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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
The Humanitarian Case for Banning Nuclear Weapons: An Interview With Alexander Kmentt


May 2022

The Russian war on Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons to compensate for his country’s conventional military setbacks there have concentrated public attention on nuclear weapons to a degree not seen in decades. It is also likely to raise the profile of a meeting scheduled for June 21–23 in Vienna of the states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty, which makes a humanitarian argument for banning all nuclear weapons, went into force in January 2021, and this meeting is the first time that member states are gathering to reinforce its provisions and press forward its mission. Carol Giacomo, chief editor of Arms Control Today, asked Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and president-designate of the first meeting of TPNW states-parties, to discuss what they hope to achieve, especially in light of the Russian war. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Arms Control Today: What is the subject and the purpose of this first meeting of TPNW states-parties in June?

Alexander Kmentt: The treaty entered into force a little over a year ago, after the 50th state notified the United Nations of its ratification. Because of COVID-19 delays, this is the first time the states-parties are getting together after the treaty entered into force to basically put the treaty and its implementation on track. It's very important because, after the entry into force, we are moving into a different phase. There are several important decisions that need to be taken, from basic organizational ones to substantive ones.

Anti-nuclear activists of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and other peace initiatives protest with the 51 flags of countries that ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in front of the German Chancellery in Berlin on January 22. Their banner reads: “Nuclear weapons are forbidden!” (Photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)ACT: Can you talk about those substantive decisions?

Kmentt: One basic thing is, we have to agree on rules of procedure, so how are we going to work in the future as states-parties. In terms of substantive decisions, there are several. I can tell you where we are now in the preparations, a little over two months before the meeting starts, but of course all of this is subject to the approval of states-parties. First of all in terms of the main message, states-parties are clear that they want to show that this new treaty is a serious undertaking. The meeting is not an activist gathering. Of course, there will be a very strong civil society presence, which is very important and very welcome. But this is a formal meeting of states-parties who have gone through the due national processes to ratify this treaty and considered this very carefully. The states-parties are embarking on the implementation of this new international legal instrument. This is the most important message because there is such a contestation and false narrative around the TPNW. Secondly, the rationale of the TPNW is the evidence around humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. We want to very strongly reemphasize these profound arguments and reconnect the nuclear debate to this aspect.

ACT: On the issue of humanitarian response, is there actually going to be a proposal on the table for how you approach this?

Kmentt: Yes. The TPNW has some important, novel aspects with the positive obligations of assistance for victims of nuclear weapons use and nuclear weapons testing, environmental remediation, cooperation, and assistance. We have several states-parties and signatories that have communities and areas that are, to this day, very heavily impacted by past nuclear weapons testing campaigns: Kazakhstan, for example, some of the Pacific Island states, or Algeria—that's a signatory state. So, we are embarking to develop a culture of work to find a way as a community of states-parties to address the humanitarian harm that has been caused, which of course underscores the need for prevention. The rights of victims, essentially, and communities will very much be put into focus. This underscores the humanitarian rationale of the TPNW in a very tangible way.

This approach is inspired by some of the victims-related work that has been done in other conventions, for example, on cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines, where some of those concepts around a very human security-focused approach to victims have been developed. We are learning and profiting from this past experience.

When member states of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) meet in June, one issue will be ameliorating the effects of nuclear testing on places such as Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union detonated 467 nuclear bombs at the Semipalatinsk test site in the northeastern region of the country before it closed in 1991, resulting in thousands of victims who suffer from radioactive diseases. In this 2007 photo, a 4th generation radiation victim, accompanied by his grandmother (R), was treated for a liver disorder at the Medical Academy Center.  (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)ACT: What other substantive issues will the meeting address?

Kmentt: There is one important decision related to the elimination of nuclear weapons, which the negotiation conference in 2017 explicitly tasked the first meeting of states-parties to take up. The TPNW foresees two ways for nuclear-armed states to join. One is essentially the South African model, by which a state first eliminates its weapons, has this verified, and then joins the TPNW, as was the case when South Africa joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state in the 1990s. The second avenue is for a nuclear-armed state to join the TPNW and then eliminate its nuclear weapons in an agreed process of verified elimination. So, this is the framework foreseen by the TPNW. The treaty deliberately does not specify this further because the nuclear-armed states did not participate in the negotiations. This will have to be done at the later stage if and when a nuclear-armed state is ready to join the TPNW. Nevertheless, we have to agree at the meeting on a maximum deadline of verified elimination for nuclear-armed states that want to join the treaty. Of course, the individual time frames will have to be negotiated with individual nuclear-armed states once they join and to take into account the specificities.

Secondly, the treaty also foresees a maximum deadline for the removal of nuclear weapons if a nuclear hosting state joins the TPNW. So, this is again another substantive decision for the meeting. Then, the treaty foresees the designation of a competent international authority or authorities that will foresee the future elimination of nuclear weapons within the TPNW framework. Of course, we know that this is not that urgent because nuclear-armed states are currently reluctant to join the TPNW. Nevertheless, we will most likely take a decision to explore this issue in detail during the intersessional period [between states-parties conferences]. We will assess what is available in terms of existing expertise, what the competencies and mandate of such an authority would have to be so that states-parties are in a position to take a very well-informed decision on this issue in the future.

