Nuclear Responsibilities at the NPT Preparatory Committee 2019

On 2nd May 2019, BASIC held ‘Foregrounding Nuclear Responsibilities for Nuclear Risk Reduction and Disarmament’ as a side event at the 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee.

BASIC’s Programme Director, Sebastian Brixey-Williams, served as panel moderator to a panel comprising four state representatives, speaking in their personal capacities:

  • Aidan Liddle, British Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva;
  • Zahid Rastam, Principal Assistant Secretary to the Multilateral Security Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Malaysia;
  • Nobuharu Imanishi, Director for Arms Control and Disarmament at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan;
  • Vanessa Wood, Counsellor Disarmament at the Australian Mission to the Conference on Disarmament.

The panel introduced the ‘nuclear responsibilities’ framing to the NPT community for the first time, by reporting back on four roundtables run by BASIC and the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) in London, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva over 2018 and 2019.

The nuclear responsibilities framework exists to build international understanding, dialogue, and a shared culture of responsibilities around nuclear weapons. ‘Nuclear responsibilities’ refer to the differentiated responsibilities of states and other actors around nuclear weapons. While nuclear disarmament is the overarching responsibility of all states, the path to the elimination includes a range of less well-defined responsibilities around nuclear stewardship and behaviour in the international community. These nuclear responsibilities derive from both legal and normative sources (ethical, moral, political) sources, and depend on states’ capabilities, cultures, historic roles, and negotiated agreements.


Ambassador Liddle (United Kingdom) welcomed the introduction of the nuclear responsibilities framework, as a new way to discuss the values and belief systems which lie behind states’ increasingly entrenched positions. He reiterated earlier calls that dialogue should focus on identifying ‘responsibilities’ (noun), rather than pointing the finger at states and labelling them ‘responsible’ or ‘irresponsible’ (adjective), which shuts down dialogue before it starts. When states better understand how they conceive of their responsibilities, space is created for constructive dialogue.

The Ambassador suggested that the nuclear responsibilities framework allowed for normative dimensions of nuclear policymaking (e.g. ethical, moral, political, technical, etc.) to be inserted into the conversation in a more dispassionate way, complementing and elucidating states’ existing legal obligations. It is important, he added, for each state to start by thinking deeply about its own responsibilities before trying to address the responsibilities of others.

The United Kingdom, a Nuclear Weapons State (NWS), considers that it has at least four responsibilities that require careful balancing.

  • To ensure the security of the state and its citizens, including by fulfilling collective security obligations through NATO. Amb. Liddle considers this to be the first responsibility of any state, which comes with an associated political responsibility for a democratically-elected party to fulfil manifesto pledges to maintain a nuclear deterrent.
  • To minimise the risk of (nuclear) war, a broader responsibility that speaks to the maintenance of international security and stability.
  • To ensure and promote responsible stewardship of nuclear weapons, which includes transparency around arsenals, clarity around doctrine and capabilities, and ensuring the safe and secure storage and maintenance of the nuclear arsenal.
  • To fulfil all legal obligations, such as those that stem from being a signatory to the NPT, CTBT, NWFZ, Security Council resolutions, licensing regimes, export controls and other international agreements.

From a UK point of view, the responsibilities of NNWS primarily revolve around maintaining the non-proliferation regime, controlling exports responsibly, and contributing to a stable and peaceful international community.


Zahid Rastam (Malaysia) recounted that, after being approached by BASIC and ICCS in late 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia had initially imagined using a nuclear responsibilities discourse to put more pressure on the Nuclear Weapon States. However, further reflections and discussions led them to instead start by undertaking an internal investigation based broadly on the following question: ‘If we want the Nuclear Weapon States to behave more responsibly, what can we [as a Non Nuclear Weapon State] do on our part?’

This question took on particular importance in 2019 as Malaysia took on its responsibilities as Chair of the 2019 Preparatory Committee, where they were tasked with promoting civility and reducing polarisation in the international community. The nuclear responsibilities framework was reported to have helped guide these conversations in a more sophisticated manner, avoid the usual polarisation, and play a role in ranking national policy priorities. However, it remains essential that the nuclear responsibilities conversation does not distract from disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.

Malaysia imagines its nuclear responsibilities in the following ways:

  • To ensure the security of the population.
  • To reduce nuclear risks, in terms of both accidental and intentional explosions
  • To assist in the global endeavour of finding common ground.
  • To push forward effective legal measures, of which the TPNW is just one.
  • To ensure and promote the full implementation and effectiveness of measures related to non-proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear materials and technologies, such as domestic export controls and safeguards to complement international efforts.

