Washington parses a foundational disarmament text

In the run up to the current NPT PrepCom, 1 the United States issued a number of background policy documents, 2 at the core of which is a narrow, literal reading of the Treaty’s disarmament agreement (Article VI – see the text). 3 It is a reading sharply and obviously out of sync with the mainstream disarmament community and it waves another red flag in an arena that should now be all about sober discernment and the search for common ground.

Washington promotes a fundamentalist approach to Article VI inasmuch as it isolates the text from disarmament diplomacy’s evolving understanding of it and from the global consensus that has gradually formed around what the Treaty’s disarmament mandate means today.

Excuse the appeal to theological categories, even though they are not really out of place in an endeavor that is doctrinally arcane and undeniably concerned with life and death issues, but the idea of “progressive revelation” recognizes that foundational texts, in this case Article VI, written in another time and another context, need to be progressively re-interpreted and elaborated by virtue of a community’s subsequent experience and accumulating wisdom.

There are two primary sources of such further elaboration and interpretation of Article VI of the NPT – the World Court and the NPT Review Conferences.

In 1996 the World Court said that under international law the Article VI requirement for “negotiation in good faith” includes “an obligation to…bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” In other words, the Treaty requires more than the “pursuit” of disarmament, as the text says, it requires disarmament to be accomplished.

The Review Conferences have also yielded additional interpretations and commitments that elaborate the NPT’s disarmament mandate and bring it contemporary relevance. They set out a broad range of measures needed to accomplish nuclear disarmament. 4 In the 2000 final document the NWS themselves clarified the nature of their disarmament obligations under Article VI with this unanimous commitment: “An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.”

This accumulated experience and wisdom has led to an updated and now prevailing understanding of the current obligations that the Treaty places on states. That understanding, reiterated in the opening session of the current PrepCom by Canada’s Ambassador Paul Meyer, 5 sees the Treaty as based on three inter-related pillars: “the norm against nuclear proliferation; the legal obligation to pursue good faith negotiations to nuclear disarmament; and the framework for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” These are three parallel “core commitments” that are “equal, inseparable and mutually reinforcing,” because, as the Canadian statement put it, “the Treaty is only as strong as its weakest link.” 6

Now listen to Washington’s view of the bargain, provided by Christopher A. Ford, the US Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation. “Both the plain meaning of the text of Article VI and its negotiating history,” he says, “make clear that the disarmament provisions of the NPT are not substantively equivalent to the Treaty’s nonproliferation obligations….For better or worse, Article VI actually does not contain concrete disarmament requirements….” 7

He argues that “the primary motivation of the NPT was to reduce the risk of nuclear war,” and that this was to be accomplished “by obligations designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states.” Thus, the negotiators agreed that “rather than requiring anything concrete with respect to disarmament, the Treaty would merely express the clear intention of the nuclear weapon states to move toward it in the framework of a treaty on general and complete disarmament,” adding that the phrase “pursue negotiations” confirms that nothing is required of these negotiations other than that they be “pursued.”

Insisting that only the original NPT Text is relevant, Mr. Ford used the pre-PrepCom background statements issued by the US State Department to try to persuade others to quit talking about Review Conference conclusions. He described references to the results of Review Conferences as destructive procedural devices that “spark controversy and difficulty and risk reviving acrimony…of past meetings” and “reopening longstanding disputes.” But of course the unanimous support of NPT States Parties for the decisions of 1995 and the final document of 2000 are not examples of longstanding disputes but of longstanding agreements. Disputes do arise when states try to retreat from those agreements.

Mercifully, Mr. Ford did not bring his fundamentalist reading of Article VII directly into his opening statement to the current PrepCom. In fact, he emphasized American support for the ultimate objective of nuclear disarmament, but of course without acknowledging any obligation to accomplish it.

As long as this gap between the fundamentalist and progressive reading of the nonproliferation regime’s foundational text remains it will continue to bedevil the disarmament process.

1. The meeting of the NPT Review Conference Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) in Vienna, April 30 through May 11.

2. “Procedure and Substance in the NPT Review Cycle: The Example of Nuclear Disarmament,” Dr. Christopher A. Ford, United States Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Remarks to the Conference on “Preparing for 2010: Getting the Process Right,” Annecy, France, March 17, 2007
(http://www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/rm/81940.htm).

3. Article VI of the Treaty reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
4. See previous post: Pushing a stalled nuclear disarmament agenda (April 27).

5. Canada, Opening statement, 2007 NPT PrepCom, Vienna, 30 April, 2007 (http://www.un.org/NPT2010/statements/Canada_E_30_04_am.pdf).

6. Articles I, II, and III establish the norm against the proliferation or spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five nuclear weapon states (NWS) and set out safeguards requirements to verify non-proliferation. Articles IV and V set out provisions for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, consistent with the obligations under the first three Articles (Article V is essentially non-operative inasmuch as it refers to “peaceful nuclear explosions” — the current consensus being that there are no such things;if it explodes it’s a weapon). Article VI sets out the disarmament obligations of the NWS.

7. A Work Plan for the 2010 Review Cycle: Coping with Challenges Facing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, by Dr. Christopher A. Ford, United States Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation (Opening Remarks to the 2007 Preparatory Committee Meeting of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferationof Nuclear Weapons, April 30, 2007, Vienna, Austria).

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