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Reflections on NPT2018

Last week, I attended the first week of the 2018 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee at the United Nations Office in Geneva. The weekend before the NPT, I attended the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Campaigners’ Meeting. It was a fast-paced and enlightening week and I have gained insight into diplomatic negotiations and the impact of civil society on international norms and regimes.

The ICAN Campaigners’ Meeting was an incredible gathering of representatives from ICAN partner organisations from around the world. I’ve met people everywhere from South Korea to Nigeria and learning about their organisations and how they have pushed for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) within their own national contexts has been inspiring. There were also youth delegations represented and it was amazing to see confident and well-prepared university students in the mix. The Campaigners’ Meeting lasted the weekend and we were updated on ICAN activities and future plans, as well as participated in breakout groups pertaining to our national and organisational contexts.

The first breakout session was split by states’ status in the TPNW: ‘friendly,’ umbrella, and nuclear weapon states. As an American interning in the United Kingdom, I attended the ones on pursuing entry-into-force in nuclear weapon states. We discussed the current relationship of these fives states to the TPNW and strategised how to push the treaty forward. A critical takeaway is that the TPNW is a tool, not the goal. In the difficult political climates on both sides of the Atlantic today, the goal should be towards creating better conditions for governments be commit to nuclear disarmament. Other breakout sessions that I attended looked at regional planning and the positive obligations of the TPNW i.e., assistance for victims of nuclear testing and use as well as environmental remediation.

The NPT PrepCom began the following Monday. It was exciting to sit in the Assembly Hall of the Palais des Nations and I settled in quickly among the NGO representatives in the back rows of the hall. The first order of the day was opening speeches; the Chairman slightly self-deprecatingly noted that the NPT not only curbed nuclear proliferation and endured the Cold War in its fifty years but also ‘survived four Review Conferences without tangible outcome.’ States and organisations also gave their opening statements over the first and second days. On the third day, NGOs were given time to give their speeches.

As fascinating as it was to watch the diplomatic process and listen to states’ perspective on the development of the NPT, my favourite part of the the week was the side-events. Held by both NGOs, international organisations, and state delegations, the side-events gave further insight into topical subjects.

One interesting side-event was on Women in the NPT. For an 8am event, it was a packed room and there was a good discussion on the role of women in disarmament. A crucial point was on having diverse lenses - it is not about women in disarmament alone, but in subjects below the wider nuclear studies umbrella: engineering, science, policy, health, military, and technology. Increasing women’s participation in this field is one thing, but ensuring a positive experience once within the community is another. Agency over representation was also of critical importance; it’s not enough to have a woman represented for her sake of being a woman, but rather her expertise and voice. Avoiding echo chambers was also noted; there was an inverse gender balance in the room, as is often the case in discussions on feminist foreign policy so it will be critical to increase awareness and participation with others who do not already share the same values.

There were two side-events that were dualities of each other on the US Nuclear Posture Review. The first, presented by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation looked at the Nuclear Posture Review’s threat to the NPT and humanity. The second, presented by the US Department of State, served to ‘dispel myths’ around the Review, from the American administration’s perspective. The former emphasized that the ideological doctrine behind the Review far precedes the current Administration; it is not a solely a product of the hawkish Trump foreign policy. Instead, reliance on the nuclear deterrent has been an intrinsic pillar of American grand strategy since the advent of the nuclear age of the post Second World War and post Cold War eras. The latter event gave fairly expected responses. Representatives from the State Department, joined virtually by two officials from the Pentagon, discussed the reasoning behind the Review and opened the floor to questions. They reaffirmed that the new Review is not exceptional and embraces two principles: a safe and secure nuclear deterrent and working towards non-proliferation and arms control. I was however, concerned with the emphasis on low-yield/tactical nuclear weapons. The State and Pentagon officials argued that the development of low-yield weapons are a strategic response to Russia’s nuclear arsenal modernisation and pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons and makes American first-use credible but not more likely. Yet, it is disconcerting to hear about needing the submarine-launched tactical weapons, and even more disturbing to hear the argument that this low-yield weapon is ‘survivable’ and ‘limited.’ It’s important to remember that today’s ‘low-yield’ capabilities are equivalent to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was interesting to attend two different discussions on the same topic and overall, I had an enlightening experience at all of the side-events!

This year is the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s golden jubilee: fifty years of the world’s attempt to curb nuclear proliferation and prevent nuclear war. A cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the NPT has served as a foundation towards non-proliferation and disarmament goals. Yet, fifty years on, the critical Article VI of the NPT has not been realised; Article VI calls for all parties of the treaty to, in good faith, pursue general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. The TPNW was adopted by the UN in 2017, heavily through the work of civil society, a step for many towards fulfilling Article VI commitments. While obstacles remain in the path ahead, including gaining the support of the treaty by nuclear weapon and umbrella states, the existence of the treaty itself has shifted global norms. My week in Geneva gave me insight into the complex relationships between civil society and governments, humanitarian considerations and security. It was inspiring to see the incredible positive influence of civil society on policy and governance at the UN, often lending a human voice to otherwise detached and technical discourse. Civil society organisations working together, as in the case of ICAN, provides evidence that change can be started at the individual levels. Participating in the negotiations, meeting diplomats, and working with campaigners has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. It has furthered my understanding of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, promoting the never-more-pressing goal of pushing towards a world that is truly and finally free of nuclear weapons.

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