2022 brought not only renewed threats of nuclear war in Europe but the convening of two major conferences on nuclear weapons, in Vienna and New York. In this new long-read article, Rebecca Eleanor Johnson reflects on the very different aims, expectations and outcomes of the TPNW and NPT conferences amid the urgent need for progress in global disarmament.

Within days after ordering the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin began to issue nuclear threats. As Ukrainians fought back, support and weapons poured in – primarily from NATO countries – to bolster their resistance. Veiled or not, the threats were unmistakable, as was the failure of nuclear deterrence. Once again the world had to face up to the Damoclean threat of nuclear war.

Against the backdrop of this brutal, messy 19th century-style war fought primarily with 20th century weapons and mindsets, two important nuclear treaties emerged from COVID postponements to hold vitally important meetings – with very different outcomes.

On 23 June 2022, the first meeting of states parties to the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) concluded a week of negotiations and discussions in Vienna with a strong declaration against nuclear weapons acquisition, deployment and use, and a substantive action plan to develop legal mechanisms to implement and verify its prohibitions and obligations.

On 26 August, after four weeks of national statements and meetings to parse diplomatic language, Russia vetoed a weak ‘final document’ of the Tenth Review Conference of the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  

With Russia and NATO responsible for almost 12,000 of the world’s 12,705 nuclear warheads, according to SIPRI estimates, (the balance being held by China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea), it would not take many political or military orders, miscalculations, or mistakes to trigger nuclear war. One nuclear-armed UK submarine carries 40 nuclear warheads on 8 US-made Trident missiles. Yields can now be varied, but an average British warhead is designed to explode with the power of 100 kilotons – over eight times more destructive power than the 12 kiloton Hiroshima bomb, which killed over 100,000 people.

If war escalates to nuclear war, firing back would not save anyone. Millions of lives – perhaps billions – are at stake. In cities that might be targeted, how many would die from blast, flash and radiation? How many more would suffer and die from injuries or starve to death as radioactive dust clouds cause crops to fail all over the world?  This is the ‘nuclear winter’ scenario that scientists have warned about since the 1980s. Updated climate studies have demonstrated that prolonged ‘nuclear winter’ and global famine could be triggered by a ‘regional’ war in which fewer than the number of warheads on one British submarine were fired at six averagely-sized cities.

As I write, 2023 is just beginning. The Chinese New Year of the Rabbit begins on 22 January. This is the second anniversary of the TPNW’s entry into international legal force in 2021, and an appropriate time to look back at the different outcomes of the TPNW and NPT conferences, and consider some near-term implications for nuclear dangers and human security.

Building humanitarian disarmament after entry into force of the TPNW

Delayed by five months to June 2022, the TPNW’s first meeting of states parties (1MSP) needed to take important institutional and verification decisions, while also addressing the way in which nuclear weapons possession and threats have been used in Putin’s invasion and war in Ukraine, resulting in heightened global anxiety about nuclear dangers. These challenges were addressed by governments during the three-day formal meeting of 1MSP.  

In advance of the formal negotiations among UN governments, the Red Cross/Red Crescent organisations, parliamentarians and civil society held meetings and events that fed into 1MSP. Most notably, the Austrian government and International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) hosted the fourth International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons; and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) organised a two-day campaign-based Nuclear Ban Forum followed by a conference for international ‘Parliamentarians for the TPNW’ to get together and strategise. These meetings included many nuclear survivors, activists and indigenous representatives from the Pacific, Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as European, Russian and Ukrainian anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigners. Connected with these events, Austrian civil society hosted additional meetings with Mayors for Peace, women’s groups, trades unionists and peace activists in Vienna.  

The Austrian Chair of 1MSP, Alexander Kmentt (with organisational support from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs), had spent many months consulting extensively with states parties and relevant experts. These consultations enabled him to guide 1MSP towards consensus on the required decisions and much more, including an Action Plan comprising fifty forward-looking actions described as a ‘framework to guide the implementation of the Treaty and set in motion processes to develop further areas of cooperation and implementation’ across all the TPNW obligations and provisions.

