Bad tactics

The WMD Blog

Attempts at intimidation are likely to reinforce rather than silence the call for a nuclear weapons prohibition

By Magnus Løvold
20 October 2015

If it is true that the potential of a political initiative is best measured by the level of pushback it provokes, the 2015 session of the UN General Assembly’s First Committee has so far been a major success for proponents of a nuclear weapons prohibition.

Although the South African non-announcement of its intention not to host a fourth conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons this year no doubt came as a disappointment to many, the 2015 First Committee shows clear signs that states have started to seriously consider—and therefore also criticize—political and legal responses to the evidence presented in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna.

Somewhat surprisingly, the United States Assistant Secretary of State Frank A. Rose decided to show his hand early on during the general debate on Monday and took the floor to hit back at proponents of a nuclear weapons ban treaty:

“Proposals such as a nuclear weapons ban or convention […] risk creating a very unstable security environment, where misperceptions or miscalculations could escalate crises with unintended and unforeseen consequences, not excluding the possible use of nuclear weapons.”

It is highly questionable whether the argument as presented by Mr Rose stands up to scrutiny when considered on its own merits. Indeed, explaining how strengthening the norm against nuclear weapons can increase the risk of these weapons being used seems to be an argumentative challenge of Orwellian proportions.

But more than anything, Mr Rose’s criticism seems to reflect a growing fear amongst some of the nuclear-armed states that their non-nuclear counterparts might take matters into their own hands and initiate a diplomatic process of negotiations for a new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons. Judging from many of the statements delivered during the First Committee—including a particularly forceful statement by Kenya and a surprise endorsement from Indonesia, the long-standing disarmament whip of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—this fear is perhaps not unfounded.

However, if the United States is hoping to stop the humanitarian impacts initiative from progressing any further, going out this strongly against what is essentially still a civil society proposal might be bad tactics. Coming from a state that, together with Russia, possesses 95 per cent of all nuclear weapons, talk about “unintended and unforeseen consequences” and “the possible use of nuclear weapons” rings of coercion and is likely to reinforce, rather than weaken, the determination of states fed up with the intransigence of the nuclear-armed states.

For better or for worse, the states championing the humanitarian impacts initiative have decided to start contributing to the UN paper mill by tabling a number of new draft resolutions—two of which are essentially reformatted versions of the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, and the Humanitarian Pledge, respectively. A third resolution, circulated by South Africa, highlights the unacceptable nature of nuclear weapons and the ethical imperative for disarmament. While these resolutions only include the contours of a legal response to the humanitarian impact evidence, they nevertheless convey a sense of urgency and impatience that is likely to be reinforced, rather than muffled, by attempts at intimidation.

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).