22 September 2020
In a remarkable criticism of NATO’s policies on nuclear weapons, and one of the most serious challenges to NATO’s nuclear orthodoxy in the organisation’s 71-year history, 56 former prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers and defence ministers from 20 NATO countries, plus Japan and South Korea, released an open letter on 21 September calling on current leaders to join the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which needs just six further ratifications to reach the 50 needed to take effect. The letter includes two former NATO Secretary Generals—Javier Solana of Spain and Willy Claes of Belgium—as well as former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The letter, released on the eve of the United Nations 75th anniversary commemoration at the annual General Assembly, asserts that the risks of nuclear-weapons use have escalated in recent years “whether by accident, miscalculation or design”. With reference to the coronavirus pandemic the letter writers say, “We must not sleepwalk into a crisis of even greater proportions than the one we have experienced this year”. It amounts to one of the highest-profile endorsements of the Nuclear Ban Treaty to date with signatories that include former prime ministers of Canada, Japan, Italy and Poland; former presidents of Albania, Poland and Slovenia; more than two dozen former foreign ministers; and more than a dozen former defence ministers.
“All responsible leaders must act now to ensure that the horrors of 1945 are never repeated,” the letter urges, referring to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the United States, the only wartime use of nuclear weapons. “Sooner or later, our luck will run out — unless we act. The nuclear weapon ban treaty provides the foundation for a more secure world, free from this ultimate menace”.
The letter was released by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Geneva-based group that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its role in negotiations that led to the treaty. The world’s nine nuclear-armed powers—USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea—and all NATO member states (except the Netherlands) boycotted those negotiations. In a joint press statement released shortly after negotiations on the treaty had been concluded, the three NATO nuclear weapon states—France, the UK and USA— declared their intention to never join the treaty. Nonetheless, delegates from 122 countries—nearly two-thirds of the UN membership—participated in the negotiations for the treaty, 84 have signed it, and 44 of those countries have ratified the treaty. At least one or two more countries may ratify it in the coming days or weeks, and the treaty will come into force 90 days after the 50th ratification.
NATO has vigorously rejected the treaty because it “risks undermining” the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and supposedly creates divisions in the international community. Former Senator and Canadian ambassador for disarmament, Douglas Roche, said, “it would be harder to find a more pungent example of nuclear hypocrisy. First, the treaty explicitly recognizes the NPT as the ‘cornerstone’ of nuclear disarmament efforts. Second, it is the refusal by the nuclear weapons states to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons, as ordered by the NPT, that led to the development of the Prohibition Treaty. NATO doesn’t have a leg to stand on in maintaining that nuclear weapons are the ‘supreme guarantee’ of security”. Several NATO governments have said they cannot join the Ban Treaty because of their membership in NATO. But the letter contests this stand, arguing that nothing in the new treaty precludes a NATO state joining, as long as it never assists the use of nuclear weapons.
Under the treaty, all nuclear-weapons use, threat of use, testing, development, production, possession, transfer and stationing in a different country would be prohibited. For nuclear-armed countries that join, the treaty outlines a process for destroying stockpiles and enforcing the promise to remain free of nuclear weapons. This would include five countries — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey — that host US nuclear weapons on their territory under a NATO ‘nuclear sharing’ arrangement and would therefore be required to remove them if they joined the treaty.
"This is the most significant demonstration of high-level support for the treaty that we have seen in these countries to date. We hope it will spark debate, including in parliaments, and help bring about shifts in national positions," says Tim Wright, Treaty Coordinator of ICAN.
NATO Watch Comment: Rather than seeing a treaty that is ‘incompatible with NATO obligations’, perhaps the starting point ought to be to re-evaluate those alliance obligations that are incompatible with the treaty. This important and timely letter should stimulate fresh thinking on this issue within NATO, where the ban treaty is also criticised for being incompatible with nuclear deterrence. However, the holes in the edifice of nuclear deterrence are only likely to grow in the decades ahead and the ban treaty adds further weight to the call for a reimaging of deterrence for the more complex contemporary environment in which NATO finds itself.
The 56 co-signers of the open letter in support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are:
Lloyd Axworthy, former foreign minister of Canada
Ban Ki-moon, former UN secretary-general and foreign minister of South Korea
Jean-Jacques Blais, former defence minister of Canada
Kjell Magne Bondevik, former prime minister and foreign minister of Norway
Ylli Bufi, former prime minister of Albania
Jean Chrétien, former prime minister of Canada
Willy Claes, former NATO secretary-general and foreign minister of Belgium
Erik Derycke, former foreign minister of Belgium
Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister of Germany
Franco Frattini, former foreign minister of Italy
Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, former foreign minister of Iceland
Bjørn Tore Godal, former foreign minister and defence minister of Norway
Bill Graham, former foreign minister and defence minister of Canada
Hatoyama Yukio, former prime minister of Japan
Thorbjørn Jagland, former prime minister and foreign minister of Norway
Ljubica Jelušič, former defence minister of Slovenia
Tālavs Jundzis, former defence minister of Latvia
Jan Kavan, former foreign minister of the Czech Republic
Alojz Krapež, former defence minister of Slovenia
Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis, former foreign minister and defence minister of Latvia
Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former president of Poland
Yves Leterme, former prime minister and foreign minister of Belgium
Enrico Letta, former prime minister of Italy
Eldbjørg Løwer, former defence minister of Norway
Mogens Lykketoft, former foreign minister of Denmark
John Mccallum, former defence minister of Canada
John Manley, former foreign minister of Canada
Rexhep Meidani, former president of Albania
Zdravko Mršić, former foreign minister of Croatia
Linda Mūrniece, former defence minister of Latvia
Fatos Nano, former prime minister of Albania
Holger K. Nielsen, former foreign minister of Denmark
Andrzej Olechowski, former foreign minister of Poland
Kjeld Olesen, former foreign minister and defence minister of Denmark
Ana Palacio, former foreign minister of Spain
Theodoros Pangalos, former foreign minister of Greece
Jan Pronk, former defence minister (ad interim) of the Netherlands
Vesna Pusić, former foreign minister of Croatia
Dariusz Rosati, former foreign minister of Poland
Rudolf Scharping, former defence minister of Germany
Juraj Schenk, former foreign minister of Slovakia
Nuno Severiano Teixeira, former defence minister of Portugal
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland
Össur Skarphéðinsson, former foreign minister of Iceland
Javier Solana, former NATO secretary-general and foreign minister of Spain
Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, former defence minister of Norway
Hanna Suchocka, former prime minister of Poland
Szekeres Imre, former defence minister of Hungary
Tanaka Makiko, former foreign minister of Japan
Tanaka Naoki, former defence minister of Japan
Danilo Türk, former president of Slovenia
Hikmet Sami Türk, former defence minister of Turkey
The late John N. Turner, former prime minister of Canada*
Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium
Knut Vollebæk, former foreign minister of Norway
Carlos Westendorp y Cabeza, former foreign minister of Spain