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BASIC Executive Director’s Remarks on Nuclear Responsibilities and Distrust Reduction to the Annual Wilton Park Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, December 2022

The following remarks were delivered on 14 December 2022 at the Wilton Park ‘The NPT after the 2022 Review Conference’ by BASIC’s Executive Director, Sebastian Brixey-Williams. They summarise BASIC’s collaboration with the ICCS at the University of Birmingham to promote a nuclear responsibilities approach within international nuclear dialogue, as a means to reduce nuclear risks and build diplomatic trust.

Good morning everyone,

I think we all recognise that we’ve gotten into a bit of a mess when it comes to nuclear risks, and so the question now facing us is how we stabilise, and ultimately transform, the global nuclear order.

I tend to think about risk reduction as having short-, medium-, and long-term dimensions, each of these having quite different goals and mechanisms. In the longer term, we need to embrace transformative, security systems change. This is bigger than just disarmament – it’s about fundamentally transforming our institutions and the political relationships between states, and revising our conceptual models.

But we also need to have parallel, achievable medium-term goals that, above all, prevent nuclear weapons use, and the humanitarian, environmental, political, and social harms that would result.

What I’ll talk to you about today – nuclear responsibilities and distrust reduction – are what I would class as medium-term measures, that are intended to add greater shared understanding and predictability to the global nuclear order, to help states trust one another, and strengthen what Nina Tannenwald would call a ‘global regime of restraint and responsibility’.

With the wobbles in trust in the NPT regime and the breakdown of nuclear arms control, my message is that having a stronger-than-ever normative regime around nuclear weapons is more vital than ever. And I’d like to suggest that a nuclear responsibilities approach can help as a risk reduction measure.

So, let me first define what I’m talking about.

The language that I’d encourage you to embrace is that of nuclear responsibilities, which are the responsibilities that states and other actors have in relation to nuclear weapons. So far, so simple, right?

Everybody has nuclear responsibilities. Nuclear weapons are a by-product of the failure of global cooperation, and can threaten the global commons, so nobody can say they don’t have nuclear responsibilities. These can be legal obligations stemming from treaties or customary international law, or just normative responsibilities, which are not codified (or, not yet codified).

Now, of course, some actors have more obvious nuclear responsibilities than others. This is fairly self-evident. Nuclear-armed states have the clearest nuclear responsibilities because they hold the weapons.

States allied to nuclear-armed states or hosting nuclear weapons also have pretty clear nuclear responsibilities, both on their own terms and also to influence the policies and practices of the nuclear-armed states they are in alliance with. But non-nuclear-armed states outside of alliances, international institutions, and non-governmental organisations, to name a few, also have nuclear responsibilities.

The ICJ Advisory Opinion applies to all states, the NPT to all member states, and so on, but it’s ultimately a moral thing. And there are, I would strongly propose, clear non-binding responsibilities that are held consciously or unconsciously as norms in the international community.

These include nuclear restraint, diplomatic civility, the disavowal and non-practice of nuclear coercion or blackmail, an eschewing of ‘loose talk’ in relation to nuclear weapons, and so on.

You might now start to see how this could be relevant to our present moment. 

To take a Nuclear Responsibilities Approach, therefore, is to put that consideration of responsibility at the heart of how we think and talk about nuclear weapons. It’s a deliberate act of reframing.

So, for instance, if we are a State reviewing or making policy, it means starting with the questions: ‘who do we have responsibilities to?’, ‘what are our responsibilities to them?’, ‘where do they come from?’ and ‘how am we, or could we, better fulfil them and communicate about them?’. 

This is a conversation that you can have at the national level, ideally involving officials from across government (including military leaders) and non-governmental actors. This is something we have done in a number of countries including the UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Brazil, Australia, India, and Pakistan.

How do you put this into practice? Well, BASIC and the ICCS have very helpfully developed a tool for you: it’s called the Responsibilities Framework

The Framework (download the template here) is designed to help you think systematically about your responsibilities in a completely self-led process. It aims to encourage expansive new thinking, and it’s especially powerful if explored with a facilitator who acts as a critical friend through the process – it’s a bit like life coaching for States.

In October last year, BASIC and ICCS staff facilitated such a discussion for a politically-diverse group of 20 UK officials and experts, who both completed the Responsibilities Framework in advance and then worked through the questions collectively on the day.

