The annual General Debate of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly provides a good forum for countries to reflect on relevant developments in the past year and to spell out their priorities or vision of action for the next year. In performing this task for India, the country’s Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), Mr Amandeep Singh Gill, in his statement to the 72nd Session of the UNGA on 9 October 2017, flagged several issues. He referred to the vitiation of the international security environment and aggravation of the existing complexities of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation by DPRK's nuclear and missile tests; the frustration with the CD owing to the narrow views of national security and misguided notions of parity that were not allowing the organisation to even adopt a programme of work; technology push towards weaponisation of outer space; and, the growing rift between those who sought to delegitimise nuclear weapons and those that were increasing their reliance on them for national security.
Outlining a vision on how to get out of this conundrum, Amandeep Singh Gill emphasised the need to “bridge the growing divide on disarmament through dialogue and a renewed commitment to multilateralism.” His entire statement was peppered with an insistence on “universal commitment”, “agreed global and non-discriminatory multilateral framework”, and “build trust and confidence." Despite eschewing the recently concluded Ban Treaty, he nevertheless highlighted that India would “remain willing to work with its signatories in disarmament forums to reduce the role and military utility of nuclear weapons, prohibit their use under any circumstances and to eliminate them globally under international verification.” As is amply evident, the emphasis is firmly on consensus and multilateralism, or in other words, on the need for inclusivity.
These are not empty words. India is particularly suited to carry forward the agenda of universal nuclear disarmament for at least three reasons. Firstly, since India’s nuclear weapons are premised on the narrow, though critical, requirement of its security, if this situation could change as a result of universal nuclear disarmament, India would have little reason to keep these weapons. It looks upon them as a necessary evil owing to its security compulsions.
Secondly, as a non-NPT state, India has an appeal and reach to both the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), both of whom are increasingly divided on non-proliferation and disarmament today. NNWS have long complained of their being subjected to more stringent non-proliferation measures such as the Additional Protocol and restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing, even as the NWS have refused steps towards disarmament. India, which has strategic partnerships with nearly all major countries on both sides, could play the bridge to bring them together with some concrete suggestions to push the disarmament agenda.
Thirdly and most significantly, India has a doctrine that professes credible minimum deterrence and no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. Both these principles underwrite a narrow and precise role for nuclear weapons. The universal acceptance of a reduced role for nuclear weapons would be one effective way of achieving their eventual elimination. As a practitioner of both these attributes, India has the moral strength and practical experience of deterrence that can enable a shift to disarmament if conditions become conducive.
In fact, in response to a call made recently by the countries of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) asking India to join the NPT as an NNWS, India has once again presented two draft resolutions - ‘Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear weapons’ and ‘Reducing Nuclear Dangers’ - as meaningful steps towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. This is where the real focus of countries should be, instead of causing distractions about the universalisation of the NPT. The treaty is as universal today as it can ever get. A nuclear weapons possessing state for the last 20 years, India cannot join the NPT now as an NNWS. Yet, as repeated by many Indian official and non-official voices, the country remains committed to the principles and objectives of the treaty. The focus, therefore, of all states must be on improving the security situation for all, lest other NNWS find it necessary to walk out of the NPT.
Despite not being a member of the NPT, India is keen to have the treaty sustain itself for the sake of global security. The Indian Permanent Representative gave a befitting response to the current situation when he called back upon “our friends” to “renew” their agenda and “focus on the real implementation deficits on non-proliferation and disarmament.” Indeed, all like-minded countries that are really serious about nuclear disarmament would do well to mobilise global opinion and support for real measures that can help realise a nuclear weapons-free world. Calls such as those made by the NAC tend to divide countries, and are not only unnecessary but also unhelpful digressions.