Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Shuichi Minami  |  20 June, 2022

Interview with Ramesh Thakur on TPNW

Image: Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock

This interview was first published by Seikyo Shimbun on 19 June 2022 and is republished with permission.

The first meeting of the Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will be held in Vienna, Austria from the 21st June. At the same time as the conference, the Toda Peace Institute will hold a workshop on the treaty. We asked Ramesh Thakur, a senior researcher at the Institute and director of the Australian National University Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Center, about the significance of the treaty and the current situation regarding nuclear weapons (interviewer: Shuichi Minami).

Five years have passed since the adoption of the TPNW. How do you evaluate the significance of the treaty?

I think that was the most significant development in multilateral arms control since the negotiation and entry into force of the NPT, back in 1968/1970. There are many positive features of the NPT, and we have to acknowledge that it has underpinned nuclear stability and peace for 50 years. Although it has not fully contained proliferation, it has unquestionably slowed the process of proliferation.

However, the NPT has failed most obviously in nuclear disarmament. The sad and brutal fact is that not a single nuclear warhead has been destroyed under the auspices of the NPT. The progress that has been made in reducing warheads has come about as a result of either the bilateral agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, or even as a result of unilateral measures. In addition, article 6 of the NPT required the nuclear weapons states to negotiate in good faith and bring to a conclusion a nuclear disarmament treaty, but they haven’t done so. The TPNW would complete the NPT agenda and rectify this concerning feature of the NPT regime.

There is criticism of the TPNW. One that is frequent is that the TPNW is ineffective because it does not cover those countries that have not signed the treaty, and none of the nuclear states has joined yet.

At the same time, the TPNW is a treaty that was UN-authorised, negotiated at a UN conference, and signed at the United Nations. It’s a UN treaty, and as such you cannot argue that it has no legal significance, no impact on legitimacy. It indeed sets a new normative standard, a new normative settling point on the ethics, the legality and the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. And it further delegitimizes possession of nuclear weapons and doctrines of nuclear deterrence, and increases the normative pressure against both possession and deterrence.

Another important aspect of the TPNW is that it was adopted by the General Assembly. The geopolitical cockpit, the centre of geopolitical gravity in world affairs and in the UN system is the United Nations Security Council. On a major security issue, for the first time, the international community diverged from the P5-dominated Security Council, discussed it in the General Assembly, and adopted it in the General Assembly. What it marks is a democratic shift in nuclear decision-making from the Security Council to the General Assembly. That I think is a real significance and it marks normative progress.

Since the breakout of the Ukraine war, some political leaders insisted we need to refine the role of nuclear weapons.

What the Ukraine war has done is to reopen a whole box full of new questions in relation to nuclear weapons, and this is one of them.

The most obvious one is whether Ukraine was wise to have given up its nuclear weapons when it emerged as an independent country with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

I think that’s a false debate because in fact the weapons were never Ukraine’s, they were always Russian. Just like when you had American weapons stationed on South Korean territory, they were always American weapons, they were never South Korean weapons.

If Ukraine had not given up the weapons, most of the rest of the world including the United States and NATO countries would not have supported Ukraine’s independence.  They would not have supported the emergence of Ukraine as an independent nuclear power outside the NPT.

Moreover, because of this intensified military confrontation even within nuclear powers, it brings home the reality of the risks of an outright nuclear war.  I don’t think anyone can say with absolute certainty that there is zero risk or that the risk hasn’t increased. So, the obvious question is “has the existence of nuclear weapons made the world safer or more dangerous?”. And clearly, the answer is the Ukraine war heightens the reality that the existence of nuclear weapons makes the world much more dangerous.

The great strength and the reason for the great rapid success of the Ban Treaty was that they reframed that in a humanitarian argument but also with three propositions. And those are:

1: No country individually nor even the international system collectively has the physical capacity to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

2: Therefore, it is in the interest or the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.

3: The only guarantee of non-use of nuclear weapons is non-possession by any country, meaning total abolition.

That argument has been revalidated by what has happened in Ukraine.

What do you think is the urgent steps we have to take, and what do you expect from the first meeting of states parties of the TPNW?

Firstly, America and Russia could take their nuclear forces off high alert status, what’s called de-alerting. You don’t need weapons on high alert, ready to launch on first threat of incoming missiles by the enemy. That increases the risk of accidental, unauthorised, rogue, or faulty system error launch of nuclear weapons.

Secondly, to address No First Use policy. When China and India had an intense fight in 2020, no one talked about nuclear war.  Neither China, nor India, nor the rest of the international community said this is a risk of nuclear war.  A big reason for that was both countries subscribe to No First Use, and that doctrine is reflected in their actual deployments and force postures.

There is one more thing that I think the First Meeting of the State Parties will have to address. The Ban Treaty is much more important in Asia than it is for Europe.  In Asia, there are four countries with nuclear weapons.  But only one of them is a member of the NPT, China.  If you are going to tackle the reality of nuclear threats in Asia, you cannot do it under the NPT.

Now, none of the non-NPT nuclear-armed states in Asia is a member of the Ban Treaty, but the Asian members of the Ban Treaty I think should raise this issue. For example, how can we bring non-NPT nuclear-armed countries somehow under a global normative framework to try and regulate their nuclear posture and policies? They can’t take part in the NPT conference, but maybe at some future date, they could be invited as observers to the TPNW states parties meeting.

It is of course important to bridge the divide between the Ban Treaty and the NPT. All states parties to the TPNW, every one of them is a member of the NPT, so they are not two isolated treaties. They are complementary, and the agenda that they share has so much in common. I think we need to recognise the common elements, bring them together, and I hope the states parties meeting in Vienna will focus a lot of time on how to move forward positively.

What kind of role can civil society play in promoting nuclear disarmament?

All governments are responsive to public sentiment and public concerns, and civil society is often the custodian of the moral conscience of a nation.  But it doesn’t mean it is irresponsible or lacks strategic realism. It’s a question of how you combine it.

I don’t think shouting and demanding immediate, instant answers is going to help, but I think agreeing to proceed responsibly with a sense of urgency, but conscious of practical limitations is the way to go forward where you can combine that strategic realism. What that means is it’s not going to be enough to say to governments, "You are morally wrong, you are evil, taking part in this."  If governments feel that they have to do something for their national security, you need to convince them of why non-nuclear alternatives can meet all reasonable security needs just as well, if not better.

Shuichi Minami is a staff writer with Seikyo Shimbun.