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Assurances of non-use or non-threat of use of nuclear weapons discussed in New York

On 5 October 2017, at the initiative of and in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations, the GCSP organized a new public discussion on the topic: “Negative Security Assurances: Concrete Steps towards Global Zero / A World without Nuclear Weapons”. This event followed the one hosted in Geneva on 19 September 2017.

Some introductory remarks were presented by Ambassador Susanne Baumann, Deputy Federal Commissioner of Germany for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. She noted that assurances of non-use or non-threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states (‘negative security assurances’ or NSAs) contributed not only to the security of the latter but to global stability, lowering the risk of nuclear war. They constituted a strong incentive for non-proliferation, thereby facilitating disarmament.

Mr Paul Ingram, Executive Director of the British-American Security Information Council (BASIC), introduced the topic by recalling that the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states was a strong one, and that the security concerns of the nuclear-armed states were mostly originating in other nuclear-armed states. He opposed ambiguity or flexibility (preferred by the nuclear-armed states) to clarity (sought by non-nuclear weapon states, including those benefitting from extended deterrence). Dr Togzhan Kassenova, from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that this debate was timely after the Nuclear Ban Treaty but complicated by the perception by some that negotiating a multilateral agreement on NSAs undermined the efforts to delegitimize nuclear weapons. However, in the current context of increased insecurity and risk of nuclear war, they could serve a useful purpose. She deemed unlikely that an unconditional NSA (meaning in fact a no-first use doctrine) was feasible, but she recommended that the only exception to an NSA be existential threat to a state’s survival. Mr Jon Wolfsthal, also with the Carnegie Endowment and former member of the US National Security Council, gave some insight into the internal debate within the Obama administration that led to the revised US assurance in 2010: the new doctrine was the result of a strategic analysis showing that the potential use of nuclear weapons was no longer needed to protect the US national security in most circumstances. He expressed skepticism as to enshrining NSAs into a multilateral legally binding agreement because it would legitimize the illegal nuclear weapons of North Korea.

In the discussion among the panelists and with the audience, the following issues were addressed:

The legal form of NSAs (whether unilateral, multilateral, legally or politically binding): in any case, there was agreement that all nuclear-armed states should take part in the discussion whatever the forum (P5, CD, NPT, NATO/NATO-Russia Council, UN);

The conditions or exemptions to NSAs: while the western nuclear-weapon states now essentially excluded to use nuclear weapons in case of conventional attacks against them or their allies, Russia still needed to be convinced to give up that exception thanks to negotiations on related issues (ballistic missile defence, long-range precision-guided missiles, etc.). Regarding exceptions related to attacks with chemical or biological weapons, the US and UK policies only included them in a possible review in the future, while Russia clearly included them in scenarios of use of nuclear weapons and France referred to non-compliance with all WMD commitments. This approach seemed contradictory with one of the arguments of the nuclear-armed states against the Nuclear Ban Treaty: on the one hand, they considered that the singularity of nuclear weapons as a deterrent did not justify their prohibition along with other weapons deemed illegal for their humanitarian consequences (conventional, chemical, or biological), and on the other hand, by admitting the use of nuclear weapons in case of conventional, chemical, or biological attacks, they trivialized nuclear weapons and lowered the threshold of their use;

The respective security interests of nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear armed states: most agreed that NSAs contributed to global security, and that nuclear-armed states, including their strategic thinkers and militaries, should seriously consider the security benefits that could result from an elevation of the threshold of use of nuclear weapons pending their eventual elimination.