NEW YORK: While the world is understandably concerned about the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and regional conflicts, it would be wrong to assume that the threat of nuclear war has passed. In fact, the likelihood of nuclear annihilation remains dangerously high.
Earlier this year, the pandemic claimed another victim: the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was scheduled to take place on January 4.
The postponement of the meeting until August was not reported at the time because, it seems, the perceived threat posed by nuclear weapons had lost its urgency in recent decades.
However, this development came as tensions escalated between Western countries and Russia over Ukraine, as well as between the United States and China over Taiwan.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which forms the basis of the non-proliferation regime, was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. It is the most important instrument available to the 191 States Parties to prevent further proliferation and lead the world towards total disarmament.
The market underlying the NPT is very simple: nuclear states under the treaty commit to reducing their nuclear arsenals with the ultimate goal of eliminating them, and non-nuclear states honor their treaty commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons.
Not everyone has bought into this. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are not signatories, while Iran, although a signatory to the NPT, nonetheless enriches uranium and is engaged in a battle with the West over its nuclear program. .
This is the second time the 10th RevCon has been postponed due to the pandemic. The 2020 conference, which would have coincided with the 50th anniversary of the NPT, has also been delayed, undermining hopes of getting the non-proliferation regime back on track and breathing new life into the arms control and disarmament process.
The three pillars of the NPT – non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear technologies – have enjoyed varying degrees of success.
While the non-nuclear states held their end of the bargain and joined the treaty, with few exceptions, the nuclear states were less loyal. They have not fulfilled their obligations, as stated in article six of the NPT, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This has led to tensions and strained the entire non-proliferation regime.
In search of an alternative, non-nuclear states lobbied for a process in the United Nations General Assembly, which culminated in the adoption of a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons on July 7, 2017, effective January 22, 2021.
However, the postponement of the conference could not have come at a worse time, as concern grows over the unraveling of the arms control architecture.
Experts believe the risk of nuclear war is greater than ever. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its apocalyptic clock to 100 seconds before midnight – the closest timepiece to symbolic catastrophe in more than 70 years of existence.
A speech by former US Senator Sam Nunn, an authority on nuclear weapons, on the 50th anniversary of the NPT in 2020 described the danger in blunt terms.
“We are entering an era of heightened nuclear risk,” he said, due to “blocked progress on North Korea, the uncertain future of the deal with Iran and its nuclear program, the continuing failure of the comprehensive test ban Treaty in force and the understandable frustration of non-nuclear states at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament.
Today, even as the pandemic rages on, nuclear states have continued to modernize and improve their arsenals. According to the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, the world’s nine nuclear states spent $ 72.6 billion to modernize their arsenals in 2020, an increase of $ 1.4 billion from spending in 2019. In doing so, many of these states violated the NPT.
The Stockholm International Peace Institute estimated that the world’s nuclear states collectively possessed approximately 13,080 nuclear weapons as of January 2021. This figure represented a slight decrease from the 13,400 estimates in 2020.
However, this was offset by the increase in the number of nuclear weapons deployed with task forces, from 3,720 in 2020 to 3,825 in 2021. Of these, around 2,000 have been “kept on high alert. high operational level, ”the institute said in a press release. its 2021 report.
All of this happened in the absence of a credible arms control process due to growing tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, and America and China over Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Indo-Pacific.
Although they were disappointed with the postponement of the conference, non-nuclear states were encouraged on January 3 when the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, a group of powers known as on behalf of P5, issued a joint statement affirming that they “regard the prevention of war between nuclear-weapon states and the reduction of strategic risks as our primary responsibilities.”
“We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. Since the use of nuclear power would have far-reaching consequences, we also assert that nuclear weapons – as long as they continue to exist – should be used for defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war. We firmly believe in preventing the spread of these weapons. “
They also pledged to “maintain and further strengthen our national measures to prevent the unauthorized or unintentional use of nuclear weapons”.
More importantly, perhaps, they reaffirmed their commitment “to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including our obligations under Article VI to continue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear protection. an end to the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a general and complete disarmament treaty under strict and effective international control.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “encouraged” by the commitments expressed by nuclear states “to pursue measures to prevent nuclear war”, with the additional caveat that “the only way To eliminate all nuclear risks is to eliminate all nuclear risks. weapons. “
Non-proliferation groups and experts have also applauded the joint statement, but want the nuclear powers to take real and concrete action.
From the point of view of the Arab countries, there was also an important element missing from the joint declaration, which failed to mention the 1995 NPT resolution presented by the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia agreeing to support the principle of a region of the Middle East free from all weapons of mass destruction.
It was hoped that the 10th RevCon would be an opportunity to recognize the progress made in this regard. The First Conference on the Establishment of a Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East was held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2019, under the chairmanship of Jordan, and again in 2021, under the presidency of Kuwait.
Israel, the only state in the Middle East believed to possess nuclear weapons, did not attend any of the sessions, nor did the United States, despite being a major sponsor of the 1995 resolution.
Arms control supporters therefore have no choice but to wait until August to see if the P5 will back up their words with action and produce a “meaningful result” that will preserve the integrity of the NPT.