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Presentation by Dr Rebecca Johnson, Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, European Parliament, Socialist Group Conference, 9 December 2008

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Panel on Reducing the Risks: an Agenda for Disarmament, Conference on "Peace and Disarmament: A world without nuclear weapons", Socialist Group in the European Parliament (PSE) 9 December 2008.

I want to express my thanks to Mr Swoboda, Ms Gomes, and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament for holding this very timely and relevant conference and for inviting me to speak.

At this stage of the meeting, so much has been said, that I want to endorse without repeating all the useful steps and progressive measures already discussed. Many of these are variations on the 13 steps agreed by over 180 states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the NPT Review Conference in 2000. We've seen these steps rearranged or reprioritised in the 2006 WMD Commission Report; in the steps identified by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bill Perry - the Four US Horsemen, recently followed by four eminent horsemen from 3 UK parties, including former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson; the Norwegian government's five principles and ten steps; President Sarkozy's eight-point plan; the UK's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons; and most recently the 5-point proposal made by the UN Secretary-General in October. These lists of measures leading towards nuclear disarmament have many similarities and would, if carried out, help us make significant progress towards reducing nuclear dangers. Yet a critical element is missing, and that is what I now want to address.

What is the missing link between these necessary steps and their implementation? It is the political decision and will to build and manage security without nuclear weapons.

Disarmament is a tough challenge for all of us, but especially for governments. Nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament objectives will be difficult to achieve if certain states consider their national and regional security to be threatened and if people believe that nuclear weapons can deter or deal with such threats. Bringing the numbers of nuclear weapons down is of course necessary and useful, as the fewer weapons that are built, deployed, transported or stored, the fewer opportunities there will be for nuclear accidents or use. However, as long as some states or alliances cling to nuclear weapons and proclaim their value for security, deterrence or power projection, others will want them, and so the drives towards proliferation will continue. Nonproliferation is only viable - and disarmament made possible - when nuclear weapons are perceived to have lost their military and political value.

To see the way ahead, it can be useful to apply a "reverse engineering" analytical tool often used by NGOs to help identify the best strategies: instead of looking forward to a distant objective, it is illuminating to think back from achieving the objective. Imagine we have achieved the reality of a world free of nuclear weapons. What does it look like, and what steps did we take in order to get there?

Objective: Prohibition of nuclear weapons for a more secure world

In achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, we need to make sure that the world becomes a safer place.

a) First, there will have to be multilateral negotiations on a treaty or set of treaties - a nuclear weapon convention (NWC) of some kind - that will codify in law and practice both the prohibition of future acquisition and use of nuclear weapons and also the safe and secure elimination of the existing arsenals. Careful attention will be needed to ensure that all the existing warheads and delivery vehicles are verifiably dismantled and eliminated, and how the fissile materials and other components should be stored or destroyed so that they cannot be stolen, reacquired or used for weapons in the future. All this must be done in ways that minimize the hazards for the environment and our health, and provide confidence against cheating or break-out.

The Model Nuclear Weapon Convention developed some years ago by civil society scientists, lawyers and practitioners should not be equated or confused with this objective, but it does offer an excellent overview of the issues that will need to be addressed. Last year, the Model Convention was updated and republished with explanations of the options and implications in "Securing our Survival". This formed an important part of the new International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) which was launched by IPPNW at the NPT PrepCom in Vienna and is spreading to parliaments around the world.[1] (I know many MEPs have already signed this initiative.)

What prevents the nuclear genie from being put back into its bottle is not the existence of nuclear knowledge, but the high value still accorded to nuclear weapons, particularly by states that have them. This was recognised in the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Dr Hans Blix and comprising 14 high level representatives from key countries. This international Report characterised all WMD as "weapons of terror" and employed the concept of "outlawing" nuclear weapons. It stated: "Weapons of mass destruction cannot be uninvented. But they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons have been, and their use made unthinkable. Compliance, verification and enforcement rules can, with the requisite will, be effectively applied. And with that will, even the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is not beyond the world's reach."[2]

ii) Building on the disarmament-for-security theme: in getting rid of nuclear weapons, we must make sure that deterrence theory is not proved right. In other words, we do not want to see more bloody, conventional wars take the place of nuclear weapons. That would not be a desirable trade-off. Therefore, as nuclear weapons are progressively abolished, it will be important to reduce reliance on other weapons too. That means we have to move defence responses away from old patterns of aggressive, military-dependent national security approaches. In other words, the EU model of regional cooperation rather than the NATO model of military alliance.

