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Nuclear Weapons Convention

Mr. President, delegates and non-governmental observers,

I will present non-governmental perspectives on the need for a nuclear weapons convention -- a treaty for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. There is a range of opinions regarding negotiations leading to the conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention, the role of NPT Review in this process, and how to pursue the goals of a nuclear weapons convention.

Why Pursue a Nuclear Weapons Convention?

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See Also
1998 NPT Index


Article VI of the Non Proliferation Treaty obliges all State parties to negotiate in good faith on effective measures for nuclear disarmament. In reaffirming and clarifying this obligation, the International Court of Justice, in its advisory opinion of July, 1996, found unanimously that there exists an obligation to conclude negotiations on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.

The United Nations General Assembly called for the implementation of the ICJ opinion specifically through the immediate commencement of negotiations leading to the conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention. This call was supported by the European Parliament in March, 1997.

If progress is not made towards the goal of elimination we face the following threats:

  • Use of existing nuclear weapons, whether by accident, mistake or design
  • Proliferation of weapons to other States, regions or non-State entities
  • Greater dependence on policies and means [methods] of military might, including fourth generation nuclear weapons and military uses of space
  • Increasing environmental and health problems from the production and handling of nuclear materials required for the production of nuclear weapons.
  • Constant threat of mass destruction.

Incremental steps are the only way to address many of the details on which effective nuclear disarmament depends. To date, progress in disarmament has been incremental, following long-sought negotiations and hard-earned compromises. Recently concluded treaties and IAEA improvements are key steps towards nuclear disarmament. Other efforts, though currently deadlocked, also point in the right direction.

But these incremental steps are interlinked. A comprehensive approach is necessary to coordinate these steps. Large scale verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals will require an unprecedented degree of collaboration, across political bodies and various industries.

Thus, the call by the United Nations, European Union and others is for the commencement of negotiations leading to a nuclear weapons convention.

How to Achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention?

The most important ingredient to achieving a nuclear weapons convention is political will of the nuclear weapon States. This will is currently lacking, but could be garnered through the urgent call by States parties to the NPT for the immediate commencement of such negotiations. [If such negotiations have not begun by the year 2000, this should be a principal call of the year 2000 Review Conference.]

But States parties can do more. You need not wait for the nuclear weapon States to agree to negotiations. You could establish, through a decision at this preparatory committee meeting, an intersessional working group on implementation of Article VI to consider how to bring about negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention. This proposal has been made in the Chairman's working paper, Annex II of the Report of the Preparatory Committee on its first session, and should be supported by all delegations. Such an intersessional working group could, if it decided, consider technical questions regarding the elimination of nuclear weapons, such as verification, that could be developed even before nuclear weapon states have agreed to negotiate a nuclear weapons convention.

 Negotiations leading to conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention could focus initially on such steps as the establishment of a registry of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons usable material, placing all nuclear weapons usable material under international control, taking all nuclear forces off alert and removing warheads from delivery vehicles, ending production of nuclear warheads and their components, and reducing stockpiles.

How Would a Nuclear Weapons Convention Work?

Recently, at the request of Costa Rica, the United Nations circulated a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention (MNWC or model NWC, UN doc A/C.1/52/7) as a discussion draft. The model, drafted by an international team of lawyers, scientists and disarmament experts, offers a plan for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons in a series of graduated verifiable steps.

The purposes of the model NWC include demonstrating the feasibility of the elimination of nuclear weapons and encouraging governments to enter into nuclear disarmament negotiations.

The MNWC assumes a political climate ready for the elimination of nuclear weapons, an assumption which requires some suspension of disbelief. Security policies based on the threat of  mass destruction are deemed necessary for the foreseeable future by Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and some allies. However, engaging in the process of designing a Nuclear Weapons Convention is useful in a number of ways: (1) It can help identify policies that are inconsistent with the goal of nuclear disarmament; (2) It can help overcome some of the barriers that make nuclear abolition appear utopian; and (3) It can help prepare us for the day when the political will to begin negotiations emerges.