Key decisions included deadlines for acceding nuclear-armed states to destroy their arsenals irreversibly (10 years, with the possibility of a 5-year extension if needed), and a deadline of 90 days for states that ‘host’ or ‘share’ nuclear weapons (i.e. NATO member states Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Türkiye), to remove all such weapons from their territory. 1MSP decided also to establish a Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) to advise on implementation of Article 4 on eliminating nuclear arsenals and ensuring competent, effective verification and compliance mechanisms. Decisions were also made for Mexico to chair the second meeting (2MSP) in November 2023 at UNHQ in New York, and to designate Kazakhstan to chair 3MSP after that.

To start work on the nitty gritty requirements for implementing the TPNW, several governments agreed to take on coordinating roles for intersessional working groups. These are: Cooperation initiatives for mutually strengthening the TPNW, the NPT and other relevant agreements (Ireland and Thailand); Treaty universalisation (Malaysia and South Africa); and Victim assistance, environmental remediation, international cooperation and assistance (Kazakhstan and Kiribati).  

The Action Plan was accompanied by a strong Declaration titled ‘Our Commitment to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons’, and a factual report that legally enshrined the decisions that were taken. The Declaration unequivocally condemned “any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances” and affirmed the importance of further delegitimising nuclear weapons, implementing the TPNW, and “building a robust global peremptory norm against them”.

The TPNW (for those less familiar with this newer nuclear weapons treaty) was negotiated multilaterally in 2017 under a UN General Assembly mandate to ‘negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination’. Promoted by civil society and launched by NPT member states in 2010, the ground was prepared with three multilateral conferences on the ‘humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons’ (HINW) and two UN ‘open-ended working groups on multilateral disarmament’. After negotiations chaired by Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez of Costa Rica, the TPNW was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 07 July 2017 and met the conditions for entering into international legal force on 22 January 2021.

The TPNW links with the NPT’s preambular aspiration to prevent nuclear war, and remains valid even if war is declared. Article 1 prohibitions clearly outlaw activities such as using and threatening to use nuclear weapons, as well as manufacturing, testing, deploying, possessing or transferring nuclear weapons and ‘devices’. Unlike the NPT, the TPNW not only covers all nuclear armed states (not just the five defined as ‘nuclear weapon states’ in the NPT); it also contains provisions that apply to prevent individuals, institutions and companies from ‘assisting’ and inducing ‘anyone’ to acquire or use nuclear weapons.  

Articles 2-5 establish some basic principles and obligations to enable the existing nuclear-armed states and any others that host nuclear weapons to take steps towards nuclear disarmament in accordance with practical pathways and timelines that can be negotiated and agreed within the framework of the Treaty. As already noted, the first meeting of states parties decided on nuclear destruction deadlines, as required in Article 4. But it went much further. The agreements on intersessional work are in keeping with adaptive, humanitarian law approaches that have come to the fore in multilateral disarmament. In this approach, emphasis is not only on the weapons, but on building norms, assisting victims, and remediating environments devastated by nuclear testing.

 At time of writing, the TPNW has 92 signatories and 68 states parties that have fully ratified it. Commitments to accelerate ‘universality’ mean real and practical steps to encourage more states to sign and ratify the treaty. But this also means engaging more effectively with current and potential proliferators, all the nuclear-armed states, and a wide range of organisations and people involved in rethinking security without nuclear weapons.

The Vienna meeting of states parties got off to a good start after entry into force, and work is going forward on important issues such as addressing past nuclear atrocities, and preventing nuclear war, attacks and threats. To bring about the treaty’s full implementation, governments are now expected to engage with civil society – including survivors of nuclear use and testing, women with relevant skills and experiences (who have been frequently excluded in the past), and other scientific and verification specialists – to develop the humanitarian, technical and institutional capabilities that are needed to underpin an effective nuclear abolition regime.   

The biggest challenge, epitomised by the disappointing outcome of the 2022 NPT Review Conference, will be the bellicose rivalries among some key nuclear-armed states which have in practice carried on promoting nuclear weapons and opposing international and regional efforts to eliminate nuclear arsenals, disregarding the adoption of the NPT in 1968.

