The G20 and beyond: nuclear threats versus a growing norm against nuclear weapons.

G20 leaders affirm that "The threat or use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible."

NoFirstUse Global and Basel Peace Office release briefing papers highlighting the G20 statement and outlining opportunities to consolidate and implement this norm in order to prevent nuclear weapons use in armed conflict and pave the way to a nuclear-weapon-free world.

By Alyn Ware, PNND Global Coordinator. Reprint from InDepth News

Nuclear threats growing

In January 2022, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to 100 Seconds to Midnight, indicating the high level of existential risk to humanity from climate change, nuclear policies, rising nationalism and international tensions that could erupt into armed conflict.

One month later, Russia launched a ‘military operation’ (an illegal invasion) against Ukraine and has repeatedly warned the West that interference in Russia’s ongoing military operation (war against Ukraine) could face a nuclear response. This has elevated the risk of nuclear war, and graphically demonstrated the use of ‘nuclear coercion’ in international relations. Nuclear threats have also risen in East Asia through the conflict of China and USA over Taiwan, and with further nuclear weapons and missile developments of North Korea.

G20 Leaders statement

On 17th November, leaders of the G20 countries meeting in Bali, which included six nuclear armed states (China, France, India, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), adopted the G20 Bali Leaders Statement which included the surprising affirmation that The threat of use or use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”

This phrase appears in paragraph 4 of the statement which also affirms that “It is essential to uphold all the Purposes and Principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations” as well as “international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and infrastructure in armed conflicts” and obligations relating to the “peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue.”

Norm of non-use

This statement indicates a breakthrough in nuclear risk-reduction and disarmament. It consolidates a general practice against nuclear weapons use and elevates this to a norm which is now accepted, at least on paper, by the nuclear weapon states.

The statement is much stronger than the January 3 statement by the leaders of the P5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) affirming the Reagan/Gorbachev dictum that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” as it condemns both the threat and use of nuclear weapons and provides unequivocal opposition to escalation of armed conflict to the use of nuclear weapons.

The Bali Leaders Statement demonstrates the Reagan/Gorbachev dictum still holds, and that the norm against nuclear weapons threat or use has not been eroded by the Russia/Ukraine War. Indeed, it infers the opposite, that the norm is even stronger as a result of the war.

One of the possible factors for this is the nuclear de-escalation approach of the United States to Russian nuclear threats. The United States did not respond to the Russian threats by threatening a nuclear attack in response, but instead warned Russia that there would be catastrophic consequences if Russia broke the nuclear taboo, hinting that a US response would be devastating but non-nuclear.

Another possible factor in the norm consolidation is that consideration of the threat or use of nuclear weapons moved from the hypothetical to actual scenarios. In each of the scenarios that Russia might consider using nuclear weapons in this conflict, it became evident that Russia would not gain anything from it, but would most likely be worse off.

Using nuclear weapons against Ukraine would not be able to reverse the military gains being made by Ukraine, nor dissuade NATO from supporting Ukraine. So far, USA and NATO are not fighting in the war – only providing military equipment to Ukraine. If Russia used nuclear weapons it would most likely result in USA and NATO joining the war and launching military attacks against Russia. It could also result in Russia losing its allies China and India, both of whom currently support Russia but strongly oppose any use of nuclear weapons in the conflict.

A third factor could be the growing legal and political norm against nuclear weapons use as demonstrated by the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion, 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2018 UN Human Rights Committee General Comment 36 affirming that the threat or use of nuclear weapons violates the Right to Life (Article VI of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of which all nuclear armed states are members) and the NPT Review Conferences including the 10th NPT Review Conference in August this year.

Although the NPT Review Conference this year did not result in a final agreed document, the 4 weeks of deliberations and the draft final document demonstrated a very strong normative opposition to the threat or use of nuclear weapons (See Opportunities to advance nuclear risk reduction, including no-first-use, in the wake of the ‘failed’ NPT Review Conference).

NoFirstUse Global briefing paper

This week, in follow-up to the break through at the G20 Summit, NoFirstUse Global released a discussion/briefing paper yesterday entitled Nuclear weapons non-use BREAKTHROUGH! From taboo since 1945 to normative law as of 2022.

The paper suggests ways in which this normative law prohibiting nuclear weapons can be implemented in national policy and further strengthened globally in order to eliminate the risk of nuclear war and pave the way to the elimination of nuclear weapons. In particular, the NoFirstUse Global briefing paper calls on specific actions to:

  • Align policy and practice with this norm, including by the adoption of no-first-use policies;
  • Codify this norm into a binding international treaty or through a UN Security Council resolution;
  • Gain universal adherence, including through the provision of security assurances to facilitate such adherence.

Basel Peace Office 'Food-for-Thought' paper

Basel Peace Office  released a 'Food-for-Thought' paper this week The Doomsday Clock and Switzerland as a neutral country, following up on the G20 Summit and exploring ways in which Switzerland (where Basel Peace Office is based) and other non-nuclear countries can advance nuclear risk-reduction and disarmament over the next 2-3 years, building on the G20 statement, UN Human Rights Committee General Comment 36, TPNW and other developments.

The Basel Peace Office paper also highlights opportunities provided by the upcoming UN Summit of the Future to advance nuclear risk reduction and disarmament, and makes some specific policy proposals that are substantive, significant and feasible. These include to move the nuclear armed and allied states (through the UN General Assembly, NPT process, UN Security Council and/or UN Summit of the Future) to agree to:

  1. Implement the agreed dictum that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and so must never be fought’ by supporting/adopting no-first-use policies, removing all nuclear weapons systems from launch-on-warning (see No-first-use of nuclear weapons: An Exploration of Unilateral, Bilateral and Plurilateral Approaches and their Security, Risk-reduction and Disarmament Implications, a working paper submitted to the 10th NPT Review Conference); 
  2. Undertake concrete work to establish the framework for a nuclear-weapon-free world either by adopting protocols to the TPNW that would enable their ratification of the treaty, agreeing on a framework convention for the global elimination of nuclear weapons (similar to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), or commence negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention (For details on these options see Frameworks for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World, a working paper submitted to the 10th NPT Review Conference by Abolition 2000, the global civil society network for the elimination of nuclear weapons); 
  3.  Commit to achieving the global elimination of nuclear weapons no later than 2045, the 75th anniversary of the NPT and the 100th anniversary of the United Nations.

These calls have also been made in Protect People and the Planet an Appeal for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World which has been endorsed  and promoted by over 1000 influential civil society representatives from around the world, and which was presented to the United Nations on October 26 this year during UN Disarmament Week.