In the best case, you then bring in other actors from outside the country to give you feedback on what you’ve done and add further perspectives, which we did on another occasion. Going through this process builds shared understandings within a national nuclear policy community, and should – if done right and implemented properly – make those links between a state’s responsibilities, and its behaviours in practice, stronger.

I’d add that BASIC has done this as an NGO too – involving the whole staff and Board – looking at BASIC’s responsibilities. It’s a key part of our five-year strategy.

Now, that’s the national level. There’s another way in which a Nuclear Responsibilities Approach can be used and that’s as the medium or frame for an international dialogue between representatives from different states. This is where the distrust reduction process comes in more strongly. The idea here is to facilitate exchange – reciprocally and iteratively – on each other’s responsibilities, in order to build up a better understanding of how each state sees its nuclear responsibilities, and how it sees itself implementing them in its policies and its practices.

At root, it’s about saying: ‘This is how we see our responsibilities and how we think we’re fulfilling them, we’re just as curious about how you see your own responsibilities and how you’re fulfilling them’. It’s a form of transparency.

The distrust reduction comes in at two levels:

  • First, at an interpersonal level by bringing people together in the same room for a conversation that – from experience – is much less contentious than one focused on specific policies or points of disagreement, and which allows them to humanise each other and speak to each other at a level that’s closer to values. 
  • Second, at a strategic level: if each state can then observe each other acting consistently – in accordance with their perceptions of their nuclear responsibilities – over a period of time.

In other words, they’ve given you their own standards by which they think their behaviour should be judged; you’ve had a chance to engage with it and perhaps challenge it; and now you can see if they live up to it. Because the root of distrust in the global nuclear order today, from my perspective, is quite simple: it’s the perception that people are saying one thing and doing another. Think of the INF Treaty.

By outlining your nuclear responsibilities publicly and up front, in an open and collaborative manner, you’ve created an opportunity to reduce distrust.  

So how have we been using this? Primarily in a regional context.

In the past three years, funded by CPACC, we’ve been working to socialise officials and non-governmental actors in the Asia-Pacific to the nuclear responsibilities approach – with a particular focus on India and Pakistan – as a means primarily to reduce nuclear risks in Southern Asia. Because India and Pakistan lie outside the NPT, we saw this as a way to engage them on a normative discourse around nuclear weapons.

To do this we’ve done quite a number of briefings and interviews, and we’ve worked with local in-country partners – the IPCS in India and CSSPR in Pakistan – to organise informal and formal dialogues to work through considering each country’s nuclear responsibilities. Most recently, we’ve convened workshops looking at targeted issues through a nuclear responsibilities lens, including: a multilateral meeting on nuclear responsibilities in the maritime domain, with a particular focus on nuclear submarine operations; and a bilateral meeting between experts from India and Pakistan to discuss responsibilities in relation to nuclear crisis communications;

The feedback has been consistently incredibly positive, primarily on the basis that it is curious, non-judgemental, and non-prescriptive. However, I don’t think we should limit ourselves at the regional level. To go back to where I started, I think there’s an urgent need, as well as a real opportunity, to scale this up – to start a global multilateral conversation about state responsibilities in relation to nuclear weapons.  

As I say, the breakdown of arms control and the wobbles we can see in relation to other formal treaty-based rules such as the NPT, mean that now more than ever we need to have a rock-solid normative regime – of restraint and responsibility.

How do you make sure you have that? The only way is dialogue.

So, I’d like to see an initiative that is similar in structure to CEND or maybe even a working group within CEND, potentially involving non-NPT nuclear-armed states like India and Pakistan, that will sit outside the NPT Review Cycle, but run in parallel to it and report into it. 

Membership of the initiative would be non-exclusionary and the precise target outputs of the initiative would be up for discussion, but I could see great value in something like a charter of responsibilities or a set of guiding principles on responsible state behaviour in relation to nuclear weapons.

Now, let me be clear: there is an overarching obligation towards disarmament, and this is in no way intended to undermine that. But in the meantime, recognising that nuclear weapons will be with us for a while, this is about strengthening the norms around possession to reduce risks while we remain on the path to elimination. It’s not an ‘either-or’ between disarmament and responsibility, it’s a ‘both-and’, and the Reagan-Gorbachev statement should be just the beginning.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion.

– Sebastian Brixey-Williams

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