NPT regime undermined

COVID delayed the 10th NPT Review Conference (RevCon) by over two years until August 2022. It took place six months into the horrific war launched by a nuclear-armed NPT state on Ukraine, a non-nuclear-armed neighbour.  Most diplomats that I spoke to considered that it would be very difficult if not impossible to achieve a substantive outcome. They were right.  After four weeks of work, the NPT meeting’s outcome appeared to hang in the balance. It came down to a late night cliffhanger on the last day, as hopes were first raised and then dashed. Moscow vetoed the ‘final document’ over a handful of paragraphs that raised concerns about nuclear dangers posed by the embattled Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Just one day before the end, Russian and US diplomats had conveyed to the Argentinian RevCon president, Gustavo Zlauvinen, that the hours of erasing and watering down some five remaining paragraphs on nuclear disarmament and Zaporizhzhia were not going to be sufficient to get the document through. As diplomats are fond of quoting, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Zaporizhzhia’s plight has become a serious risk to global security since being occupied and made into a military headquarters by Russian armed forces soon after Putin’s invasion. A neighbour to Chernobyl, site of a massive nuclear accident and humanitarian catastrophe in 1986, the large Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant had become a military target and valuable asset, stuck in the middle of a vicious war in which mortars and missiles fly in all directions. Zlauvinen  did his best to broker a compromise text that the Russian and US delegations could both accept; but the Russian delegation’s overnight consultations with the Kremlin produced more demands.

The US and other NATO governments argued that they had made significant compromises. Believing that Moscow was pushing to eliminate all relevant mentions of Zaporizhzhia, they refused to water this text further. For European governments in particular, Zaporizhzhia’s plight was a signifier of Putin’s increasingly reckless and aggressive behaviour on the world stage. For many NPT governments, the occupied power plant was a warning reminder of nuclear dangers of all kinds, from nuclear war risks to potentially catastrophic nuclear contamination due to war-related technical and military activities.

By the NPT’s penultimate day, it appeared that Zlauvinen had obtained assurances that all other NPT parties, including China, would join consensus on the second revision of the review document, including the five paragraphs that addressed Zaporizhzhia. But as time wore on, the publicly-open final plenary of the NPT Conference was delayed again and again. Practically all contentious paragraphs on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and nuclear dangers had been cut or watered down.

The scheduled end of the four week conference had passed, yet still we waited. As the clock ticked towards midnight and hungry NPT diplomats and a few stalwart NGO observers like me milled around the General Assembly, Zlauvinen finally called the plenary to order in the General Assembly Hall. He formally proposed the most recent ‘final document’ text and asked for consensus. Russia’s ambassador waited to see if anyone else would speak, and then he gave a long response that complained that “not only Russia but many others had problems with the revised document”.

This at least was true: France had taken the lead – apparently, if not formally, egged on by all the other four nuclear-armed states in the NPT, including Russia – to push for the elimination of substantive references to the decisions, humanitarian initiatives and action plans agreed by 1MSP in Vienna. The Russian delegation was well aware that nuclear disarmament-supporting governments were far from happy to see the lowest-common denominator text that was all that was left after deletion of the meaningful recommendations put forward by TPNW states parties and others who had been among the 145 signatories to a joint ‘Humanitarian Statement that was read into the RevCon record by Costa Rica.

It should also be noted that China was more vociferous than in previous NPT Conferences in how strongly Beijing expressed its perceived interests. As well as tacitly backing France’s determination to cancel TPNW paragraphs and remove relevant substance from others, China stood alone in opposing recommendations for a voluntary moratorium on fissile materials production and language advocating further transparency.

As for the UK, having pulled back from the its own commitments to transparency in the Johnson government’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, British diplomats kept quiet when China opposed transparency language during the RevCon.

The Chinese delegation was also vocal in its criticisms of the ‘AUKUS’ nuclear submarine deal being pursued by Australia, UK and United States, which China and several nuclear-free countries argued was contrary to the NPT. And China joined Russia’s objections to NATO nuclear sharing – as it and various nuclear-free governments have been doing since at least the 1990s.  

So, yes, many NPT states parties had problems with that lowest common denominator text. And yet, all the others, including China, Iran and the Arab States (which did not get what they wanted on long-sought commitments to negotiate a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East) had all indicated to Zlauvinen that for the sake of getting a consensus outcome for this delayed 2022 NPT Review Conference, they would not veto the Chair’s heavily diluted and bowdlerised text.

