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Public Discussion on Assurances from Nuclear-Weapon States towards Non-Nuclear Weapon States

On 19 September 2017 the GCSP organized a public discussion on the topic: “Negative Security Assurances as Practical Steps towards Global Zero / A World without Nuclear Weapons” in partnership with the German Permanent Mission in Geneva.

Since the adoption of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, nuclear-weapon states have been offering non-nuclear weapon states assurances that they would not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against them under certain conditions. The UN Security Council took note of those ‘negative security assurances’ (NSAs) in 1995 when the NPT was extended indefinitely. Since then, nuclear-weapon free zone treaties have included legally binding NSAs but the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has been unable to agree on a commonly acceptable formula. This event offered an opportunity to discuss whether the newly adopted Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons could stimulate negotiations to that end as yet another practical, interim step towards a nuclear-weapon free world.

HE Mr Michael Biontino, the German Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, recalled that his country recently promoted some informal dialogue on that topic on the basis of a ‘non-paper’. He believed that progress on NSAs was not only needed in view of the current polarization of positions regarding nuclear disarmament but also more easily achievable (a ‘low-hanging fruit’).

The panel consisted of: Mr Paul Ingram, Executive Director, British-American Security Information Council (BASIC); Mr Łukasz Kułesa, Research Director, European Leadership Network (ELN); Dr Harald Müller, Associate Fellow, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF); and Ms Fanny-Anh Le Hoang, Independent Researcher, Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP). The panel was moderated by Marc Finaud, Senior Programme Advisor, GCSP.

Among the points discussed by the panellists and with the audience were the following:

  • The contradictions between unilateral assurances given by nuclear-weapon states (with diverse conditions) and the aspirations of most non-nuclear weapon states for unified, legally binding assurances to be negotiated in a multilateral framework;
  • The tensions between the ambiguity about possible use of nuclear weapons and the need for clarity on the part of non-nuclear weapon states;
  • The differences between on the one hand past assurances endorsed by the UN Security Council in 1995 as well as enshrined in Protocols to the nuclear-weapon free zones, and on the other hand the updated assurances given by the US, the UK, and France, showing a potential for evolution and adaptation to new contexts;
  • The advantages and disadvantages of each potential forum for discussion or negotiation on NSAs: the P5, the UN Security Council, NATO, the CD, the NPT, or the UN General Assembly;
  • The complications introduced by exceptions or conditions related to alliances between nuclear- and non-nuclear weapon states, nuclear response to attacks with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons, as well as non-compliance with the NPT, seen as unnecessary obstacles on the path towards a unified NSA;
  • The option of non-first use of nuclear weapons (currently applied by China and India), which would be the most comprehensive NSA and would elevate the threshold of use of nuclear weapons by making deterrence of attacks with nuclear weapons their sole purpose, thereby increasing world security;
  • The case of North Korea that can been seen as a breach of the basic norm of non-use or non-threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, but also as a case of proliferation inspired by the model of nuclear-weapon states and, at the same time, a motive invoked by nuclear-weapon states for not relinquishing reliance on nuclear weapons.

In conclusion, it was felt that more dialogue was needed between nuclear- and non-nuclear weapon states, in particular bearing in mind the 2018 UN High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament and the 2020 NPT Review Conference.

Background Papers:

Paul Ingram, “Renewing Interest in Negative Security Assurances”, British American Security Information Council (BASIC), June 2017

Marc Finaud, “The Debate on Negative Assurances in the Conference on Disarmament”, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), February 2017

Marc Finaud, “Negative Security Assurances in Additional Protocols to the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaties,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), February 2017