Door: Editorial board VN Forum
Dossier: ‘Are Arms controlling us, or can we take back control?‘
Gasthoofdredacteur: Hugo Klijn

In May of this year, 190 countries were supposed to convene at the UN headquarters in New York for a Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this important conference has already been rescheduled twice and is now expected to take place in August 2021 at the latest. Important issues are to be discussed, such as nuclear states’ commitments to disarmament, risk reduction and Iran’s nuclear programme. The Netherlands has been actively engaged in preparing for this conference. It has chaired one of the Preparatory Committees leading up to this meeting and will act as one of the Review Conference’s co-chairs.
This important task falls on Marjolijn van Deelen, the Dutch Foreign Ministry’s Ambassador for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Before she joined the European External Action Service UN Forum spoke to her about the challenging times for arms control, the issues at stake and complementary efforts to work towards the goals of this landmark treaty.

Q: Major powers seem to be less and less interested in arms control. The US is abandoning various arrangements because of Russian treaty violations while China is playing innocent. So where is the good news for countries like the Netherlands?

MvD: Indeed, current geopolitical tensions hamper arms control efforts, including those pertaining to nuclear weapons, whereas the nuclear ‘haves’ should actually be leading by example. But I think not all is lost. Take, for instance, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that binds 190 countries, among them the 5 nuclear states who are permanent members of the UN Security Council, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to work towards nuclear disarmament. It also constitutes a platform to address implementation and compliance issues and to engage in dialogue. For the Netherlands, which has a solid track record in multilateral arms control, it provides an opportunity to table ideas and forge coalitions, both with nuclear and non-nuclear states. It is important to have such a venue, especially in difficult circumstances.

Q: You already mentioned the NPT. Can you elaborate on the treaty’s upcoming Review Conference, which was initially meant to take place last May?

MvD: Yes, due to the corona virus this conference, which is organised every five years, has now been postponed to a date no later than August 2021. Because the NPT is a rather short ‘umbrella treaty’, these reviews are important to keep the process up to date. Nuclear states are required to report on their activities under art. VI of the treaty, imposing the obligation to contribute to the ‘cessation of the nuclear arms race’ and to ‘nuclear disarmament’. Besides, issues such as risk reduction are being discussed (a crucial topic as long as nuclear weapons exist), as well as Iran’s compliance with treaty obligations and the long-standing idea of a ‘weapons of mass destruction free zone’ in the Middle-East.
This will be the first NPT review conference after the demise of the US-Russian INF treaty on intermediate nuclear forces. This, and the meagre prospects of short-term reductions in nuclear weapons as well as standing issues such as Iran promises animated exchanges between some delegations, to say the least. Of course, the uncertainty around the extension of the New START treaty, regulating the maximum numbers of deployed nuclear warheads, does not help either. The previous review conference did not produce a final declaration by states-parties. It will be very difficult to reach consensus under the current circumstances but we will do our utmost to come up with new ideas and to find common ground bringing parties together.

The Netherlands, at the time represented by Ambassador Henk-Cor van der Kwast, has chaired the first Preparatory Committee leading up to this review conference and, stemming from that capacity, I will act as one of the three vice-chairmen of the meeting in August. This will give us the opportunity to help steer the conference. At an earlier stage we have organised regional conferences in Jakarta, Dakar and Santiago de Chili to have in-depth discussions about all aspects of the NPT with participants from capitals. This innovative global approach allowed both the chair and the participants in the Preparatory Committee to work towards a more constructive spirit after the rather sombre end of the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Q: A final question with regard to the NPT: how does this treaty relate to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, often referred to as the ‘Ban Treaty’, that, following a mandate by the UN General Assembly, was signed in 2017 and has now been ratified by 50 states and will therefore enter into force in January 2021?

MvD: These are different creatures. The NPT provisions legally bind nuclear states, while none of them are party to the so-called Ban Treaty, a document that prohibits nuclear weapons as such but has no support from nuclear weapons states and lacks a verification regime. It is likely, however, that the countries who have ratified the Ban Treaty will want the NPT review conference to welcome, or at least acknowledge, its entering into force. This may be difficult to stomach for nuclear countries that from the very beginning have objected to this treaty.

Q: How important is the UN in terms of arms control?

MvD: The organisation has a strong mandate in this field, especially when it comes to disarmament. Just think of the related provisions in the UN Charter and the work done by the General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, in cooperation with the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. Even though a treaty like the NPT is a separate mechanism, the UN provides for its Secretariat and hosts NPT conferences. If you look at emerging technologies, for instance, the discussions on regulating autonomous weapon systems take place within the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The UN remains the broadest multilateral gathering around, and has strong convening powers. That’s why it is important that stand-alone arms control instruments too are, one way or the other, linked to the UN system to enhance their standing.

Q: The Netherlands also participates in smaller arms control fora, such as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) or Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND). Can you tell us more about these initiatives, and what is their potential value in comparison with the bigger treaties and conventions?

MvD: These informal endeavours should be considered complementary efforts. The NPDI concerns a diverse group of 12 NPT countries who organised themselves 10 years ago with the aim to further the goals of setting a nuclear disarmament agenda and increasing transparency in the way nuclear states fulfil their commitments, as well as working on non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear materials. CEND has been organised by the US and also relates to the NPT. This forum now counts 40 countries, including major nuclear states. The informal setting caters for in-depth discussions, for instance on nuclear doctrines, that don’t happen around the formal tables. It provides important insights in countries’ motivations underlying their nuclear policies, and in itself serves as a confidence building measure. Initiatives such as these may serve as laboratories for coalition-building and creative thinking and prepare for the real business done in the formal decision-making frameworks.

Q: During the 1980s, after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) decided to deploy Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe in response to the Soviet Union’s intermediate range SS-20 missiles, nuclear weapons were a hot topic for public discussion and massive protest rallies were held in European cities, including Amsterdam and The Hague. Now that a new nuclear arms race seems imminent, with new tests being carried out and the announcements of new types of weapons, it is striking that the ongoing debates are primarily among experts. What should we make of this stark difference?

MvD: True, with regard to nuclear arms control the situation is worsening rather than improving. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the public is distracted by huge issues like climate change and global health that were still absent in the 1980s. But whatever the reason, a public debate on nuclear weapons is badly needed because they remain an enormous liability. Such debates also increase the general level of knowledge about these weapons, especially among younger people who haven’t experienced earlier controversies and are less familiar with the subject. Finally, a well-informed public debate may generate broader support for the Netherlands’ policies in this field.

Q: Now that you mention the government’s position on nuclear weapons, some critics maintain that the ‘nuclear sharing’ tasks carried out by the Netherlands within the NATO framework are incompatible with the stated commitment to nuclear disarmament as laid out in the NPT. How would you respond to that?

MvD: We are fully committed to nuclear disarmament and at the same realise that nuclear deterrence is still a necessity for our security. Working towards the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is therefore a long-term objective that requires many small steps in the right direction contributing to nuclear threat reduction. Being a participant in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements does not change that. To the contrary, an added benefit is that it gives us a stronger voice in NATO nuclear policies, risk reduction and arms control. Besides, when the NPT was being negotiated delegations concluded that NATO’s sharing arrangements were reconcilable with the document under consideration.

Marjolijn van Deelen

Marjolijn van Deelen served as the Netherlands Ambassador for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. She has led Non-proliferation and Disarmament efforts of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the last 5 years. She also serves in the NPT Bureau as vice-chair of the NPT Review Conference. She has been nominated Special Envoy for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament for the European External Action Service and has taken up that position in het fall of 2020.