The Irish Times view on nuclear non-proliferation: warnings should be heeded

Huge spending continues on nuclear weapons at a time of political and military tensions

Opening an important and timely nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in New York this week, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned rightly that the world faces a nuclear danger not seen since the height of the cold war.

“Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” he said. “We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy.”

Russian hints that it may use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the continued impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme and the growth and testing of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes, are contributing to that increased precariousness. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal at a pace that will triple its stockpile of warheads by 2030. The US is moving to modernise its own nuclear stockpiles.

Currently almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are held around the world, and spending continues apace: the nine nuclear-armed states (NWS) spent €80 billion on their nuclear weapons in 2021. That’s €154,000 every minute.

The review conference, the 10th in the treaty’s 52-year history, welcomed a recent joint statement from five NWS parties – China, France, Russia, the UK and US – affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, but also heard them strongly criticised for failing to honour the treaty’s article VI obligation to undertake good faith negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. In the treaty’s five decades they have continued to insist that other signatories to the treaty honour their commitment not to build nuclear weapons, but have never seriously considered meeting their own obligations to disarm.

The point was reiterated on behalf of Ireland by Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton who stressed the danger of lowering the bar on the taboo against nuclear weapons’ use in states’ willingness to contemplate their tactical or battlefield use.

Ireland’s traditional hostility to nuclear weapons and to the rationale of mutually-assured-destruction has seen it remain an outlier from EU allies, the US, and Nato on the issue, and the Minister was seeking to ensure an acknowledgment in the NPT conclusions of entry into force last year of the more radical Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). It makes disarmament a moral and legal imperative by comprehensively prohibiting all nuclear weapons activities for all 66 signatories, including prohibitions on testing, stockpiling, threat of use, or deployment.

Persuading others to continue to abstain from acquiring nuclear weapons is an imperative, critical not only to the avoidance of nuclear war but the survival of mankind. Those who insist “do as I say, but not as I do”, will only succeed in scuppering the NPT itself.