To learn more about Malaysian thinking on nuclear responsibilities, read the April 2019 report: Nuclear Responsibilities in an Interconnected World: Perspectives from Kuala Lumpur.


Nobuharu Imanishi (Japan) drew on Japan’s responsibilities outlined in remarks delivered in January 2019 at a roundtable on nuclear responsibilities in Tokyo.

  • To ensure future generations are educated on the lasting impact of nuclear weapons. As such, Mr Imanishi impressed that Japan takes very seriously its responsibility to pass on the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the added difficulty that the numbers of survivors and witnesses grows smaller each year.

Some of Japan’s nuclear responsibilities arise from its geographic location or its alliance with the United States:

  • To remind the United States of its disarmament obligations, while remaining mindful of security considerations.
  • To ensure regional security in North East Asia, which includes meaningful engagement with one another and the complete and verifiable denuclearisation of North Korea.

Mr Imanishi went on to say that Japan also has responsibilities:

  • As a nuclear weapons threshold state, to maintain a stockpile of plutonium which is compatible with the level of use and ensure its technologies are put only to peaceful uses.
  • To promote nuclear transparency, as it does through its membership of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) and working papers. The planned P5 side event on nuclear doctrine at the 2020 NPT Review Conference is a good opportunity for NNWS to engage with those states to better understand doctrine.
  • To build bridges in the international nuclear weapons policy community. Japan’s experience of the immense humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons and the precarity of the security environment places it in a good position to serve as a bridge builder, and led Japan’s the creation of the Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament in 2017.

To learn more about Japanese thinking on nuclear responsibilities, read the February 2019 report: Common but Differentiated Nuclear Responsibilities: Perspectives from Tokyo


Vanessa Wood (Australia), who took part in a closed-door consultation on nuclear responsibilities at the GCSP in Geneva in March 2019, began by saying that ideas can take a long time to percolate through the NPT structure. While she while she does not yet know where the nuclear responsibilities conversation will go, there is a clear need to find ways for have a better dialogue on state’s obligations and that the framework holds some promise for this.

The Geneva roundtable came at the end of a tough and exhausting week of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament. Multiple participants gave feedback that the nuclear responsibilities discussion was energising and empowering, allowing participants to think creatively, listen actively and empathically, and step beyond national positions on the international security environment. The act of reflecting on one’s own responsibilities, she felt, could itself be seen as a form of risk reduction.

Ms Wood reflected that state responsibilities are already differentiated to some extent. They are also dynamic and moving, insofar as they will change as states move along the path to disarmament. However, she felt that there remains an open question about the extent to which states can be formally said to have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ around nuclear weapons.

Ms Wood proposed several nuclear responsibilities:

  • To work towards a responsible level of ambiguity and transparency, and explain how this level has been determined.
  • To practice and promote strategic empathy.
  • To reflect and ensure that each state is doing all it can to promote and create a security environment in which disarmament is possible: this includes engaging civil society and promoting regional security in a wider sense beyond disarmament
  • To reduce mistrust and rebuild trust.
  • To build the credibility of the NPT and do it no harm.

The ensuing discussion focused on the ability of the nuclear responsibilities framework to bring together different groups which don’t normally meet and engage with one another. This happened at the different roundtables: connecting disarmament and deterrence communities, civil society groups and activists with government officials and the national and international level of operations. Different participants highlighted the importance of civil dialogue and how well the responsibilities conversations had managed to encourage civility, reflection and empathy even among groups who often clash under other circumstances.

This dynamic was identified as an important characteristic to carry forward, as civil exchange made compromise and progress in other areas easier. The US Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative was highlighted as another forum which groups with different positions might be able to use to engage in robust dialogue to understand each other better.


Audience Discussion

Nizhan Rizal, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia, stated that he was struck by discussion of civility as a responsibility, and proposed that this should be remembered as a core responsibility in the NPT context.

Kimiaki Kawai, Director of Peace and Human Rights at Soka Gakkai International (SGI), raised the important question of the responsibilities of civil society in the disarmament and wider nuclear policymaking. Cheryl Cruz, Deputy Director at Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, responded that civil society should approach new initiatives with an open mind and help shape them into an honest dialogue, even if there are grounds with suspicion. She also added the responsibility of increasing women’s participation and representation in nuclear policy discussions.

Isabelle Williams, Senior Advisor on the Global Nuclear Policy Program at NTI, asked how responsibilities change over time. Sebastian Brixey-Williams, chairing, suggested that there are many examples of nuclear norms that were viewed as acceptable during the Cold War which are unacceptable today, and the path to nuclear weapons’ elimination will likely involve an evolution of norms in something akin to a ‘step-by-step’ process.

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