This year marks the 70th anniversary of nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In addition, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force 45 years ago last week. This landmark treaty put a stop to the spread of nuclear weapons beyond five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and has been an enduring agreement that has made the world a safer place.
The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons took place in Vienna last week, and generated momentum towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament. The two day conference concluded with an expected “Chair’s Summary,” reflecting the main findings of the conference: nuclear weapons and humanity are incompatible, and an unexpected “Austria Pledge”, in which Austria acknowledged the inherent risk nuclear weapons pose to humanity and vowed to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.” In addition, Austria called on all members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to renew their commitment to meeting the disarmament pledge and take concrete steps towards reducing the risk of nuclear detonations.
The conference was attended by 158 countries, including four nuclear-armed states (United Kingdom, United States, India and Pakistan), alongside delegates from the United Nations, the Red Cross, and a wide array of civil society organizations dedicated to reducing the global threat posed by nuclear weapons. This was a continued improvement from humanitarian conferences of the past; the United States and United Kingdom both sent official delegations for the first time and even China sent an observing party.
While lacking in tangible policy agreements, the conference demonstrated a growing consensus around the danger that nuclear weapons pose on humanity. Survivors of nuclear attacks and tests, the Pope, diplomatic leaders, alongside various academics and celebrities all spoke out against the dangerous reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence and stability. The crowd was particularly captivated by the remarks of Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima explosion, whose testimony highlighted the indiscriminate and widespread nature of an atomic detonation. This testimony supported the presentations by scientists and members of civil society, who agreed a nuclear detonation would have catastrophic, long-lasting effects on human existence while providing little opportunity for humanitarian organizations to mitigate the suffer.
The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and its sister organization, Council for a Livable World, signed a letter with its partners urging the United States to attend the conference. Angela Canterbury, executive director of both organizations, emphasized the importance of including the humanitarian perspective in nuclear weapons discussions: “The nuclear weapons employed today are magnitudes more powerful than their World War II predecessors and their devastating effects cannot be contained by state boundaries, presenting risks on the regional and global scale. It is the United States’ responsibility to champion smart policy that deemphasizes the role of these catastrophic weapons in national security.”
Many non-nuclear weapons states, who are frustrated with the stagnation of reduction efforts by nuclear-armed states, hope to use this conference’s momentum to renew calls for nuclear reductions and disarmament. Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, was an attendee of the Vienna Conference. Reif commented that the conference was not just a “flash in the pan”: ““The frustration among many non-nuclear weapons states with the pace of progress on nuclear disarmament is palpable. The humanitarian consequences discussion has brought in voices and representatives that haven’t typically been part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process and figures to be a major issue at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.” With the NPT Review Conference approaching in the spring 2015, we are likely to see a resurgence of calls to ban nuclear weapons, especially if the proposed efforts outlined by the Austria Pledge yield legal frameworks for pursuing those ambitions.
Only time will tell if the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons will maintain its momentum gained during the Vienna Conference. Though with 44 states, the Pope, and scientists and celebrities from around the globe calling for a prohibition on nuclear weapons, their voices are growing stronger.
Greg Terryn is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The U.S. announced this evening that it will attend the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
The Conference, set to take place on December 8-9, 2014 in Vienna, Austria, aims to strengthen the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime, highlight the health and environmental dangers of nuclear weapons use, and underscore the urgency for progress on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) action plan.
Up to this point, the “P5” nuclear weapons countries (Russia, China, U.S., U.K., and France) have boycotted the conferences, fearing that they might be used as a forum to push for the elimination of their stockpiles. North Korea and Israel also skipped the two previous events, while India and Pakistan attended the second.
What the U.K. or the rest of the P5 will choose to do, however, is still an open question.
No other P5 countries have confirmed attendance at the December conference, but they could be influenced by the U.S. move. At an Arms Control Association event in October, Lord Des Browne, Secretary of State for Defence under the previous British Labour government, said that, “From the point of view of the United Kingdom, if the U.S. agrees to go, we will go.” He continued on to say that it was “no coincidence that we have not made up our mind for each of the last two conferences until immediately after the United States made its decision.”
