Can UN summit reduce the risk of nuclear crises?

Progress toward a world without nuclear weapons has stalled for years. A month-long UN conference on nuclear nonproliferation aims to kickstart it as Russia’s war in Ukraine stirs fears of nuclear confrontation.

A major summit convenes in New York on Monday with the aim of putting nuclear nonproliferation back on track, as the war in Ukraine and escalating tensions between major powers threaten to undo decades of work to prevent the outbreak of a catastrophic nuclear war.

The 10th review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will feature representatives from almost every nation, including US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Nations attending the four-week conference, which was delayed for more than two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, will seek to evaluate the treaty’s progress and take measures to strengthen it, with the ultimate goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons. But that aim looks increasingly far from reality.

“We have seen the international arms control architecture crumble over the past decade,” Rafael Loss, a nuclear policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

“Western diplomats haven’t quite given up yet on the idea of coming to some sort of final agreement, but things have not gotten easier since 2015.”

Nuclear bombs may also be deployed from submarines, such as this French vessel ‘Le Vigilant’

Growing discontent among non-nuclear nations

The NPT, effective from 1970, was conceived with the aim of forestalling the rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. Under the agreement, non-nuclear states would refrain from seeking nuclear weapons; and the five states which do possess weapons would promote the spread of peaceful nuclear technology and make efforts to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles.

The treaty, which has 191 signatory states, recognizes the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China as nuclear-weapon states. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are also known to possess nuclear weapons but are not signatories to the treaty, with Pyongyang having left in 2003.

Growing discontent among non-nuclear nations has been increasingly evident among members of the NPT, which hold a review conference every five years. The organization has so far failed to make progress on the goal it set out in 2000 to “accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

The last review in 2015 failed to reach a consensus on several key issues, as major parties remained at odds over the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-free zone in the Middle East, and introducing effective measures towards nuclear disarmament.

India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea possess nuclear weapons, but have not signed on to the NPT; an Indian missile is on display here

Alarm bells ringing over Russia’s war in Ukraine

In June, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) warned in a major report that the risk of a nuclear war was the highest since the height of the Cold War; and that nonproliferation was failing as nuclear-armed states, particularly China, sought to modernize their arsenals.

The organization estimates that there are still 12,705 nuclear warheads worldwide, with 90% of them belonging to Russia and the US.

“There are clear indications that the reductions that have characterized global nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War have ended,” said SIPRI researcher Hans M. Kristensen.

In January of this year, the five recognized nuclear-weapons states, including Russia, issued a statement that  “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the following month brought a swift end to this unified rhetoric.

On Monday, in a letter adressed to participants of the conference in New York, Putin said there could be no winners in a nuclear war and no such war should ever be started.

“We proceed from the fact that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community,” he said.

Those comments contrasted sharply with previous statements by Russian leaders on their willingness to deploy nuclear weapons, a strategy that the US calls “escalating to de-escalate.” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said in March that only a “threat to the existence” of Russia would prompt a nuclear attack, but that has not allayed fears that a desperate Putin might deploy a smaller, tactical nuclear weapon if the tide of war turns sharply against him.

The breakdown in relations between the US and Russia also jeopardizes the future of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the only bilateral agreement to reduce nuclear arsenals between the two nations. It was extended for five years in 2021.

A memorial takes place each year in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, the anniversary of the world’s first nuclear bombing

The imperilled future of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is also a major source of concern, particularly for Europe. Former president Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the deal and reapply economic sanctions to Iran has not been reversed by Joe Biden, and Iran has once again resumed enriching uranium over the pact’s restrictions. 

World leaders have also called for measures to rein in North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong-un last week said he was “ready to mobilize” its nuclear deterrent against any US aggression.

The US has warned of Pyongyang’s intention to conduct another nuclear test imminently, but its nonproliferation representative has said he does not think any actions taken at the NPT review could influence North Korea’s nuclear strategy.

A critical moment

This year’s NPT review will be critical to reversing the backsliding in nonproliferation efforts over the last few years, with senior diplomatic figures even warning that a continued failure to make meaningful progress could fundamentally undermine the NPT itself.

“It is abundantly clear that nuclear states have conspicuously failed to live up to their disarmament responsibilities,” former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in an opinion piece for Foreign Policy last week.

“There is a wider risk of more nuclear proliferation if the international community no longer sees the NPT as fit for purpose and if other agreements are undermined,” he added, referring to the US decision to leave the JCPOA.

The UN is hoping to advance its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, effective from 2021. It is the first legally binding treaty with a framework for completely eliminating nuclear weapons and has 86 signatory states, but includes no nuclear-armed nations.

Rafael Loss said this growing schism between the haves and have-nots “could very well also suggest that the NPT regime’s normative glue is slowly eroding, and the ban treaty is seen as a more viable path.”

The appearance of Japan’s Kishida, the first Japanese prime minister to attend a NPT review, is a sign of the increasing sense of urgency felt among world leaders to return to disarmament.

Japan, the only nation to be attacked with nuclear weapons, plans to host next year’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, where around 135,000 people were killed or injured when the US dropped a nuclear bomb in 1945.

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    Author: Alexander Pearson


Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar

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