We encourage all delegations to study and discuss the MNWC, whether informally or in the context of an intersessional working group of the NPT. The drafters welcome responses. In the past year there has been considerable feedback on the political and technical questions that must be resolved for verifiable and coordinated large-scale nuclear disarmament to begin. Areas that present the greatest uncertainty about developing a regime for elimination of nuclear weapons, the open questions and critical issues, include the following:

  • Will the elimination of nuclear weapons mean a different international security system? Yes. Some governments still consider the threat of nuclear weapons to be a vital component of their security. This posture will have to change before they agree to eliminate these weapons, and this change will help create a different security system, with greater reliance on non-violent conflict resolution, demilitarization and international law. Existing international security mechanisms may be strengthened and new ones created in the process, but these are not necessary prerequisites to implementation of a plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The NWC should not try to prescribe the elements of an alternative security system. Rather, as it evolves, the NWC should seek to incorporate and reinforce developments towards demilitarization and less reliance on force as a method of international conflict resolution. Enforcement is a particularly difficult issue in this context, as the NWS are also the permanent members of the Security Council. An alternative security system must address the meaning and extent of the right of self-defense.
  • How can the NWC prevent breakout? The key to breakout is irreversibility of the disarmament process. A concerted effort to eliminate not only nuclear weapons but the infrastructure behind them will require sequenced reversible measures leading to a world in which developing nuclear weapons will mean starting from scratch. Such a program will become increasingly difficult to conceal as the infrastructure is converted or allowed to erode. But the potential for a state to break out of the NWC and pursue a nuclear weapons program will exist as long as there is the nuclear material, including that produced by use of nuclear energy.
  • Do Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) have different roles in nuclear arms control and disarmament? Yes. The asymmetry between NWS and NNWS in the current non-proliferation regime will mean different functions and obligations on their respective parts in the move toward elimination of nuclear weapons. Although the NWC should overcome existing inequities, disarmament and verification will of necessity involve greater NWS responsibility and access to certain information as long as nuclear weapons exist. NNWS will likely require concrete reassurance that material and key information is being handled as agreed.
  • The knowledge of nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. The genie is out of the bottle. True, nuclear physics cannot be unlearned. In fact, it would be foolish to base any non-proliferation regime on the assumption that knowledge is lacking. Indeed, the knowledge of making chemical and biological weapons also cannot be disinvented.  Yet that  did not prevent the world from making a commitment to ban them despite the fact that verification of compliance is much more difficult for those weapons of mass destruction than it would be for nuclear weapons.

Current proliferation risks are not merely a result of the splitting of the atom. They are also the end product of long-standing policies to exploit this discovery for military purposes. Making nuclear disarmament irreversible will therefore involve a gradual dismantlement of the entire nuclear weapons infrastructure, beginning with greater, not lesser, awareness of the potential risks posed by scientific discoveries.

Conclusion

A recurrent response to the demand for a NWC is that it is premature, that in today's political environment it is premature to consider and discuss a framework for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. It is indeed premature to expect agreement on the objectives of the NWC or the details of its verification regime. But it is not premature to begin devising a plan for complete nuclear disarmament, to be ready when the political climate is favorable. Nor is it premature for States to begin developing the verification mechanisms for nuclear disarmament. For many years, a CTBT seemed beyond reach; yet verification mechanisms were studied by a scientific group of the CD and this helped the negotiations once they began.

In light of the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons, and the damage, both direct and indirect, that they cause, discussions of a Nuclear Weapons Convention should be seen as an urgent need rather than a premature wish. The model NWC is offered to States and NGO's in the hopes that it can inspire and enrich this discussion.

Statement Coordinator: Merav Datan, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy 666 Broadway - Room 625 New York, NY 10012, USA; Tel: 1 212 674 7790  Fax: 1 212 674 6199 email lcnp@aol.com