At the last Preparatory Committee meeting in the current Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review cycle, ‘parallel process’ was one of the buzz-phrases. According to certain states, pursuing nuclear disarmament outside the established non-proliferation and disarmament forums runs the risk of creating dangerous parallel processes that could undermine the NPT.
France, for example, asserted that ‘[u]ndermining existing forums such as this one [the NPT], by creating parallel processes, and calling into question the step-by-step approach of the 2010 Action Plan, as certain recent initiatives do, will not advance nuclear disarmament. Quite the contrary.’ Turkey similarly contended that it ‘actively contributes to the process examining the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. However, we should be cautious not to create parallel processes that could undermine the NPT system.’ Other states, including the United Kingdom and Estonia, made comments to similar effects.
The target of this criticism is the series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Two conferences have already been held, in Oslo and in Nayarit, and a third is scheduled for Vienna 8–9 December 2014. While these conferences have been open to both civil society and states – nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear weapon states alike – they have been arranged outside the established forums on the field of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Multilareralism in international affairs is usually applauded by the international community, but the so-called humanitarian initiative is ostensibly the ‘wrong’ kind of multilateral. Russia arguably worded the criticism most clearly and honestly:
‘We are fully aware of the extremely negative consequences of the nuclear weapons use and make the efforts necessary to prevent it. At the same time, we are convinced that stressing the humanitarian aspects of the use of nuclear weapons use and attempts to use these issues for the earliest “delegitimization” of nuclear weapons will distract the international community from practical steps aimed at creating the international conditions conducing to their further reductions.’
A handful of nuclear-dependent states including the P5, then, seem to fear that the conference series on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons steals away vigour and resources from existing forums and processes. Although the NPT has come under increasing criticism owing to the allegedly scanty implementation of its Article VI on disarmament, the NPT has largely been successful in ensuring non-proliferation. Undermining the NPT would certainly be a shame.
Yet it is very unclear what a ‘parallel process’ actually is. Parallel to what? If parallel process is simply a catch-all for everything that is not the NPT, then the Conference on Disarmament, the Nuclear Security Summit, and the P5 Conferences are parallel processes. Are they dangerous too? If we expand the category to which else is parallel to include the above forums, the SALT, START, and SORT treaties are left out, in other words, the instruments that have led to actual disarmament. They would have to be classified as ‘distractions’. With the recent pace of nuclear disarmament in mind, it is also tempting to ask whether it is possible to have a parallel process to something that stands still. No warhead has ever been dismantled through the NPT.
Most countries involved in the humanitarian initiative opine that it strengthens rather than undermines the NPT, and that it has brought renewed and necessary urgency to nuclear disarmament. According to South Africa, ‘[t]he focus on humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons is neither new in the NPT context nor is it a distraction.’ Indeed, it is difficult to see how the humanitarian initiative might undermine anything other than nuclear weapons, which all 189 Parties to the NPT – including the P5 – have already agreed to get rid of. More than actually fearing for the continued relevance of the NPT, the countries raising the flag on the dangers of parallel processes do so because they fear that the humanitarian initiative will rattle the status quo. The scepticism of the P5 to the humanitarian initiative is especially predictable, as the initiative is seen by many as a democratisation of nuclear disarmament. In this process, the hitherto privileged classes are bound to loose some of their influence to the huddled masses of the international community.
By Kjølv Egeland
The views set out in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).
 Statement by France to the Third Preparatory Committee of the 2015 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 29 April 2014, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom14/statements/28April_France.pdf.
 Statement by Turkey to the Third Preparatory Committee of the 2015 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 28 April 2014, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom14/statements/28April_Turkey.pdf
 Statements available at Reaching Critical Will’s website: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/documents/statements.
 Statement by Russia to the Third Preparatory Committee of the 2015 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 30 April 2014, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom14/statements/30April_RussianFederation.pdf.
 Statement by South Africa to the Third Preparatory Committee of the 2015 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 28 April 2014, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom14/statements/28April_SouthAfrica.pdf. See also the Austrian (29 April 2014), Mexican (28 April 2014), and Irish (30 April 2014) statements.