Revitalizing high-level nonproliferation and disarmament talks

By Gareth Evans | February 4, 2009

Despite the post-Cold War decline in public attention, the consequences of nuclear weapons proliferation and an indifferent international performance on nuclear disarmament remain potentially catastrophic.

Unproductive blame shifting has dominated the nuclear debate in recent years, frustrating progress and serving only the interests of those who are content to see no movement on nonproliferation and disarmament. Rekindling a spirit of common purpose on the nuclear agenda is an urgent task.

Despite the post-Cold War decline in public attention, the consequences of nuclear weapons proliferation and an indifferent international performance on nuclear disarmament remain potentially catastrophic.

We all know the scale of the problem. There are still tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in the world. And thousands of these warheads remain on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes. All the while, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear weapon states show no signs of giving up their nuclear arsenals, regardless of the NPT’s ultimate goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. India and Pakistan have emerged as nuclear-armed states, joining the presumed nuclear-armed state of Israel outside the disciplines of the NPT. North Korea and Iran continue to pose major, and as yet unresolved, proliferation challenges. And new issues have emerged–such as the risk of nuclear and radiological terrorism and ensuring that the climate change-driven revival of interest in nuclear energy for electricity generation does not increase proliferation risks.

The manifest challenges faced by the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime justify a concerted and energetic international response. The policy responses needed have been spelled out often enough–most recently in the reports of Hans Blix’s commission and Ernesto Zedillo’s IAEA 2020 Commission–but there has been little genuine international dialogue. And there remains a conspicuous lack of consensus on what needs to be done to maintain and strengthen the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. This stalemate must be overcome. Otherwise, the world risks drifting to a more dangerous and unstable future of more nuclear-armed states and an even greater risk that nuclear weapons will be used deliberately or by accident.

It is for this reason that last year Australia and Japan established the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. A global initiative, the commission is designed to reenergize at a high political level the debate about the need for a nuclear-weapon-free world–and all of the interrelated issues of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and the future of civil nuclear energy–in the run up to the May 2010 NPT Review Conference and beyond.

The 15 commissioners include former heads of state and senior ministers, military strategists, and disarmament experts from around the world, and are supported by a high-level Advisory Board, with research input coming from a number of Associated Research Centres, again from across the globe.

The commission first met in Sydney in mid-October 2008 and plans to meet around six times over the next two years, with the next two meetings scheduled for Washington in mid-February and in Moscow in mid-June. In addition, regional consultations are proposed for Northeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America to exchange views with a cross-section of the interested official and civil society communities in those regions.

The commission is aiming to produce a substantial report by the end of 2009 to help shape a global consensus before the 2010 NPT Review Conference. It is likely to produce a supplementary report in mid-2010 that will review the post-NPT Review Conference landscape. A specific concern from the outset will be to identify how the non-NPT nuclear-capable states (India, Pakistan, and Israel) might be brought into a genuinely international nonproliferation and disarmament system.

Overall, we hope the commission will be able to bring together in a comprehensive, systematic, and accessible way all of the issues being addressed by many current research and advocacy projects around the world and to package our own analysis and recommendations in a way that resonates with political leaders and the public.

Engaging decision makers will require that the commission take a practical and realistic approach to the many factors continuing to drive nuclear weapons acquisition and retention. The commission will need to argue compellingly that the risks of retaining nuclear weapons far outweigh the perceived benefits.

The tone for such an argument has been set by the Wall Street Journal op-eds of former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn who have put forward a hard-headed, realistic case for a world without nuclear weapons. Perry is one of our commissioners, and Kissinger, Nunn, and Shultz are on our Advisory Board.

The commission will be developing an advocacy strategy aimed primarily at engaging the attention of governmental decision makers and those who influence them. The benefits of establishing a new global consensus on nuclear issues will need to be clearly seen to justify the compromises that will be necessary to craft it. Bringing on board a wide range of countries, including at least some of the nuclear-armed states, will be essential.

While the commission is funded by the Australian and Japanese governments, the commissioners are independent and the commission’s analysis and conclusions will not necessarily reflect the views of Australia, Japan, or any other government. Naturally, we hope that Australia and Japan, as the sponsoring governments, will vigorously advocate in support of the commission’s findings, but this will be a decision for those governments at the appropriate time.

Australia and Japan’s decision to establish the commission and the support they are providing mark this as a serious effort to get the nuclear agenda moving again. From both countries, there is political commitment at the highest level–the current Australian and Japanese prime ministers announced the establishment of the commission in July 2008 and jointly announced its composition two months later.

The strong credentials of both countries on nuclear issues reflect well on the commission. Australia and Japan are practical and constructive contributors on nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and civil use issues. Both understand that nuclear disarmament needs to proceed in ways that do not create international instability or diminish the security of any country. Both have strong interests in effective nonproliferation, safety, and security–Australia as a major supplier of uranium for peaceful use and Japan through its leading role in the civilian nuclear industry.

The many positive reactions to the commission’s establishment suggest there is strong support for reevaluating current nuclear assumptions and their utility for addressing the major challenges that have emerged in the last decade in the nuclear environment. There are also encouraging signs that the climate for progress on nonproliferation and disarmament may be improving, above all with the election of a new U.S. administration seriously committed to progress on both fronts. It will be the commission’s task to contribute to building a climate of renewed international commitment to resolving nuclear issues and to identify realistic options for how to achieve such a goal.

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