Where real security is concerned, war and its weapons are part of the problem. Avoiding nuclear catastrophe will be a pyrrhic victory if the world carries on fighting xenophobic wars and fails to wake up to the need to cooperate to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Before treaty negotiations, there needs to be a "prenegotiations" stepping stone

Before you can have negotiations, there must be a prenegotiations phase to build confidence and lay the groundwork. Often a shock or deep political change provides the stepping stone for prenegotiations, for example:

  • a terrible shock, such as the Cuban Missile crisis, shifted perceptions about nuclear arms control and cut through the red tape and bureaucratic objections to bring about a partial test ban treaty and then the nuclear non-proliferation treaty within a few short years; or
  • a major political shift, for example, leadership by one or more key countries to renounce or suspend the weapon or policy. The moratoria on nuclear testing declared by Russia, then France and then the United States in the period 1991-92 paved the way for negotiations on a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) in 1994, for example.

The use of a nuclear weapon somewhere in the world would undoubtedly provide a terrible shock and could lead swiftly to global disarmament - but at what an appalling cost for the victims. Far better to create a responsible political shift, such as inducing one of the nuclear weapon states to declare that it will not keep on renewing and deploying its nuclear forces. Facing an expensive construction programme for new submarines to carry the next generation of Trident, the UK was an obvious candidate for this role, but the decision to begin renewing Trident in 2007 suggested that the present government lacks the courage and foresight to take the lead. However, the recent upsurge in appeals and campaigns for a nuclear weapon free world, from the Shultz-Kissinger 'Four Horsemen' op-eds to the new 'Global Zero' initiative of world leaders being launched this week in Paris, are providing impetus and rationale for a brave leader to choose not to repeat the nuclear mistakes of the past.

While step by step processes and verified reductions in numbers of weapons are undoubtedly important, the real tipping point will come when the weapon states show that there is no role for nuclear weapons in their doctrines and policies.

The practical steps of verified disablement, dismantlement and irreversible denuclearization will take time, and those countries still possessing nuclear weapons will need to keep them safe pending total elimination. Therefore, as a first step, it is not the possession but the use of nuclear weapons that must be outlawed.

The NPT does not address use, but the International Court of Justice in its landmark advisory opinion of July 1996 did find that in almost all situations the use of nuclear weapons would violate international humanitarian law[3] . However, the ICJ left open a possible loophole. With the post cold war doctrines of the United States and others reintroducing the possibility of nuclear weapons being used for pre-emption or retaliation, it is time to close that loophole by demonstrating international resolve to classify nuclear weapons as inhumane weapons and declare all uses of nuclear weapons to be crimes against humanity.

This would need to go together with an obligation on all states and people to render all possible assistance to a state that is threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons and also to track down and bring to justice those responsible for the threat or use of nuclear weapons, including those responsible for delivery and decision-making and suppliers or facilitators of the bomb-makers, materials and attacks. This approach extends the commitments and responsibilities of negative and positive security assurances to everyone, not just the five NPT-recognised nuclear weapon states. There are also precedents for this approach in UN Security Council resolution 1540 on weapons of mass destruction (2004), adopted by the Security Council to extend obligations and penalties to individuals and companies and thereby address non-state terrorists as well as states.

