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What Comes After Adoption of the Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

14.07.2017

MOSCOW. JULY 14, 2017. PIR PRESS – “The new treaty provides for a total ban on nuclear weapons, as opposed to the status quo when five countries (Russia, USA, UK, France and China), which are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, possess nuclear weapons legally. The main document regulating this sphere today, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons  obliges nuclear weapons states only to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament,” – Andrey Baklitskiy PIR Center’s "Russia and Nuclear Nonproliferation Program" Director.

As the world witnessed the first handshake of President Trump and Putin on July 7th, 122 UN member states voted for the adoption of the Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This document opens for signature in September and will come into force after the ratification from 50 countries.

The new treaty provides for a total ban on nuclear weapons, as opposed to the status quo when five countries (Russia, USA, UK, France and China), which are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, possess nuclear weapons legally. The main document regulating this sphere today, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) obliges nuclear weapons states only to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament." 

Many non-nuclear states accused the five nuclear powers of not abiding even by these obligations. In 2014, the Marshall Islands filed a lawsuit against the nuclear powers in the International Court of Justice, but last year the court indicated that the issue is not within its jurisdiction. 

Traditionally, nuclear powers have rejected the arguments of the supporters of the ban, pointing to a significant reduction in the nuclear arsenals within the past decades and the possibility of undermining the existing non-proliferation regime. Mikhail Ulyanov, Director of Non-Proliferation and Arms Control of the Russian Foreign Ministry, noted that "any attempt to ‘improve’ the NPT could lead to its collapse – the structure is too fragile with extremely multifaceted contradictions among its member states." 

Nuclear weapons continue to play a vital role in ensuring the security of its possessors and their allies. It is not surprising that all states, formally or informally possessing nuclear weapons, NATO members, Asian allies of the U.S. and all the CSTO member states except Kazakhstan, did not participate in negotiating the treaty and refused to join it. The supporter camp of the treaty includes mainly the countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Oceania. 

Although the nuclear-weapon states were not involved in the development of the treaty, their presence was clearly felt within the corridors of the UN: verification of disarmament by the IAEA within the framework of the treaty didn’t make it to the final document (the P5 made it clear that they will not allow it). All of the verification part was rewritten and the NPT has been recognized as the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. This approach, on the one hand, reduced the potential for future conflicts, and on the other, was increasingly making the Convention mostly declarative document. Given that the new treaty will be fulfilled only by its nuclear-free participants, its effect will be limited, however it will still matter. 

The supporters of the treaty believe that its adoption will cause the nuclear states to pay more attention to their obligations with regard to disarmament. According to the Convention, Member States are obliged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons or to possess them, and neither should they receive the transfer of nor control over them; they should also not provide and receive assistance for activities that are in violation of the Convention. States are also responsible for prohibiting the stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons and nuclear tests on their territory or within their jurisdiction. 

Interestingly, eleven Kwajalein Atoll islands of the aforementioned Marshall Islands were leased to the U.S. (until 2066) as test sites for ballistic missiles, including some types of missiles that specifically carry nuclear warheads. Testing such missiles can be considered a violation of the Convention. Experts have pointed out that in this case, there remain three options to the Marshall Islands: terminate the lease with the U.S.; not sign the Convention or sign it and then immediately break it. 

Another potentially contentious issue is the deployment of nuclear weapons in the jurisdiction of non-nuclear states. The fierce judicial debate on whether transit will be included in the definition can be expected. In 1987 after New Zealand passed a law prohibiting the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory, the United States Navy (which as a matter of policy does not inform if it ships carry nuclear warheads) did not enter the territorial waters of the country for more than thirty years. This could be applicable to other nuclear states as well – Vietnam, providing Russia the possibility for maintenance and repair of submarines in the Cam Ranh Base, voted for the adoption of the Convention. 

Of course, this is not the first case when disarmament obligations collided with national interests. Kazakhstan, the largest supplier of uranium, is already a member of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. According to the treaty on the establishment of the zone, the participants agree to "not take any action to assist in the production, stockpiling or possession of any nuclear weapon." However, this obligation does not prevent Astana from supplying uranium to India, which is not a member of the NPT and has a military nuclear program. 

The majority of states did not support the most stringent proposals that would bring noticeable discomfort to nuclear states and their allies. Among these proposals was a ban on the funding of nuclear weapons (a similar mechanism is now in place for cluster munitions), which could lead to a ban on the cooperation with companies producing nuclear weapons (including the Russian Rosatom). During the preparatory talks, a proposal was also made to use the quantitative advantage of disarmament proponents to block the election to the UN bodies (including non-permanent members of the Security Council) of states opposing the ban on nuclear weapons. 

Nevertheless, for the majority of non-nuclear states, the nuclear disarmament issue is not a priority. Given that P5 States and their allies are among the world (13 members of the G20, about 60% of the population and 80% of the GDP of the planet), the anti-nuclear coalition was hardly able to ignore their fundamental interests. 

In the end, the world was left with yet another symbolic document, which will hardly change the situation with disarmament, but will create a number of technical issues, which the international community will have to tackle. 

The brief version of the article was published at the RBC website (in Russian). 

For questions related to the "Russia and Nuclear Nonproliferation Program" of PIR Center, you can contact Andrey Baklitskiy, Program Director at +7 (499) 940 09 83 or send an e-mail to baklitsky@pircenter.org.

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