Much attention has been paid to Pakistan’s participation at the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, a growing international movement that calls for disarmament and a complete ban on nuclear weapons. Does Pakistan’s participation in the conferences signal a willingness to consider a ban on nuclear weapons, and eventual disarmament? In light of Pakistan’s nuclear policy, such a conclusion remains highly unlikely: over the years, Pakistan’s nuclear policy has remained remarkably uniform and distinctly India-centric. Recent developments in India suggest that for Pakistan, participation in the Humanitarian Initiative can at best be understood as the need to have a seat at the table and to enter the nuclear mainstream.

Amid frustration with the stalled Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) process, the 2010 NPT Review Conference witnessed the emergence of a group of states determined to place the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons on the NPT agenda. The 2010 NPT Review Conference ended with a ‘joint statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament’ that expressed concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons use.  This statement arguably commenced the slow introduction of an idealist, humanitarian element into the traditionally realist, Realpolitik language of nuclear weapons policy. The initiative has since grown apace: in March 2013, 127 countries and numerous civil society actors participated in the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, hosted by Norway. In February 2014, Mexico hosted the second conference on the Humanitarian Initiative, attended by 146 states. Most recently, in December 2014, Austria hosted the third conference, attended by 158 states.

The language of the Humanitarian Initiative presents a stark contrast to Pakistan’s nuclear policy. Unlike India, Pakistan has never presented a written nuclear doctrine, opting instead to pursue a strategy of deliberate ambiguity. Nevertheless, numerous statements from civilian and military leadership have allowed some central elements of the doctrine to emerge. Pakistan pursues a policy of credible, minimum deterrence that is unequivocally India-specific. The precise requirements for achieving minimum credible deterrence are not static and are constantly revised in line with a dynamic threat environment, as perceived by a handful of military leaders. Crucially, due to India’s conventional military advantages, Pakistan has refused to adopt a “no first use” policy, reserving the right should it feel sufficiently threatened. In elaborating this point, Lt. Gen (retired) Kidwai has identified four “red lines:” that India attacks and conquers a large part of Pakistan’s territory, India destroys a large part of its land or air forces, India attempts economic strangling of Pakistan, or creates domestic destabilization. Further details on policy remain elusive and have been marked by conjecture.

Ambiguous and opaque as it may be, the few publicized contours of Pakistan’s nuclear policy have, over past decades, remained highly uniform, with very few instances of mixed or erroneous messages. Yet, uniformity must not be confused with rigidity: by all indications, Pakistan’s nuclear policy is highly dynamic and responsive to threat perceptions from India. Recent events present a worrying trend. Under Prime Minister Modi, India, already the world’s largest arms importer is currently undergoing an unprecedented increase in defense spending and production. The recently revived US-India nuclear deal has long been viewed as a destabilizing factor in the nuclear equation: the deal would allow India to substantially increase its fissile material production capacity, and would alter Pakistan’s nuclear calculus.

In its search for a civil nuclear deal of its own, Pakistan has turned to China. Despite being a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, China is helping Pakistan build nuclear reactors just outside the major city of Karachi. The Pakistan-China deal, characteristically murky under the familiar garb of national security, is marked by limited civilian oversight and a dangerous disregard for public safety. In other words, when it comes to nuclear strategic aims, Pakistan remains a hard-nosed realist, with India squarely in its sights.

In light of this, Pakistan’s participation in the Humanitarian Initiative may at first seem like an anomaly. But given that India too has been a consistent participant, Pakistan’s participation is better understood as the diplomatic imperative to have a seat at the table, to not be left in the lurch. As a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Pakistan sees the Humanitarian Initiative conferences as presenting a unique chance to alter its nuclear pariah state status and to enter the mainstream – while bypassing a constrictive treaty that it views as discriminatory. It is a closely calculated move based on the beliefs that (a) the current initiative is many years away from delivering tangible results, and (b) any agreement emerging out of the initiative is likely to be more egalitarian, and thus an improvement on the current non-proliferation regime.

Let us not be naïve. Given the current nuclear and security environment in South Asia, Pakistan is not ready to begin talking about nuclear disarmament just yet. Still, consistent participation in the Humanitarian Initiative is a positive sign. Together with India’s, Pakistan’s continued participation at the conferences certainly helps the movement gain momentum, while exerting some amount of pressure on other nuclear weapons states to attend. And if history serves a lesson, movements like the Humanitarian Initiative are often larger than the sum of their parts. But for now, it appears that the initiative is unlikely to alter the South Asian nuclear dynamic.


Image: Adek Berry-AFP, Getty

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