Interregnum: The return of ‘responsibility’

In New York, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference starts its last week where the crunch approaches to offer answers to the future of nuclear nonproliferation. But while the specifics themselves are intriguing (a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, bringing the nuclear outliers into the treaty, prospective penalties for violation), the broader contours of the debate seem rather reminiscent to another major multilateral conference six months ago in Copenhagen.

A divide between the haves and have-nots; demands for the former to fulfil obligations to the latter; the transfer of technology; multilateral deadlock – is this a description of nonproliferation or climate diplomacy? There are always hard bargains to be struck in reaching deals, whether on specific issues or at a more comprehensive level, but fundamentally at the heart of the two problems is the question about whether the haves are meeting their promises to the have-nots. Rhetoric about ‘responsibility’ is now striking back, to the discomfort of the haves.

The big ‘responsibility’ idea at the turn of the millennium was about human rights, and in particular, on questions of humanitarian intervention. Many developing countries, and China especially so, faced a redefinition of what the responsibilities of sovereign statehood were, in the form of respect for human rights and the protection of citizens within their own territory. The responsibility to protect one’s citizens was the new doctrine that was one of the subjects of the 2005 World Summit, qualifying the principle of noninterference such that the gross violation of human rights within a given territory was a legitimate subject of concern for the international community.

But now, the demand for ‘responsibility’ comes from developing countries to developed ones, on both climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. In the first place this is a legal feature  – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change includes the clause (Article 4(7))  that action by developing countries is dependent on the extent to which developed countries fulfil their commitments; the NPT, similarly (Article VI), demands that all parties “pursue negotiations in good faith” towards nuclear disarmament. As far as I’m aware, these are pretty unique features of international treaties.

There is, of course, a matter of interpretation as to what it actually entails. But the have-nots in both – the non-Annex I developing countries to the Kyoto Protocol, and non-nuclear-weapon parties to the NPT – argue that further action on their part is difficult to justify in the face of the failure by Annex I parties and the five recognized nuclear powers to live up to their own obligations in the respective treaties.

None of this is new, in the sense that both treaty instruments are not recent developments (the FCCC was agreed in 1992, and the NPT in 1968). But there’s a certain sense now that the haves have had sufficient time to meet their obligations, whether on climate finance and actual emission reductions or on good faith disarmament negotiations.

The haves, for their part, realize that the moral, if not necessarily legal, onus of action is now on them. So the promise of fast-start climate finance is aimed to put some meat onto the bones of the promise of meeting the additional costs of developing-country action on climate change, and declarations about the size of the US nuclear arsenal are aimed as a key step to demonstrating US ‘good faith’. They realize (or at least I would hope they do), that it would be unrealistic, and unreasonable to expect progress in the absence of such quid-pro-quos. A failure to do so runs the risk of giving a free pass to Ahmedinejad-style claims of conspiracy by the haves to maintain their advantages and keep the world as it is.

Is the return of responsibility a deal-breaker? Not in and of itself, because while the past record matters, what is on the table at any given moment surely matters more.

Expectations and trust are shaped by past interactions and the slate can’t ever be wiped clean. For those who have been promised action, broken promises loom large in the memory (far more than they do for the parties breaking the promises and who promise to do better next time…and the time after). Nevertheless, endless finger-pointing to the past, while inescapable, runs the risk of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

And – here’s the important bit – endless finger-pointing only works as a justification for inaction when nothing is being offered in return. So rhetoric about responsibility, while principled, need not be a permanent state of affairs. If a satisfactory compromise is available for the have-nots, then I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the energy behind the demands for responsibility will dissipate. But whatever a satisfactory compromise looks like, it will have to go much further than the original.

For now, though, the pendulum of responsibility has swung back towards the carbon-hungry and nuclear-armed haves. And even on its own terms, that is a pretty telling indicator of the changing times in which we live.

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