Wallström: A nuclear-weapon-free world is achievable

A treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons was adopted at the UN General Assembly in July this year. The Government will now conduct a thorough impact assessment with a view to signing the treaty, says Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström.

Nuclear weapons are the single greatest threat to humanity and their continued existence must be seen as an international failure. Today's nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 72 years ago, and could destroy cities with millions of inhabitants. Such an attack could also trigger a chain reaction that could lead to a nuclear war with immense humanitarian consequences. This is why it was important for the Government to vote in favour of the treaty negotiated at the United Nations General Assembly in July. History has shown that there is no other path to take.

With this treaty, 122 UN Member States are now prepared to support and strengthen international norms against the use and possession of nuclear weapons. This prohibition makes nuclear weapons the last weapons of mass destruction to be banned; biological and chemical weapons were banned by international conventions in 1975 and 1993 respectively.

Ever since the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons became clear, extensive diplomatic efforts have been made to have them abolished and to promote disarmament. Thanks to enormous efforts, the Cold War nuclear arsenals that reached a record-high of around 70 000 nuclear weapons have been reduced to today's approximately 15 000. South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus also completely eliminated their nuclear weapons arsenals during that time. This is a great success, and shows that disarmament is possible. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the NPT and often regarded as the cornerstone of international disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, has been of fundamental importance here. Two key pillars of the NPT are to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states than the five that already possessed nuclear weapons when the NPT entered into force – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France – and to ensure that these five states reduce their arsenals.

However, a historical review of the NPT should also note the failures that have led to the emergence of new nuclear-weapon states. Unfortunately, we also see that many of the original nuclear-weapon states are now modernising their arsenals in contravention of the NPT's fundamental and long-term objective of disarmament.

It is against this background that support for a total ban on nuclear weapons has grown.

In December 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to launch the negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The voting result was 123 in favour, 16 abstentions and 38 against; Sweden was among the European countries in favour, along with Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and Switzerland. This year, four weeks of intensive negotiations took place but, unfortunately, without the participation of the nuclear-weapon states.

No NATO member, with the exception of the Netherlands, participated in the negotiations, citing that nuclear weapons remain a core component of NATO's defence strategy. In the final vote, however, the Netherlands chose to vote against. Sweden regrets that not more countries relying on nuclear deterrence followed the Netherlands' example by taking part. It goes without saying that dialogue and cooperation between nuclear-weapon states, their allies and non-nuclear-weapon states are vital for long-term and sustainable results.

Sweden's vote in favour of the treaty was entirely in line with our disarmament policy as part of a broader security policy. Our policy to address the deteriorating security situation in our neighbourhood is based on a combination of military non-alignment, active foreign policy, deepened defence policy cooperation, including with NATO, and enhanced national defence capability.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has discussed the issue on a number of occasions with the international law and disarmament delegation of experts in the field. The Committee on Foreign Affairs has been informed about the ongoing efforts, and meetings have been held with civil society organisations both in Sweden and internationally.

The treaty contains a number of prohibitions against activities involving nuclear weapons. It also addresses accession to the treaty by nuclear-weapon states, the obligation to provide assistance for the victims of the use of nuclear weapons, and measures towards environmental remediation. We would have liked the treaty to be clearer in a number of areas. One of these concerns the NPT, which in Sweden's view remains the cornerstone of disarmament and non-proliferation. Furthermore, we would have liked to see much stronger verification possibilities than the text currently provides for. Sweden pushed hard for these issues during the negotiations but unfortunately without success.

It is clear that the questions concerning the interpretation of the treaty cannot be left unanswered. The period of time between when the vote took place in the UN and when the treaty opens for signature is also unusually short. The Government therefore intends to conduct a thorough impact assessment before deciding whether to sign the treaty. It is also important to emphasise that we conduct our security and foreign policy assessments as a militarily non-aligned country with its own considerations and decisions. A decision to later ratify the treaty requires the approval of the Riksdag.

Our initial assessment shows that our bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation, including our partnership with NATO and cooperation with the United States, France and the United Kingdom, can continue. The treaty also includes prohibitions against assisting in the development, testing and manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Under our interpretation of 'assist', our defence cooperation with nuclear-weapon states is not affected as it does not include nuclear weapons. During the negotiations, it became clear that the other participating countries had the same interpretation. Our engagement in the negotiations underlines the position that has been Sweden's foreign policy for decades, that our voice for disarmament can go hand in hand with responsible security cooperation.

The treaty is an important step in strengthening the norms against the use and possession of nuclear weapons, and the Government's support for the treaty continues. We will now conduct an impact assessment with a view to signing the treaty – signing without having conducted a thorough assessment would be irresponsible. Since taking office, the Government has once again placed Sweden at the centre of global disarmament efforts. While working to enhance our own conventional military capacity and increase our international cooperation, we also understand the importance of dialogue, diplomacy and efforts to promote peace. A nuclear-weapon-free world cannot be achieved through naivety or passivity but by striking a balance between pragmatism and clear ideals. We intend to stand up for our ideals at a time when doing so is crucial, but also because we know that Sweden's security requires long-term and sound decisions.

Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Published in Svenska Dagbladet 25 August 2017