As the two week marathon of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference draws to a close in Vienna, we have to ask ourselves: has nuclear disarmament been advanced as a result of these deliberations?
Looking through the vast amounts of documentation produced, I would say that in the short term, in any very concrete way, the answer is definitely no. But if we are looking at the wider landscape and considering how a mood can shift or recalling how painstaking work can eventually – and surprisingly – achieve great results, then I would say, perhaps yes.
There are two developments of particular interest that may eventually bear fruit. The first is most pressing – to achieve a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Middle East. This has actually been on the NPT agenda since 1995, when the US, Russia and UK co-sponsored a resolution calling for a WMD free zone to be established. After no progress, efforts to that end have been revived and Finland has agreed to convene a conference this year to bring all the states in the region to the table.
I would not like to be in the shoes of the Finnish Minister responsible – Jaakko Laajava – I’m sure most people think his task his absolutely impossible. But Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, taken together with Iran’s civil nuclear programme and the tensions around that, make a zone the sine qua non of regional peace and stability. The biggest question is whether Israel will actually come to the table. Its current position seems to be that it wants a full peace settlement in place first, which is translatable as a pretty impolite NO.
Of course, what states say in public is not necessarily what they are prepared to do in private so I wouldn’t assume a no-show yet. Not surprisingly, many observers think it’s down to the US to put pressure on Israel, as its major ally and funder, hence they were disappointed when the US appeared to be taking a soft line with Israel at the conference. However, if anyone can take things forward, it will be Jaako Laajava, who has demonstrated great tenacity and serious intent in his work over the past months. Let’s hope he gets the cooperation that he deserves, not least from the US.
The other strong theme from the conference was the heightened concern about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. Obviously this has always been an issue, and it is the most basic argument for anti-nuclear campaigners. But it has re-emerged in very strong terms in this arena, not least because the International Red Cross and Red Crescent have taken the issue up and are calling for states to work on outlawing nuclear weapons as a matter of urgency.
It strikes me that this will cut no ice with the nuclear weapon states, because they know the consequences and they just don’t care. But what this will do is strengthen the hand of those non-nuclear states who really wish to move on disarmament – and in my opinion it will also strengthen the hand of disarmament campaigners within civil society. To situate nuclear weapons within the framework of humanitarian concerns and international humanitarian law must make it harder for people to shy away from disarmament because of its ‘political’ nature. Maybe now we can make real headway with development and health NGOs who have previously not seen the relevance of our work to theirs?
There are no guarantees about any of this of course, and maybe we are no further on. But it just may be that small additional possibilities are now open to us.