Declaring the use of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity would not eliminate nuclear dangers overnight, but would have major impact in taking nuclear weapons off the lustrous list of objects of political status and desire. They would then truly be treated as weapons of terror that no sane or civilized person would want or be able to use. Those clinging to nuclear deterrence need to wake up to the 21st century. As recognised by US former nuclear negotiator Max Kampelman, an advocate of getting legislation through the Security Council to make the use of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity, this approach would arm the international community more effectively against terrorists and their suppliers. If you want to deter the terrorist or 'rogue' state use (or threat of use) of nuclear weapons, as advocates of nuclear deterrence claim, one of the most effective ways, reflecting post-Nuremburg accountability and the remit of the International Criminal Court, would be to make the use of nuclear weapons a crime against humanity and hold suppliers and traffickers to account as well. Despots and terrorists most fear and hate the risk that they could be held personally accountable and subjected to public trial and punishment. Declaring nuclear weapons use a crime against humanity would take the ICJ advice to its logical conclusion and strengthen the NPT. It would greatly reinforce deterrence, denial and nonproliferation, and provide nondiscriminatory positive and negative security assurances to all.

Unlike a nuclear weapon convention, which would have to be negotiated multilaterally and would be likely to be complex and time-consuming, with many political, technical, verification and implementation challenges to be worked out, the process of stigmatising and outlawing the use of nuclear weapons offers opportunities for courageous leaders to take unilateral steps that build towards creating a multilateral norm. This is an important initiative that non-nuclear weapon states - and indeed citizens and public movements - can declare support for, and help to build up a strong ethic and norm and create a breathing space for nuclear disarmament initiatives to take hold. For nuclear weapon holders, there is a perverse logic that they may also find reassuring as they wean themselves away from nuclear reliance. As long as some nuclear weapons exist physically, everyone would know that they might be used, despite any nuclear taboo or declaration. It will take time to reduce and eliminate the existing arsenals, and while this is happening, the existence of physical weapons in the arsenals of the United States and Russia et al will continue to provide existential deterrence (to the extent that such a concept holds at all).

What is the stage leading up to prenegotiations?

Surprising for some, I think that is actually where we are now. Not at the bottom of the mountain a long way from starting negotiations on a world without nuclear weapons, but just a couple of stages away. We are already in the process of the paradgim shift towards devaluing nuclear weapons, essential if disarmament is to take root and flourish. Nuclear weapons are increasingly coming to be viewed as a security problem, not a security asset. Not only by progressives and peace activists, but by military leaders as well.

This pre-prenegotiations stage is characterised by confusions and inconsistencies, with governments and leaders still attempting to cling to nuclear voodoo even as their hearts and brains are convincing them to turn towards more effective security medicine. Perhaps the most obvious signs that we are reaching the tipping point is the way in which conservative leaders and former advocates of robust nuclear arsenals are signing up to visions of a nuclear weapon free world. Yet even as architects of nuclear policy are coming round to seeing nuclear disarmament as not only desirable, but feasible and practical (and, in fact, necessary), they or other sections of the same governments are busy signing up to renew, replace or modernize nuclear weapons in their arsenals, such as Trident or the reliable replacement warhead (RRW). And NATO continues to behave as if nuclear weapons are an indispensible glue for Euro-Atlantic cohesion and deterrence, fearfully avoiding the real challenges of deterrence and collective security for the 21st century. (Note, deterrence is not synonymous with nuclear weapons! Deterrence can be robustly asserted with a mixture of other tools.)

The regional as well as global challenges posed by nuclear aspirants such as North Korea and Iran are forcing a rethink by their neighbours. That could either lead to a regional proliferation race or determined efforts to rein in nuclear developments. If we are reaching a possible tipping point we have to make sure that we tip the right way, towards disarmament and not proliferation. With 188 states parties, the NPT is remarkably successful - and also worryingly fragile. We can't keep shoring it up just with words, despite the many papers issued during the NPT review process - it needs to be transformed with concrete disarmament actions.

Regional insecurities may drive key states towards the negotiating table, if not internationally, then on a regional basis. For example, there are renewed initiatives - from the League of Arab States, the European Union and civil society - to start talks aimed at paving the way for negotiations on a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. Such regional initiatives, which will also require greater peace and stability in the region, will only move forwards in the larger context of nuclear weapons being devalued and reduced worldwide.