For its part, the U.S. has made clear that its participation in no way implies that the country supports the beginning of a diplomatic process that would lead to a ban on nuclear weapons or a convention on their elimination. Rather, U.S. participation in the Vienna Conference will help to reaffirm American commitment to the process laid out in the NPT.
On June 23, 2014, India ratified the Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), six years after committing to allow IAEA inspectors access to its civilian nuclear program. Under the Additional Protocol, India commits to placing all 14 of its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards by the end of the year, allowing more intensive and intrusive IAEA inspections.
On April 5, 2009, President Obama articulated a vision of a nuclear-free world in a speech in Prague, marking the start of a committed pursuit of enhanced global nuclear security. He reiterated this commitment in a June 2013 speech in Berlin, but while significant progress has been made, many aspects of this agenda have stalled or failed to get off the ground. Five years after the speech in Prague, it is time to revitalize the cause of nuclear security and non-proliferation.
The “Prague Agenda” laid out in Obama’s 2009 speech focuses on several steps to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons—reduction of the number of nuclear weapons within states that already possess them; reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in national defense; prevention of nuclear proliferation by strengthening the global non-proliferation regime and punishing those states in violation of their obligations; securing vulnerable nuclear materials and enhancing international cooperation on nuclear security; and Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Progress toward these goals has been made, albeit unevenly. A litany of factors, including political obstruction from domestic opposition and worsening ties with Russia, has prevented more extensive progress from being realized. Moreover, the White House has not always pursued these goals with the vigor required of such an ambitious agenda. To sustain progress on this front, Obama must advance the Prague Agenda more forcefully throughout the remainder of his second term.
The New START Treaty, which came into effect on February 5, 2011, supported the first item on the Prague Agenda—to reduce the world’s supply of nuclear weapons, starting with the United States and Russia. In his Berlin speech last year, Obama announced that the United States would pursue a reduction in the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to a third, bringing the total from the 1,550 allowed under New START closer to 1,000.
As part of an update to high-level nuclear weapons policy guidance, this proposed reduction and further changes to the US nuclear posture would reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in US defense policy. However, the administration is predicating further reductions in the number and role of nuclear weapons on a negotiation with Russia, which Russia refused. Cooperation is especially unlikely to deepen amid the crisis in Ukraine and allegations that Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
With regards to the global non-proliferation regime, Obama has gone to great lengths to strengthen the regime, most obviously seen through his commitment to a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear impasse. Yet despite recent progress on Iran, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues to expand. The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference yielded consensus on a final document, a notable achievement given the failure to arrive at such a conclusion in 2005. The document espoused specific action designed to strengthen the three pillars of the NPT, non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear energy. On non-proliferation, a variety of proposals were put forward, many of which have seen progress since 2010–for example, strengthening export controls and encouraging states to adopt the NPT Additional Protocol. On disarmament, the final document requires nuclear weapons states to report on their disarmament activities at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in late April and for the first time explicitly states that the goal of the NPT’s disarmament provision is a world free of nuclear weapons. Other action plan items, such as negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East have stalled, and realistic steps toward nuclear disarmament post-New START have been few and far between.
The United States under President Obama deserves great praise for leading a global effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. Through the Nuclear Security Summit, Obama has ensured that this issue has remained at the forefront of the international community’s agenda, and a great deal of measurable progress has been made in reducing the amount of vulnerable nuclear material around the world. Beyond the planned 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, however, it is unclear how the United States will pursue global nuclear security. Furthermore, budget cuts have slowed the pace of nuclear security efforts, and many projects have been delayed or place on hold indefinitely.
Finally, the CTBT still has not been ratified despite Obama’s insistence in Prague that his administration would “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”
Five years after Obama established an ambitious commitment to nuclear security and non-proliferation at Prague, his record on the subject remains mixed. While progress has been made in some areas, many initiatives have stalled. To make matters worse, the Russian incursion in Ukraine will be a major obstacle to political cooperation between the United States and Russia, but there are steps the administration can take that need not rest on immediate Russian reciprocity.
The fifth anniversary of the Prague speech provides the administration with a chance to intensify its efforts in support of nuclear security and non-proliferation.