While the humanitarian language seems to have gradually made its way to high-level nuclear discourse, the controversy now centres on its legal implications. This was apparent in the heated exchanges at this year’s Review Conference between NWS and the supporters of the humanitarian pledge. The pledge set out to “pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and is now backed by more than half of the countries in the world. Still, none of the Nordic countries have joined it. Norway’s policy looks particularly inconsistent given that it profiled itself as one of the champions of the humanitarian cause. While the majority of the Norwegian parliament would like their country to support related negotiations, the government holds back, referring to constraints imposed by NATO membership. Such considerations apparently also underlie the decision by Denmark and Iceland not to join the pledge.
As current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has suggested however, Alliance membership is not necessarily an obstacle to promoting the ban treaty. Indeed, in recent decades NATO has significantly reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and committed itself to the goal of a nuclear-free world—despite the fact that this commitment is undermined by outdated first-use doctrine and the modernisation of militarily irrelevant tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. There is thus not only room but also a need to readjust the Alliance’s ambivalent nuclear policy. What better way to galvanize NATO’s stalled nuclear debate than its members joining the humanitarian pledge?
While supporting a nuclear weapons ban might have political costs for NATO members, this is not the case with Finland and Sweden. Yet the two stand out as the only non-aligned EU members that are still hedging their bets on this issue. This probably has to do with their ongoing concerns about the divisive effects of the humanitarian process, as well as scepticism about the ban treaty, which none of possessors of nuclear weapons seem likely to join. The future prospect of NATO membership might be an additional factor explaining the Finnish and Swedish cautiousness.
Weighed against potential benefits however, such cautiousness seems unwarranted. Bans on other weapons of mass destruction are relatively effective even when not universal. By stigmatising the possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons, a ban treaty could add much-needed urgency to disarmament. As for international polarisation, this is not the cause but a symptom of a deeper problem of the lack of nuclear disarmament, which apparently cannot be addressed in the NPT context. Ban negotiations would add to NPT legitimacy by complementing it in an area where it has proven weakest. The humanitarian pledge also does not predetermine the form of the legal instrument to be negotiated. As stated in a recent paper by the New Agenda Coalition, the options include a detailed and lengthy convention, a short ban treaty simply outlawing nuclear weapons and leaving details to be sorted out later, or a broad framework agreement incorporating separate instruments covering different areas. Relevant negotiations would nevertheless prompt the kind of re-consideration of the practical obstacles for a nuclear-free world that is clearly a precondition for making such a vision into reality.
There is much to gain and little to lose from supporting the long-overdue prohibition of nuclear weapons. This applies particularly to Finland and Sweden, who should use their room for manoeuvre as non-aligned countries and join the humanitarian pledge. Beyond adding normative force to this global undertaking, it could give the crucial push for fellow Nordic countries to follow suit, empowering the advocates of disarmament within NATO and the EU, and paving the way for both institutions to gain credibility in this vital area of international security.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.