As we come into the final stretch before the 2010 NPT Review Conference, it is not difficult to identify the elements that need to be worked on to make 2010 a success within NPT terms. The Chair's summary lists them. Demonstrable progress towards entry into force of the CTBT: Ideally President Obama should lay the groundwork in 2009 for the Senate to take a fresh look early in 2010. Reaffirmation of the undertaking to eliminate nuclear arsenals will need to be given practical credibility through commitments to identify and start work on taking implementation of the relevant parts of the 13 steps to the next stage. The US and Russia need to negotiate deeper (and verifiable) cuts in their strategic arsenals to follow on from START and SORT. Creating the conditions to negotiate the fissile materials production ban and get the CD back to work would be high on most states parties' agendas. The devaluation of nuclear weapons will be essential, and the sponsors of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East need to be initiating consultations now with all relevant states - including Israel - to work out what are feasible measures to address nuclear insecurity in the Middle East.


The fact that some of the major advocates of nuclear weapons and deterrence are now extolling the virtues - and, more importantly, the practicality - of a world free of nuclear weapons, means that strategies for accomplishing the abolition of nuclear weapons are now being taken more seriously. We may be reaching the tipping point towards disarmament not because of the ideas and policies such letters and speeches are advocating, but because of who is advocating them. As with Nixon going to China, when powerful sceptics or vociferous opponents of an idea come round to realizing that it is the right thing to do, they face less opposition - in large part because they were the opposition (or at the very least, their earlier views had underpinned and sustained the opposition).

If we apply the strategic tool of reverse engineering to track back from achievement of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, it becomes startlingly obvious that instead of being a long long way away at the foot of a high mountain, we are actually only two or three stages away from the summit. To get past the obstacles ahead, we need more than reductions. We have to devalue these weapons and make it clear politically - and if possible legally - that nuclear weapons are inhumane weapons, and that any use of these weapons of mass destruction and radiation would be regarded as a crime against humanity. Like with biological and chemical weapons, already stigmatised as abhorrent and banned, and even more than landmines and cluster munitions, declared inhumane as part of recent highly-effective negotiations to have them banned, this is the missing qualitative requirement that underpins the logic of getting to zero and makes sense of all the laudable and necesssary steps and measures to reduce arsenals and secure nuclear materials.

Even if we tip correctly to go beyond the tipping point, that doesn't mean a world free of nuclear weapons will be quick or easy to achieve. But it does mean that we could set a timetable for abolishing nuclear weapons and see real progress in capping proliferation in the next two decades. Europe's role could be critical. NATO is coming up to its 60th anniversary and has to review its 1999 Strategic Concept. It's time to take bold steps to show that NATO understands 21st security challenges. As part of its Strategic Concept review, NATO members need to agree to remove tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and end the policies of nuclear sharing and deterrence based on the potential first use of nuclear weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons are portable and relatively more vulnerable to theft and inadvertent or unauthorised use. They are potentially destabilising and create additional risks and insecurities. All of Europe must take responsibility and play a role in this, recognising that the development of the EU, building mutual dependencies and shared objectives has provided the greatest deterrent to war between states in the region. The US and European members of NATO need to communicate honestly with each other about our mutual - and different - security needs and constraints. Then we should cooperate to close down the nuclear weapon facilities in Europe, initiate the withdrawal and elimination of US tactical nuclear weapons and use this decision in a leverage strategy to persuade Russia to mothball and eliminate its tactical nuclear forces as well.


[1] Securing our Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, May 2007. www.icanw.org/securing-our-survival

[2] Weapons of Terror: Freeing the world of nuclear, biological and chemical arms, Report of the WMD Commission, Stockholm, June 2006, p 17.

[3] International Court of Justice Reports 1996, p 225. [Reported for July 8, 1996, General List No. 95]. The full decision, documentation and dissenting decisions also formed the Annex to 'Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons', Note by the Secretary-General, United Nations General Assembly A/51/218, October 15, 1996 pp 36-37.

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