It was a historic day for everyone who attended the First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) to the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was held in Vienna from 21 to 23 June 2022. In his opening remarks, the conference chair Alexander Kmentt of Austria described the TNPW as a “ray of hope” in a world that has dimmed – against the raging war in Ukraine, threats of the possible use of nuclear weapons as Russia and the United States trade barbs on how the war should end, and as NATO allies deliberate on how the aggression and transgression of a state’s sovereignty should be punished.
Against an imperiled world, the TPNW lights a path to peace, through disarmament, international cooperation and a collective will to free the world of nuclear weapons. Despite the lack of participation from the nuclear weapons states, the three-day meeting brought sixty-five member states, twenty-eight observer states – which included Germany, Australia, Belgium, Finland, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa – as well as several civil society organisations.
The 1MSP ended with the adoption of the Vienna Declaration, and a Plan of Action that provides a roadmap to implement the TPNW in all its aspects including the positive obligation to redress the harm caused by nuclear weapons use and testing.
The actions outlined include getting more countries to join the TPNW, establishing a scientific advisory board, a ten-year timeline for the destruction of nuclear weapons, helping people and places harmed by the impact of nuclear weapons, and inclusion of civil society and other stakeholders in the implementation of the Treaty –particularly affected communities – establishment of informal working groups to advance the action plan, as well as a commitment to gender and disarmament.
A common refrain that echoed throughout the 1MSP was the agreement that the TPNW does not seek to replace but instead builds on, contributes to, and complements the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). TPNW also complements the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and supports the instruments establishing the nuclear weapons free zones (NWFZs).
This view is of great significance to countries in Southeast Asia that share the norms of prohibiting nuclear weapons and have individually and collectively advocated for a global treaty on banning nuclear weapons.
For the majority of the states in the region that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the TPNW is a logical extension of the regional efforts toward strengthening the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANFWZ) Treaty, also known as the Bangkok Treaty of 1995. Like other nuclear-weapons-free zones, the SEANWFZ Treaty promotes nuclear prohibition norms both at the regional and global levels.
ASEAN’s support of the TPNW goes as far back as the participation of some of its members like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines in the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) meetings held during the negotiations and passage of the TPNW. The adoption of TPNW was therefore a welcome development for ASEAN as the Treaty provides the normative ballast to its SEANWFZ Treaty. To date, the Philippines is the sixth ASEAN member to ratify the landmark treaty, joining Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, and Cambodia.
To ASEAN states, the TPNW and SEANWFZ Treaty are mutually reinforcing. At the time, ASEAN states have expressed their unequivocal support for the NPT which remains the cornerstone of the global and non-proliferation and disarmament regime. To states in Southeast Asia, the promotion of mutually constitutive norms only serves to strengthen international efforts to protect humanity from the catastrophic impact of nuclear weapons.
Like the NPT, the TPNW provides ASEAN states another pathway towards the goal of upholding nuclear non-proliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia while pursuing their interest in peaceful applications of nuclear energy.
Aligned with the goals of NPT and TPNW, ASEAN has also stepped-up cooperation in promoting nuclear security. Working through regional regulatory mechanisms like ASEANTOM, member states have strengthened regional cooperation in addressing threats to nuclear security such as dealing with the potential consequences of nuclear or radiological incidents due to intentional (criminal or terrorist) acts.
Further, ASEAN-led institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), serve as important channels where member states – big and small engage each other on a range of critical issues on nuclear governance.
For example, through the ARF’s annual Inter-Sessional Meetings on Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ARF ISM on NPD), beyond dialogue, coordination, knowledge production and capacity-building take place and where regional agendas for advancing nuclear security, non-proliferation and disarmament are set.
For ASEAN member states, it is no longer just about pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons but also enhancing the region’s nuclear security capacity and enhancing regional cooperation against a rapidly changing geopolitical security environment.
By pursuing a multi-track approach in promoting SEANWFZ and supporting the TPNW while affirming the importance of the NPT, small and medium size states in Southeast Asia join the community of norm entrepreneurs that work toward strengthening mutually reinforcing regional and global norms of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
Despite the divided views on the TPNW and the lack of support from nuclear weapons states, ASEAN should build on the momentum of the 1MSP and support the TPNW Action Plan which offers concrete steps in moving the Treaty forward. Doing so demonstrates how smaller states are important actors in an array of non-proliferation architecture found across the globe. It also underscores how regional institutions are key stakeholders and partners in achieving the goal of nuclear disarmament.
About the Author
Mely Caballero-Anthony is Professor of International Relations and holds the President’s Chair of International Relations and Security Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She is also Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Prof Anthony is currently a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation (APLN) and is Secretary-General for the Consortium on Non-Traditional Security Studies in Asia (NTS-Asia). From 2013 to 2017, Prof Anthony served on the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (ABDM) and was its Chairperson in 2016. She was Director of External Relations at the ASEAN Secretariat from 2011-2012.
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