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New Report Warns of Resurfacing Nuclear Risks

By Jaya Ramachandran

Photo: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Conference on Disarmament’s High-Level Segment 2019, in Palais des Nations, Geneva on February 25, 2019. Credit: UN Photo by Antoine Tardy.

NEW YORK (IDN) – In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2020, arms control experts have warned that "the risk of nuclear use is increasing and … critical nonproliferation and disarmament norms are eroding".

Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament in 2016-2019, the Arms Control Association, says: "While there have been some modest gains on safeguards, there has been significant backsliding on the standards related to arms control and risk reduction." [2019-07-13]

 Alicia Sanders-Zakre, research assistant, and Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy of the U.S. nonpartisan organization, based in Washington DC, dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies, point out that collectively, states fared worse on the majority of criteria when compared with the prior assessment covering the 2013–2016 period.

They add: "All states with nuclear weapons are taking steps to invest in new delivery systems and several are expanding the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines. These findings raise concerns that the risk of nuclear use is increasing and that critical nonproliferation and disarmament norms are eroding."

The authors outline many core obligations and goals for what constitutes mainstream nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament behaviour. State responsibilities regarding nonproliferation and disarmament are further defined by additional agreements, UN Security Council resolutions, shared norms, and binding legal commitments.

The Arms Control Association has identified 10 internationally recognized standards for nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security. Each of these standards plays an important role in addressing the complex nature of the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

The ten standards are: Banning Nuclear Testing; Ending the Production of Fissile Material for Weapons; Nuclear Weapons Alert Levels; Nuclear Force Reductions; Negative Security Assurances; Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones; IAEA Safeguards; Nuclear Weapons-Related Export Controls; Nuclear Security Commitments; and Criminalization and Illicit Trafficking Commitments.

The Arms Control Association has tracked state adherence to these standards since 2010 and published a report card every three years detailing the extent to which each state is fulfilling its commitments.

The 2016–2019 report is the fourth in a series that assesses the extent to which 11 key states are fulfilling, promoting, or undermining 10 standards identified as critical elements of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime during the period between 2016 and June 2019.

The report finds in particular that  all of the states that possess nuclear weapons failed to make progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals 2016-2019. While Russia and the United States met their obligations under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty) to reduce deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by February 2018, that treaty was negotiated in 2010 and there is no new agreement between Washington and Moscow to extend the treaty or pursue negotiations on additional limits.

Furthermore, the recognized nuclear-weapon states and states that developed nuclear weapons outside of the 1970 NPT are investing in new nuclear weapons delivery systems, and several states—China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—expanded their arsenals over the previous three years.

Of the 11 states assessed in this report, the overall grades for the United States and Russia dropped the most, from a B average in 2016 to a C+ average in 2019. The drop in grades is primarily due to Russia’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), and the U.S. decision to withdraw from that treaty in response.

In addition, both states expanded the circumstances under which they would use nuclear weapons and are investing heavily in new, destabilizing delivery systems. "Together, these developments increase the risk of nuclear use," warn the report's authors.

Several states have taken actions that led to increased alert levels for their nuclear forces, they add. India deployed sea-based nuclear warheads and Pakistan developed tactical nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, both of which require mating warheads to missiles, earning them lower grades in this edition of the report. Several of the nuclear-weapon states also earned lower grades for opposing UN resolutions calling for lower alert levels.

The report further points out States failed to strengthen negative security assurances during the timeframe of this report. "While there is rhetorical support from some of the states assessed in this report for negotiating legally binding negative security assurances, several states, including the United States, Russia, France, and India, have expanded the scenarios under which they would use nuclear weapons."

Iran continued to abide by the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) until beginning of July 2019, despite the U.S. decision to withdraw from the agreement and reimpose sanctions on Tehran in May 2018. "While Washington’s violation of the JCPOA does not fall into any of the criteria that the United States is assessed on in the scope of this report, the decision weakens nonproliferation norms and undermines U.S. credibility in future negotiations," the report's authors caution.

France and the United Kingdom each earned a B, the highest overall grades in this report card. The United Kingdom received a B+ in the 2013-2016 version of this report, but the lack of support for additional nuclear force reductions and UN efforts to reduce alert levels for nuclear weapons caused its overall grade to drop.

North Korea continues to fare the worst of the eleven states, earning an overall F grade for the fourth consecutive report. However, North Korea did nominally improve on certain criteria in the current report for announcing and abiding by a voluntary nuclear and long-range missile test moratorium.

There were few changes from the 2016 report in the grades on banning nuclear testing. One notable exception is the U.S. grade, which sunk from a B+ to a C-, due in part to the Trump administration’s stated intent not to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

According to the 2019 report, the grades for all eleven states in the category of ending fissile material production for nuclear weapons remained unchanged from the 2010, 2013, and 2016 versions of this report.

The five nuclear-weapon states – permanent members of the Security Council (P5) – maintain de facto moratoriums on producing fissile material for weapons and while states outside of the NPT continue to do so. Additionally, the stalemate continues at the Conference on Disarmament over the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty due to objections from Pakistan.

The report's authors note with satisfaction that with the exception of Iran, North Korea and Syria, the majority of states assessed continue to adhere to strong nuclear security practices and measures to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear or missile-related materials.

"UN reports provide evidence that Iran, North Korea, and Syria all engaged in illicit trafficking of dual-use materials and technologies," note Sanders-Zakre and Davenport. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 July 2019]

Photo: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Conference on Disarmament’s High-Level Segment 2019, in Palais des Nations, Geneva on February 25, 2019. Credit: UN Photo by Antoine Tardy

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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