggested that the Ban Treaty did little to address these issues and might, in fact, exacerbate divisions in the international community over how to confront these challenges. These obstacles included:

  1. The issue of salience – nuclear-armed states still view nuclear weapons as essential to their security, and for some, such as Pakistan and North Korea, this is a particularly pressing matter. How can the security concerns of these states be met such that they are encouraged to disarm?
  2. The spread of nuclear weapons – through both horizontal proliferation in states outside the NPT framework and vertical proliferation through nuclear modernisation programmes, noting that the pressure of the Ban is unlikely to be felt outside of France, the UK and the United States;
  3. The collapse of existing arms control regimes – most notably the collapse of the INF Treaty and the mounting danger of New START expiry.

Given these challenges, he suggested that disarmament conversations might usefully be taken forward with a framework of reducing nuclear risk. He suggested that nuclear-armed states that suggest that the conditions for disarmament are not right ought to show leadership in creating these conditions. Governments ought to take disarmament considerations into account when making modernisation decisions. For example, there could be the potential to facilitate verification steps if they were already considered at the design stage.

During the Q&A, Mr Plant noted the complexity of maintaining strategic stability and that sometimes disarmament can have unintended consequences. For example, since Finland abandoned landmines under the Ottawa Treaty they have decided to develop of a long-range strike capability that may increase crisis instability with Russia. As such it is crucial to think through each disarmament step thoroughly in order to ensure that any negative unintended consequences can be eliminated as far as possible in advance. Norms need to work in concert with a range of other factors.

It was acknowledged that while nuclear risks are increasing, nuclear disarmament is more important now than ever. States may have different pathways towards global zero. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise states’ shared goal, ensure that states make concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament, while noting the complexity of the task, and ensuring that continued nuclear possession and proliferation are not normalised.

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