No room for mistakes – Russia and US urged to de-alert their nukes

NPT PrepCom Day three

By Tariq Rauf

VIENNA, 4 May 2017: Russia and the United States have been urged to reduce nuclear risks by de-alerting hundreds of missiles armed with as many as 1800 warheads currently on standby and ready to be launched within minutes.

As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee meeting, attended by 120 countries,  moved into its third day, Sweden, speaking on behalf of the “de-alerting group” Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Switzerland, raised the concern.

Maintaining the missiles on high alert multiplies the risks they pose, Sweden said, lowering alert levels is a key element of nuclear risk reduction. High alert levels significantly multiply risks such as: inadvertent launches due to technical failure or operator error; the possibility of misinterpretation of early warning data leading to intentional, but erroneous launches; failures of, and false reports by, early warning systems; use of nuclear weapons by unauthorised actors such as rogue military units, terrorists or cyber-attackers

Sweden said de-alerting also was a core element of diminishing the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies. It concluded that de-alerting was not only a disarmament measure but also a significant contribution to non-proliferation, since continued emphasis on the importance of weapons on high alert could lead to false perceptions of nuclear weapons as desirable security instruments.

Sweden was speaking as the PrepCon meeting at the Vienna International Centre,  in preparation for the regular five yearly review of the NPT on its 50th anniversary in 2020, moved into “cluster 1” nuclear disarmament issues.

The NPT opened for signature in 1968; it is the most widely adhered to multilaterally negotiated arms control treaty with 193 member States – only India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and South Sudan remain outside the treaty.

Prior to dealing with nuclear disarmament the following countries delivered their statements:

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) acknowledged the importance of adopting transparent measures to verify nuclear weapons disarmament and considered the total elimination of nuclear weapons, as required by the NPT, as being the only way to ensure the non-use and non-threat of use of nuclear weapons. In this context, the UAE stated that it supported discussions on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and the relevant discussions to ban nuclear weapons and stressed the importance of “common and inclusive approaches”. It reaffirmed strong commitment to strengthening the nuclear-test-ban treaty regime, including the entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the earliest date. The UAE sid that a world free of nuclear weapons required serious efforts by the international community for the universalization of the NPT. In this context, the UAE renewed its “persistent call for States non-party to join the Treaty promptly”. The UAE reiterated its call for Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon State and place all its nuclear facilities under the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards. It reaffirmed support for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East as a priority.

Indonesia pointed out that some nuclear-weapon States continued to rely on nuclear weapons in their military doctrine, and instead of disarming or eliminating nuclear weapons, these States were “modernizing, advancing and developing new types of nuclear weapons”. As such, Indonesia was of the view that there should be a shift in the principles of nuclear disarmament, which, in addition to the humanitarian imperative, would further render deterrence doctrine obsolete bringing about a “shift from the principle of ‘undiminished security for all’ to the principle of “increased security for all’.

Canada stated that it continued to advocate a “practical, step-by-step approach” to nuclear disarmament and placed priority on possible concrete measures in the current international security environment. Canada noted that it was the chair of a High-level Expert Preparatory Group on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) that would prohibit production of weapon-usable nuclear material. It said that establishing a verifiable ban on fissile material production would help limit nuclear arsenals and move closer to the common goal of nuclear disarmament. Canada stated that progress in [nuclear] non-proliferation paved the way for disarmament, just as actions to reduce nuclear arsenals helped to strengthen the Treaty’s overall framework. It called for the need to “build bridges across issues that divide” States and to solidify consensus on areas where progress could be achieved, but this would “require mutual flexibility and strengthened political will” and  all delegates would have to rise above repetitive and unproductive debates.

In the “cluster 1” nuclear disarmament session, speaking on behalf of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) States, Indonesia expressed deep concern at the continued lack of progress in the implementation of nuclear disarmament obligations of the nuclear-weapon States under the NPT and their “unequivocal undertakings under the final documents of the successive Review Conferences of the Treaty since 1995”. The NAM called for the “full, effective and urgent implementation of the obligation of nuclear disarmament under article VI of the Treaty, as well as the 1995 decision on “Principles and objectives for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament”, the 13 practical steps agreed to in 2000, and action plan on nuclear disarmament adopted by the 2010 Review Conference”.

The European Union (EU) statement said the EU remained united and committed to treaty-based nuclear disarmament and arms control, and stressed the need to renew multilateral efforts and revitalize multilateral negotiating bodies such as the Conference on Disarmament. The EU called on all States possessing nuclear weapons, that had not yet done so, to declare and uphold an immediate moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The EU said it will continue to contribute actively to global efforts to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, in accordance with the goals of the NPT, in a way that promoted international stability, and based on the principle of undiminished security for all.

The deliberations on nuclear disarmament will continue on Friday, 5th May.

(Tariq Rauf, a director of Atomic Reporters, was alternate head of the IAEA NPT Delegation 2002-2013. All views expressed are his own)

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