High-level meeting in Stockholm injects life into the NPT nuclear disarmament commitments

NVV Überprüfungskonferenz 2020

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström hosts a meeting of ministers from 16 countries to elevate political support for practical nuclear risk-reduction and disarmament measures.

[Participants of the Stockholm Ministerial Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament and the Non-Proliferation Treaty on 11 June, 2019. Photo: Sofia Nahringbauer / Government Offices of Sweden]

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström today hosted a high-level meeting in Stockholm of ministers (mostly foreign ministers) from 16 countries to elevate political attention to nuclear risks, and to inject new life into the nuclear disarmament commitments made by States parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The situation in the world is critical, and the risk of nuclear arms use is greater than it has been for many years. We are taking this initiative because we must make vigorous efforts for disarmament,” says Ms Wallström. “The NPT is the cornerstone of international action for disarmament and non-proliferation. The nuclear-weapon states have made important commitments in this regard, and this is why we are focusing on discussing the NPT in particular.’

The participating governments include a mix of non-nuclear countries (Argentina, Finland, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland) and allied countries under extended nuclear deterrence policies (Canada, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Republic of Korea and Spain) making this a very credible and potentially effective group which could bridge the divide between nuclear and non-nuclear States and build agreement at the 2020 NPT Review conference on a practical and substantive forward path to nuclear disarmament.

The ministers released a joint declaration in which they highlighted their shared goal of ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’, gave support to the ‘United Nations Secretary General’s call to bring disarmament and non-proliferation back to the top of the international political agenda,’ and highlighted concrete disarmament measures that could be advanced with the nuclear-armed States including ‘more transparent and responsible declaratory policies, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in doctrines and policies, ways of enhancing transparency and of reducing risks of any use of nuclear weapons, strengthened negative security assurances, work on nuclear disarmament verification and the importance of addressing the production of fissile material.’

These disarmament measures are explored in more detail in a working paper entitled Unlocking disarmament diplomacy through a “stepping stone” approach which the Swedish government submitted to the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York in May 2019. The Stepping Stone paper calls nuclear armed and allied States at the 2020 NPT Review conference to agree to a number of measures including to:

  1. Strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons use through an unequivocal expression against the notion of any nuclear use, for example through affirming that ”a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”;
  2. Prevent the outbreak of nuclear war by adopting sole-purpose and/or no-first use policies;
  3. Ratify all outstanding protocols to the regional nuclear-weapon-free-zones (NWFZs), and by doing so affirm that they would not threaten or use nuclear weapons against the states parties to NWFZs;
  4. Create a clear distinction between conventional and nuclear delivery systems, so as to avoid nuclear war by misunderstanding or mission creep;
  5. Increase the decision-making time for launching nuclear weapons to avoid launches by mistake, and consider de-alerting all weapons and rescinding ‘launch on warning’ policies. 

The Stepping Stones approach put forward by Sweden reflects the approach of the New Agenda Coalition which was instrumental in building agreement from the nuclear-armed and allied States to the 13 practical disarmament steps agreed at the 2000 NPT Review conference. It also builds on ideas in other initiatives, such as the ‘Building Block approach’ submitted to the UN Open Working Group in 2013 and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative established by 12 governments in 2010.

The Stepping Stones approach was developed with policy support from the British-American Security Information Centre (BASIC), with an emphasis, not on isolating the nuclear-armed States or discounting their security rationales for nuclear deterrence, but on engaging the nuclear armed States to address these security issues through disarmament measures that include confidence-building and verification.  

 “It’s critical that states act now to get back on track towards nuclear disarmament and containing the worst aspects of nuclear arms racing,’ says Paul Ingram, Executive Director of BASIC. 'This takes vision, but it also takes cooperative and adaptive approaches that include a good dose of strategic empathy.” See BASIC Report: Stepping Stones to Disarmament – Making Progress in a Polarised International Climate

As such, the ministerial declaration asserts that ‘From different regions and security contexts, we are united in our belief that constructive political and diplomatic engagement is essential to build the trust necessary for progress towards our shared goals.’