Moreover, universalization is an obligation under this treaty to its states-parties, and we are preparing that. Working on universalization is not merely encouraging new ratifications but promoting the arguments on which the treaty is based, namely the humanitarian consequences of and the risks associated with nuclear weapons.

Two more issues are being discussed. I'm optimistic that we'll find an agreement on how to best harness scientific advice for the treaty. I think that could be a very important deliverable for the first meeting of states-parties. We are discussing proposals for a scientific advisory group that will help states-parties implement technical aspects of the treaty, such as verification, and also to identify what is out there in terms of research on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. This is a novel area and could be a very significant contribution for the TPNW and possibly beyond.

Second, states-parties are very clear that they want a strong message on the complementarity of the treaty with the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime, in particular the NPT. States-parties are preparing all these decisions in a very serious way. There is a very high degree of common purpose. I have asked facilitators for all these different topics to prepare working papers that contain recommendations, possible actions, and decisions. I hope that these papers are very broadly supported by states-parties before and at the meeting.

ACT: How is what you are doing affected by the war in Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear threats?

Kmentt: I'm very happy to give you my own perspective on this, but I cannot do that as president of the TPNW meeting because states-parties have not yet formally discussed this. I think all of us struggle to understand what the implications of the war in Ukraine are going to be on the nuclear regime. I think the honest answer is that none of us really knows, except that the repercussions will be really profound. It can go in many different ways. I hope that what we have seen is a jolt that maybe rallies the international community, or at least the vast majority of the international community, into more focused and urgent action on nuclear disarmament.

I'm concerned about some of the nuclear weapons “muscle memory” that we observe. We have seen nuclear threats being made in the context of the situation in Ukraine, essentially to enable a nuclear-weapon state to invade a non-nuclear-weapon state in good standing with the NPT. I think it is profoundly damaging to the NPT. This highlights not only nuclear risks and the fragility of nuclear deterrence, it also further underscores the many legitimacy issues around nuclear weapons. What we have seen by these disconcerting developments turns the notion of nuclear-weapon states in the NPT broadly working together as five upside down. I think the P5 process is in very big difficulty and has lost credibility. I hope that there will still be some areas of cooperation left.

What we also noticed is that maybe the attention on the nuclear issue is back. We in the nuclear community were always convinced that this is an important issue, but the wider public didn't really care. It fell off the radar after the Cold War. I think we see that this is changing, that people realize that this is not something of the past or it's not something that's limited to the North Korean issue. In Europe, we see this very much, and people are scared and for good reason. I think that is also a consequence.

For the TPNW, I think the context is difficult, but it's difficult for the whole disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation field. What we have seen underlines the fragility of nuclear deterrence stability and how precarious this entire construct is. The question is, What conclusions are drawn from this? I think it is also an opportunity for the TPNW to highlight the arguments of humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons. I always was convinced that this is very topical, but I think it has become even more important now. Ultimately, the question is whether reliance on nuclear deterrence as a construct that is supposed to bring stability to international relations is too precarious and unsustainable given the existential risks it entails for all humanity.

ACT: Are you concerned that the current international environment will propel non-nuclear-weapon states, such as Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey, to acquire nuclear weapons?

Kmentt: It's an absolutely pertinent question. It is one of those pivotal moments where we could go two ways. It is possible that we move in the direction of more focus on nuclear weapons and the consequence of that will be a proliferation cascade. Whether the world at the end of that process is more secure, I think, is highly questionable. I suggest that it's not. Or, we use this as an opportunity to reinforce the treaties that we have. Maybe those in the international community that are responsible, that care about this normative framework, try to reinforce this normative framework. It is a real threshold moment. Are we “jumping back to the 1950s,” so to speak, into a situation where we did not yet have a nuclear treaty regime and basically have to restart again with rules and treaties, or can we use this as an opportunity to try to strengthen the framework that we have and prevent it from falling apart? The TPNW is the new kid on the block in this framework and we need to strengthen it.

ACT: Are states outside of the TPNW, such as Finland and Switzerland, still interested in attending the meeting and participating in the process in some way?

Kmentt: The short answer is yes. I think people are watching very carefully, very closely what we do in the TPNW process. There's a lot of false narratives going around, if I can say it in that way, from opponents of the TPNW, and that's why I think TPNW states-parties will be extremely focused on the seriousness of the enterprise. I am very much focused on the first meeting of states-parties, and I want this to be a successful meeting, but at the end of the day, the more important thing, really, is what happens afterwards. My goal is that at the end of the first meeting, the treaty is firmly established as a serious forum to engage meaningfully on the profound issues on which the TPNW is based.

