Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Palácio do Planalto from Brasilia, Brasil, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Boris Kyrychenko, a Blumenfeld Junior Fellow at Science for Peace, is also a recent undergraduate from the University of Toronto, completing his major in International Relations
When it comes to the myriad of existential threats currently plaguing the international community, the threat of nuclear annihilation has made a concerning come back. “Humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” This was one of the opening remarks made by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, on the first day of the 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a gathering of over 190 states, held August 2022 in New York City.
Delayed by the pandemic for over a year, it was the successor to the previous conference of 2015, which failed to result in much progress. Despite this past disappointment, there was hope that this year would be different. Held amid a backdrop of war on the European continent, and a year in which members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) collectively spent millions on major modernization programs for their nuclear arsenals, the stage was seemingly set for much needed dialogue on nuclear disarmament.
To be fair, some progress was made. Dialogue was a positive development, with many delegations stating that the conversations held resulted in a strengthening of international unity on non-proliferation, encouraged peaceful nuclear cooperation and highlighted the importance of the NPT for future disarmament. For instance, the representatives of several Arab states (and Iran) were able to discuss the importance of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, and how that would require Israeli cooperation and accession to the Treaty. Furthermore, all UNSC powers explicitly denounced nuclear proliferation and expressed ways in which their respective nations have worked towards arms reduction. The UK, for instance, stated that it has approximately halved its stockpile since the end of the Cold War. London has also de-targeted and de-alerted many of its warheads, meaning that any launch would take days instead of minutes.
Concerning the reduction of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, those of Russia and the United States, the two powers made some encouraging pronouncements. They renewed pledge to continue to fully implement the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and “to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to the new START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.” Such statements, especially when they are being made at a time of heightened tensions resulting from the Russo-Ukrainian War, are not inconsequential.
Despite these positives however, the Conference nonetheless fell short of what many hoped it would achieve. As was the case in 2015, the delegations failed to produce a final outcome report. While technically blocked by the Russian delegation, the reality was a bit more nuanced. Amendments by the Russians were proposed to several paragraphs which referred to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant crisis; however procedural timing issues meant that the Conference President was unable to incorporate such suggestions. Russian objections to the document aside, several other delegations were also not satisfied with the report. Specifically, the delegations of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Holy See, and seven member states of the New Agenda Coalition denounced the document on its lack of substance or of any meaningful commitment to disarmament. The documents also lacked any acknowledgement of the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons, despite powerful presentations delivered by nuclear victims from the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Japan. Suffice it to say, nuclear weapons continue to exist within the arsenals of all nine nuclear nations, with no realistic disarmament framework in sight.
Indeed, the 10th Review Conference left much to be desired. This lack of progress however, while disheartening to many, ought to not to discourage peace activists. The world has arrived at a precipice of nuclear catastrophe arguably not seen since the early 1980s, and it is vitally important that the powers of the day continue to engage in meaningful, dialogue about reduction and de-escalation. It is also equally important that civil society continues to both advocate and pressure said powers towards nuclear dialogue, non-proliferation, and eventual disarmament, as the alternative would be far too costly for human civilization to bear.