NPT Preparatory Committee 2023: time to address nuclear harms
By Elizabeth Minor
This week the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is holding its first session in Vienna.
Alongside other urgent nuclear policy issues, including heightened risks and the broader humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the conference gives a vital opportunity for nuclear-armed states including the UK to consider the steps needed to help address the ongoing humanitarian and environmental impacts of past nuclear weapons activities.
For the first time, Kiribati and Kazakhstan presented a working paper at the NPT Prepcom on the need to address the past use and testing of nuclear weapons. Both states have experienced devastating impacts from nuclear weapons; over 350 nuclear weapons tests have been conducted in the Pacific Ocean region and 468 nuclear explosions conducted in Kazakhstan. Last year, these states led efforts alongside others to seek acknowledgement of these impacts at the NPT Review Conference, and led efforts to include in the unadopted final document a call on NPT states parties to engage with efforts to address the ongoing harms caused to communities by the past use and testing of nuclear weapons.
In a joint statement at the NPT PrepCon general debate today, Kiribati and Kazakhstan called on the nuclear-armed states to support nuclear justice initiatives in order to address the nuclear harm from the past development, testing and use of nuclear weapons. They urged nuclear-armed states to provide adequate financial compensation and engage in information exchanges with States Parties whose territories served as test sites. This is still much needed and long overdue; while more than 2000 nuclear tests have been carried out since 1945, there had been no global framework for addressing the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons until the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force in 2021.
The TPNW is complementary to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Kiribati and Kazakhstan highlighted this in their statement on Monday, adding that the TPNW “adds a new dimension of international cooperation to assist victims of such testing and help remediate contaminated environments” as the first and currently only international legal framework to do so. Article 6 of the TPNW requires states parties to provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to those under their jurisdiction affected by nuclear weapons, and Article 7 requires all states parties who are able to provide assistance to affected states parties and to victims.
The UK has previously dismissed attempts to discuss nuclear testing impacts at the NPT – as well as rejecting the framework provided by the TPNW to address them. Last year in response to a parliamentary question the UK said:
The Government does not believe the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will bring us closer to a world without nuclear weapons. The UK will not sign or engage with the Treaty. The Government firmly believes that the best way to achieve our collective goal of a world without nuclear weapons is through gradual multilateral disarmament negotiated using a step-by-step approach, under the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The effects and consequences of nuclear testing are not part of the NPT. The Treaty related to the cessation of nuclear testing is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The statement that the effects and consequences of nuclear testing are not part of the NPT contradicts the NPT’s own 2010 Action Plan – whose narrative section welcomed attention to issues of safety and contamination at sites formerly associated with nuclear weapons programmes and encouraged governments with expertise to provide assistance. Furthermore, the UK’s refusal to engage with the TPNW misses an opportunity to enrich the work of the NPT, build bridges with non-nuclear weapons states and make vital progress on addressing harm from the UK’s nuclear testing. Following this parliamentary question, incidentally, the UK did not seek to block the acknowledgement of addressing ongoing harms in the final outcome document of the NPT Review Conference last year.
Beyond this, though the NPT is widely considered the ‘cornerstone’ of international efforts on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, states have repeatedly undermined the NPT and it has been over a decade since the last time agreement was reached following the failed NPT conference last year.
Article 36, alongside UNA-UK,states parties of the NPT including the UK to respond to Kazakhstan and Kiribati’s call for specific engagement in initiatives to address nuclear harm – including the work affected states are doing under the TPNW – and seize the opportunity to address the harms that the nuclear weapons testing and manufacture have caused and continue to cause around the world. By taking this step, the UK can begin to address its legacy of nuclear harm and breathe new life into the NPT regime ahead of the 2026 NPT Review Conference.
For more information and recommendations on the legacies of the UK’s testing of nuclear weapons in Kiribati, see our report co-authored with UNA-UK, Dr Becky Alexis-Martin and Dr Matthew Bolton: Addressing British nuclear tests in Kiribati.
Photo: H.E. Ambassador Teburoro Tito delivers a joint statement on behalf of Kiribati and Kazakhstan at the 2023 NPT Preparatory Committee General Debate. Source: still from video by United Nations Office in Vienna.