The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT) is at the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime. It grants the five nuclear-weapon states (NWS) recognised by the NPT – China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States of America (USA) – exclusive rights to possess nuclear arsenals, but also obliges them ‘to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race … and to nuclear disarmament’ (NPT Article VI). However, non-NWS have expressed dissatisfaction at the pace of nuclear disarmament and accused the NWS of failing to specify how they would design a ‘verifiable, enforceable nuclear disarmament regime’ under the NPT. The NPT is reviewed every five years. Failure to implement the results of the review conferences in 2000 and 2010 has been heavily criticised, as has the failure of the 2005 and 2015 conferences to produce final documents.
The UN’s global nuclear disarmament objective, first declared in 1946, has patently not been achieved. Global stocks of nuclear weapons are at their lowest in over 50 years, but there are still an estimated 14 935 nuclear weapons worldwide, many on high-alert status. The overall number of nuclear weapons worldwide has fallen – from a peak of 70 000 in the mid-1980s; however, all states with nuclear weapons are currently investing vast sums in modernising their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems, raising fears of a new arms race. Overall, the security environment has deteriorated. Rivalries between nuclear-armed states, including those not recognised under the NPT, at both global and regional level, have increased the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in an armed conflict. The USA has just announced its plan to loosen nuclear weapons constraints and develop more ‘usable’ warheads as part of its ongoing policy review. Meanwhile, cooperation between some NWS on nuclear security measures has witnessed setbacks. The number of states seeking to acquire nuclear weapons is likely to grow over the coming years.
Several UNGA resolutions from 2012 to 2015 created new momentum for nuclear disarmament efforts. In December 2012, an open-ended working group (OEWG) was set up to work on proposals to take multilateral nuclear-disarmament talks forward. The OEWG adopted a report in August 2016 recommending that a conference be held to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. On 27 October 2016, the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security of the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution (Resolution L.41) to convene a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, with a view to their elimination. The conference took place from 27 to 31 March and 15 June to 7 July 2017.