This engagement by skeptics of the TPNW has been lacking. The TPNW has been vilified and accused of all sorts of things. We all understand the political dynamics behind it, but states-parties are undisturbed by that. We remain serious about this treaty, serious about our commitment to the TPNW and for a multilateral approach to nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament, and nonproliferation. If this message comes out very strongly at the first meeting of states-parties, then I'm optimistic that some of these unfounded criticisms will fall away. At the end of the day, given what we are seeing now, TPNW opponents should ask themselves whether it is a good thing or a bad thing if more states are willing to take on legally binding obligations against nuclear weapons. I would make the point that we should welcome any additional legally binding commitment from any actor at the moment that tries to reinforce the normative framework and the nuclear disarmament regime.

ACT: Are there going to be any surprises? Is anybody going to show up at this conference that maybe we aren't expecting?

Kmentt: The UN secretary-general is the convener of this meeting. He has sent invitations to every UN member state. So, every UN member state is invited to participate, and our door is certainly open. As I said, from the TPNW side, we are not doing anything and will not do anything that will be an easy excuse for anyone not to show up and be part of this discussion. Of course, we cannot force anyone, but it will be the decision of non-states-parties whether or not to attend. It's not something that we do on the TPNW side to exclude the participation of anyone.

ACT: Have you had much conversation with the United States about this?

Kmentt: I had plenty of conversations with U.S. colleagues. Of course, the overall U.S. position on the TPNW hasn't changed. It's very clear, but there is a dialogue, and I think that's important. Certainly [the Biden] administration is very concerned about the future of the NPT, like all of us should be. With all the disagreement that there may be on some issues, I think there is a willingness to find ways of working together where possible. I think there's very clearly the interest there. Logically, the TPNW states-parties understand that the objective of the treaty will only be achieved with engagement with the states that have these weapons. We're not naive in that sense. We know that we cannot wish nuclear weapons away. This is a discursive process.

From my perspective, it is a very powerful proposition to discuss nuclear weapons from the perspective of humanitarian consequences and risks. It's only fair and a legitimate approach because the risks are borne by the entire international community. I’m convinced the TPNW represents the perspective of the vast majority of non-nuclear-weapon states who have felt disenfranchised about the nuclear discourse over the decades. The request for this discussion
is not going to disappear, and the stronger the TPNW becomes, the legitimacy and the weight to ask for this engagement will grow. I think that is why we want to set this treaty up in a serious way because that discussion has to happen at some stage.

ACT: How do you see the TPNW reinforcing what the NPT review conference, which meets in August, will do?

Kmentt: I think the prospects for the NPT review conference are very uncertain at the moment. It's extremely fragile, and we're all concerned about that. I can say this with absolute certainty, TPNW states-parties have absolutely no interest whatsoever that the NPT is damaged, quite the opposite. The entire TPNW community has always felt it was grossly offensive to be accused by some that the TPNW undermines the NPT. If you look at the states that have most actively promoted the TPNW—Ireland, for example, which has practically invented the NPT with the Irish resolution; South Africa, which had nuclear weapons, gave them up, and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state; Mexico, which has led the entire continent with the Treaty of Tlatelolco, Kazakhstan; my own country, Austria; I could go on—these are states that have a clear and clean record in support of the NPT. We always felt that this was really an offensive accusation coming from states whose own NPT Article 6 implementation leaves some scope for improvement, to say the least.

The TPNW clearly reinforces Article 6 of the NPT [requiring states-parties to pursue nuclear disarmament]. This is one of the pillars of the NPT, and even opponents of the TPNW will agree that a prohibition of nuclear weapons is necessary to implement Article 6. The NPT is a framework treaty. Also, the nonproliferation provision of the NPT required additional instruments, for example, the safeguard systems of the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. So, conceptually, a prohibition is necessary to implement Article 6. The disagreement, if you wish, is, should this come at the end of the process of disarmament, or is it better to do it now? You can have a discussion about it, but that a prohibition is necessary, I think, is unequivocally clear.

Take the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), another weapons of mass destruction prohibition treaty. Nobody disputes the validity of the BWC, which does not have any verification provision. The TPNW follows the same logic and very clearly supports the NPT obligation of Article 6. Moreover, I would argue—and this an aspect that is underrepresented—that the TPNW is also a strong measure to support nonproliferation. By looking at the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, we make the argument that reliance on nuclear weapons is ultimately an irresponsible and unsustainable approach to security, so nobody should have them. This is absolutely a nonproliferation measure. So the TPNW supports the nonproliferation pillar of the NPT as well.

How can anybody with a clear mind therefore say that the TPNW undermines the NPT, because obviously the two essential pillars of the NPT, disarmament and nonproliferation, are supported by the TPNW? There was great care and consciousness in the negotiations to make sure that the TPNW is fully compatible with the NPT, and we are absolutely adamant about this. There will be a very clear message at the meeting of states-parties on complementarity between the TPNW and the NPT. I hope that these politically motivated accusations against the TPNW will stop being made.