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Commentary | 12 August 2015

Nordic Countries Should Support a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Image of Tytti Erästö

Tytti Erästö |Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, Washington D.C.

Nordic Countries Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Global Security

While united in their concern over the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, none of the Nordic countries have yet joined the humanitarian pledge to fill the legal gap with respect to these weapons and international humanitarian law. Only in Norway is that option being debated, but NATO membership seems to place limits on the country’s ability to promote this cause.

The hesitation in taking what seems like the logical next step in the process which highlights the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapon use has to do with the unwritten rules governing international politics on nuclear weapons. Although the incompatibility between these weapons and international humanitarian law principles, such as proportionality and discrimination, became clear on their first use 70 years ago, memories gradually faded together with related ethical concerns. Instead, the discourse on nuclear weapons became dominated by the military-strategic language of the nuclear weapon states (NWS), which they still use to justify the qualitative modernisation and the sluggish pace of reducing overall arsenals. The resulting frustration among non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) gave impetus to the humanitarian initiative. After having emerged at the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the theme was explored by a series of three conferences that began in Oslo in 2013. While also presenting new evidence underlining the risks, the most important function of the process has been to challenge the dominant discourse on nuclear weapons by highlighting the obvious contradictions between them and human rights.

The NWS boycotted the first two conferences and issued a joint statement saying that the humanitarian process “will divert discussion away from practical steps to create conditions for further nuclear weapons reductions”. Arguably concerned that the initiative would drive a wedge between the NWS and the NNWS, Finland and Sweden refrained from supporting the joint statements by the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in 2012 and 2013. They nevertheless joined the statement last year, agreeing with 153 other countries that it “is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”, and that the only way to ensure this is their total elimination. Interestingly, no such doubts were held by Denmark, Iceland and Norway. As the only NATO members, they supported the humanitarian statement from the beginning, including the formulation “under any circumstances” which runs counter to the NATO alliance’s doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

While the humanitarian language seems to have gradually made its way to high-level nuclear discourse, the controversy now centres on its legal implications. This was apparent in the heated exchanges at this year’s Review Conference between NWS and the supporters of the humanitarian pledge. The pledge set out to “pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and is now backed by more than half of the countries in the world. Still, none of the Nordic countries have joined it. Norway’s policy looks particularly inconsistent given that it profiled itself as one of the champions of the humanitarian cause. While the majority of the Norwegian parliament would like their country to support related negotiations, the government holds back, referring to constraints imposed by NATO membership. Such considerations apparently also underlie the decision by Denmark and Iceland not to join the pledge.

As current NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has suggested however, Alliance membership is not necessarily an obstacle to promoting the ban treaty. Indeed, in recent decades NATO has significantly reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and committed itself to the goal of a nuclear-free world—despite the fact that this commitment is undermined by outdated first-use doctrine and the modernisation of militarily irrelevant tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. There is thus not only room but also a need to readjust the Alliance’s ambivalent nuclear policy. What better way to galvanize NATO’s stalled nuclear debate than its members joining the humanitarian pledge?

While supporting a nuclear weapons ban might have political costs for NATO members, this is not the case with Finland and Sweden. Yet the two stand out as the only non-aligned EU members that are still hedging their bets on this issue. This probably has to do with their ongoing concerns about the divisive effects of the humanitarian process, as well as scepticism about the ban treaty, which none of possessors of nuclear weapons seem likely to join. The future prospect of NATO membership might be an additional factor explaining the Finnish and Swedish cautiousness.

Weighed against potential benefits however, such cautiousness seems unwarranted. Bans on other weapons of mass destruction are relatively effective even when not universal. By stigmatising the possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons, a ban treaty could add much-needed urgency to disarmament. As for international polarisation, this is not the cause but a symptom of a deeper problem of the lack of nuclear disarmament, which apparently cannot be addressed in the NPT context. Ban negotiations would add to NPT legitimacy by complementing it in an area where it has proven weakest. The humanitarian pledge also does not predetermine the form of the legal instrument to be negotiated. As stated in a recent paper by the New Agenda Coalition, the options include a detailed and lengthy convention, a short ban treaty simply outlawing nuclear weapons and leaving details to be sorted out later, or a broad framework agreement incorporating separate instruments covering different areas. Relevant negotiations would nevertheless prompt the kind of re-consideration of the practical obstacles for a nuclear-free world that is clearly a precondition for making such a vision into reality.

There is much to gain and little to lose from supporting the long-overdue prohibition of nuclear weapons. This applies particularly to Finland and Sweden, who should use their room for manoeuvre as non-aligned countries and join the humanitarian pledge. Beyond adding normative force to this global undertaking, it could give the crucial push for fellow Nordic countries to follow suit, empowering the advocates of disarmament within NATO and the EU, and paving the way for both institutions to gain credibility in this vital area of international security.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.