Sharing mass destruction

3 August 2023

By Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, Disarmament Programme, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

This is an edited extract from the ‘Editorial: Overcoming the Legacy of Annihilation’, in NPT News in Review, vol.18, no.2, 3 August 2023 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. The publication covers civil society perspectives on the First Preparatory Committee of the Eleventh Review Cycle of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), 31 July–11 August 2023.

The deployment of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-armed states has been the practice within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for decades and is now being taken up by Russia and Belarus. Each “side” accuses the other of violating the NPT while engaging in the same behaviour. NATO’s argument is that those negotiating the NPT took its nuclear sharing into account, and thus it cannot contravene the Treaty—but this could neither be described as a multilateral decision, nor one that is in keeping the principles and objectives of the NPT.

NATO member states expressed shock and outrage that anyone would dare critique their radioactive umbrella, arguing that their nuclear sharing is meant to “prevent coercion” and “preserve peace” and is “NPT compliant,” while Russia’s nuclear sharing is a grave threat to international peace and security and a violation of international law. The Netherlands even claimed, in a right of reply, that no one used to critique NATO’s nuclear sharing and even said that everyone accepted it up until 2015. This can be easily proven false with a look at the historical record within the NPT review cycle.

During the 2010 NPT Review Conference, several delegations, including the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), repeatedly urged the Conference to address nuclear sharing (see for example the NAM’s cluster one statement). A draft of the action plan even committed the nuclear-armed states to “Address the question of all types of nuclear weapons and related infrastructure stationed on the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States.” In the final version, this was watered down to “Address the question of all nuclear weapons regardless of their type or their location as an integral part of the general nuclear disarmament process.” It should be noted that only the US, Italy, and the Netherlands called for the deletion of the reference to nuclear sharing in the 2010 outcome. No other NATO states called for its removal, not even the other three NATO states that host US nuclear weapons on their territories.

Compromising to achieve an outcome document does not, in any way, indicate that states “accepted” NATO nuclear sharing. As Egypt said in a right of reply to the Netherlands, the NAM, the Arab Group, the African Group, and many states in their national capacities have consistently articulated an outspoken principled position against “extended nuclear deterrence” policies and practices, which are in part exemplified by nuclear sharing.

Indeed, NATO nuclear sharing practices were also critiqued during the 2000 and 2005 NPT review cycles, which is as far back as Reaching Critical Will reporting goes. And, it’s also worth noting that nuclear sharing was historically a contentious issue within NATO itself, where some NATO members objected to not only hosting nuclear weapons but also to NATO adopting a nuclear deterrence doctrine as part of its military strategy.

Attempts to rewrite history will only further undermine the NPT. Instead of arguing who did what first and whose violations of the treaty are worse, all states acting in contravention with the spirit of the Treaty should put their energies into reducing the tensions and threats that their policies and practices create. In 2010, all NPT states parties committed, in Action 1 of the Action Plan, to “pursue policies that are fully compatible with the Treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons.” Nuclear sharing, regardless of which states engage in it or when they started, is not compatible with achieving a nuclear weapon free world.