The Russian delegation – or perhaps Moscow – appeared to be surprised that no other government joined them in objecting to the final document. In this, as in so much else, the Russian decision-makers miscalculated. The delegation had been happy to coast behind France on cutting out almost all references to nuclear disarmament and the TPNW. Maybe they believed (or were led to believe?) that if they backed China, Iran and Middle Eastern states on concerns they had raised about the nuclear-related activities of the United States, NATO and Israel, then there would be some quid pro quo support.

When push came to shove in the febrile context of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, no other state wanted to provide cover for Russia on Zaporizhzhia. There was blame and bitterness in the Russian Ambassador’s final statement: “If others are unwilling to work further, then we have to state that there is no consensus on this document.” And that was that for the NPT in 2022. Moments later, as France blamed Moscow for this latest NPT failure in a joint statement from the European Union and allies, the Russian delegation stood up, vacated their seats and shuffled out of the hall behind their ambassador.

Will nuclear-armed power games wreck the NPT regime?

Russia is not the first to veto an outcome document on the NPT. The United States and UK opposed references to negotiating a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1990. Indeed, Washington continued to veto the outcome document even after London agreed to support the president’s compromise language in the early hours of the morning after the clock had been stopped on the last scheduled day.

In 2005, George W. Bush’s NPT delegation (led by John Bolton) took an ideological stance against multilateral diplomacy and threw the NPT into disarray and deadlock.  A more conciliatory approach from the Obama administration made it possible for 64 action points to be adopted in 2010.

Collective commitment to holding a regional conference on steps towards a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East in 2012 had been the centrepiece of the outcome achieved in 2010. Following that ‘success’, however, Israeli objections meant that this promised conference did not take place before 2015. This was a goal that dated back to the package of agreements that had made possible the ‘indefinite extension’ of the NPT in 1995. The 2015 Review Conference subsequently foundered due to the joint US, UK and Canadian actions of blocking a commitment to make such a conference a priority for 2016.

Following adoption of the TPNW by the UN General Assembly in 2017, Arab States and the majority of other UN members emulated humanitarian disarmament strategies, and turned to the UN General Assembly to get majority support to hold Middle East WMD-free-zone talks under General Assembly auspices. Unlike NPT RevCons, such procedures are open to all states and blockable by none. The first such ‘Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction’ was held in November 2019, with the third scheduled for November 2022. Because of these developments, the long-standing nuclear disarmament and Middle East WMD-free-zone objectives are less likely to block NPT review conferences in the future – at least while these important NPT-connected issues carry on being constructively pursued under UN auspices.

 Reclaiming the security imperative for nuclear disarmament

Yet again, the NPT’s nuclear security hopes and objectives have been sacrificed to appease the military ambitions of nuclear-armed leaders. It is the N5 nuclear-armed decision-makers who continually undermine the NPT regime, while pointing fingers at NPT-abiding non-nuclear governments for promoting additional legal agreements to achieve greater security through disarmament diplomacy.

In 2022, the deal breaker became Zaporizhzhia, epitomising widespread concerns not only about the serious security risks when war causes nuclear power plants to be targeted, but also the political and military-industrial dynamics of 2022’s Russia-Ukraine war. What is at stake now is not just the NPT regime, but global efforts to prevent nuclear war.

Already we are seeing the militarists and pro-nuclear pundits from Russia and NATO twisting themselves in knots to normalise their nuclear policies and weapons in this war. They urge governments to get more nuclear weapons, while arguing that if Putin (or whoever) were to use ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons it might not be so bad.

This is bad, mad logic and risky nonsense. Reality has long exposed the dangerous holes in established deterrence narratives that have continually tried to garner public support by selling nuclear weapons as ‘peacekeepers’. All aspects of militarism and war harm our lives and security, with massively damaging emissions and chemicals that irrevocably destroy our globally shared biodiversity, environment and climate. As nuclear war nightmares return, it is up to all of us to prevent nuclear use, work for peace, and campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons through fully implementing both the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2021 Nuclear Prohibition Treaty.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: ICAN. President of the 1st Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW Alexander Kmentt speaks at the meeting, Vienna, June 2022.