The irony couldn’t be more profound. The primary obstacle facing global efforts to rid the world of the most destructive weapons ever created is the intransigence of the very states primarily tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5)—which are also the sole possessors of nuclear arsenals among parties to the nearly universal Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty–are the primary culprits in the thus-far futile efforts to eradicate this category of weapons altogether, and the proliferation pressures they inevitably engender.
This spring the P5 managed, yet again, to elude concrete undertakings to fully implement their obligation to irreversibly disarm when the 1st Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) met in Vienna. After two weeks of ritualistic diplomatic bickering, vague reiterations of support for the eventual goal of nuclear disarmament, and few concrete steps toward a global ban on these weapons, the troubling and unsustainable nuclear status quo remained entrenched. Nuclear weapons are acceptable for some, but not for others.
It was hard to shake a sense of déjà vu while in Vienna. The predictable lack of tangible progress. The finger-pointing. The matter-of-fact assertions that ‘now is not the time’ for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Months later, the absurdity of the situation lingers. Not because the gravity of the issue is in question, but because it is increasingly clear that nuclear weapons states (NWS) do not see nuclear abolition as anything more than an ethereal and distant objective.
Each NPT conference tends to be a frustrating exercise of give-and-take. The P5 make demands and offer little in return. Notwithstanding serious proliferation pressures, non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) have, by and large, adhered to their non-proliferation commitments under the NPT. But NWS selectively decide which parts of the historic NPT bargain should be complied with and continue to disregard their disarmament responsibility under Article VI. In what has to be one of the biggest spins in the history of multilateral diplomacy, the NWS consistently shift the focus away from their arsenals as the major obvious impediment to nuclear abolition by relentlessly championing the misleading notion that the risks of nuclear proliferation trump those of the very existence of nuclear weapons.
In a clear case of conflict of interest, the prospects for nuclear abolition ultimately hinge on the support of the very few that enjoy the perceived benefits of nuclear brinkmanship. The institutional framework for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation negotiations is ripe for a major overhaul. But this would require the acquiescence of the P5, who have repeatedly shown themselves reluctant to embrace meaningful measures that are seen to diminish their powers as permanent members of the UN Security Council –an anachronistic arrangement in its own right- and as the sole NPT members with nuclear weapons.
The argument for nuclear abolition is founded on a remarkably simple premise: nuclear weapons do not enhance the national security of those that hold them and can only result in the indiscriminate killing of many thousands of individuals. In a landmark 2011 resolution the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that any use of nuclear weapons would be unequivocally inconsistent with International Humanitarian Law, as their catastrophic effects cannot be contained in time or space.
Only by eliminating nuclear weapons can the insecurity they breed be curbed. Proliferation pressures—a by-product of nuclear weapons possession—can be more effectively tackled if a norm emerges making the possession of weapons by any actor unacceptable. Of course, such a norm must also include Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea—the nuclear armed states outside the Treaty.
New light needs to be cast on the severe state of disrepair of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. The international community has gotten accustomed, indeed complacent, to the business-as-usual attitude of nuclear weapons states regarding the blatant disregard for their obligation to disarm. The terms of the debate need to shift so that the primary onus is where it should be: on states with nuclear weapons.
Would-be proliferators must be dealt with, of course. But of late they have been carrying a disproportionate share of the burden and scrutiny within the nuclear regime, to the detriment of the attention given to the primary source of nuclear insecurity: the actual existence of nuclear weapons and the concomitant risk that they will be used by accident or design.
International civil society has an important role to play. By highlighting the foundational injustices underpinning the current nuclear disarmament regime, nongovernmental organizations can challenge the perception of nuclear weapons states as responsible international actors, even when the obstinacy of their position is clear.
One of the great difficulties in advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda is the disparity between the gravity of the issue and the level of public awareness on it. The media can play a decisive role in bridging this gap. Then it’s up to an informed public to demand appropriate action from their governments. In democratic societies, the media exist to reveal truth, uphold democratic values, and condemn fundamental societal wrongs. Nuclear disarmament cannot be dismissed as the concern of narrow interest groups. Humanity itself is the true ‘interest group’ in this case.
The Cold War is long over. The catastrophic consequences of the deliberate or accidental use of nuclear weapons are beyond dispute. Yet complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament remains elusive. Like addicts that agree in principle with the notion of eventually giving up their drug but cannot realistically envision themselves without it, nuclear weapons states remain unwilling to live up to their disarmament responsibilities.
The net result is that the nuclear annihilation threat—the Sword of Damocles that former U.S. president John F. Kennedy spoke of—will continue hanging over humanity until nuclear weapons are eliminated. Or the sword falls.