There’s a new sense of urgency for a nuclear weapons ban

News, Nuclear Weapons

Published by the Waterloo Region Record, May 17, 2013

By Cesar Jaramillo

All nations are equal, but some nations are more equal than others.

This was the unspoken Orwellian mantra of the preparatory committee meeting held in Geneva from April 22 to May 3 in advance of the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference.

More than 40 years after the treaty came into force, the global nuclear disarmament regime continues to perpetuate a two-tiered structure that divides those with nuclear weapons from those without.

Recent international crises — such as the one over North Korea’s recent nuclear weapons test or the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program — underscore the urgency of formulating clear norms that focus on behaviour, not actors. But two weeks of ritualized diplomatic bickering got the international community no closer to an unambiguous response to the most basic question: Is it acceptable for a nation to possess nuclear weapons?

“It depends,” seems the only response currently possible. If the nation in question is a permanent member of the UN Security Council — or a close ally of a permanent member — the answer would seem to be “yes.” But it should be an unequivocal “no” — for any state.

The message from civil society representatives attending the preparatory conference: if the complete and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons is ever to occur, there must be a global, legal ban on these instruments of mass destruction. And the diplomatic work must start now.

A new sense of urgency was created by highlighting the catastrophic consequences of any nuclear weapons use. Organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs have made it abundantly clear that there could be no effective response capacity in the event of a nuclear weapons exchange.

A joint statement presented by South Africa at the committee meeting, demanding nuclear abolition as a humanitarian imperative, was endorsed by more than 70 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states parties. But not one nuclear weapon state signed on. Their reaction: They are fully aware — and do not need to be reminded of — the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons.

On this point they are candid. It is precisely because they are aware of the destructive capacity of these weapons that they believe the deterrence doctrine is infallible. According to this logic, adversaries will refrain from attacking the vital interests of nuclear weapons states to avoid the unacceptably high costs of retaliation.

The problem is not lack of awareness about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use. Rather, the same undisputed fact has been used to formulate two vastly different narratives:

1) The high costs of nuclear warfare ensure that nuclear weapons will not be used.

2) As long as nukes exist there is no guarantee that they will not be used. Catastrophe remains a constant and unacceptable possibility.

The case has been made, repeatedly and compellingly, that nuclear weapons could be used by accident, miscalculation, or design. Assurances that they will never be used cannot be trusted. History has proven that human folly often leads to unwanted, disastrous outcomes.

So the objective cannot be nuclear weapons management or containment. Nor are sporadic reductions and reconfigurations of nuclear systems sufficient. Only complete and irreversible disarmament will do.

On the surface, even states with nuclear weapons agree. At virtually every Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting, a world free of nuclear weapons is presented as the ultimate goal. But disagreement arises over how to get there.

Nuclear weapons states insist on a strict step-by-step process. Steps like the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which some of these very states have failed to ratify. Like the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament, which has been deadlocked for more than 15 years. Or like the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, for which a preparatory conference was to be convened in 2012 — but never happened.

They seem to be missing the point. Nuclear weapons are uniquely dangerous. The gravity of the perils does not allow for baby steps — some of them backwards.

A wide-ranging group of current and former diplomats, scholars, and experts agree that the only sure approach is to codify the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself has called for a nuclear weapons convention or framework of mutually reinforcing legal instruments to be negotiated.

Despite its shortcomings, the global nuclear disarmament regime has been remarkably effective in curbing proliferation. But the primary onus for disarmament is on the states that hold nuclear weapons. Alas, nuclear weapons states still frame non-proliferation commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as hard obligations and the requirement that they disarm as a mere exhortation.

Complete nuclear disarmament will not happen overnight, but must not remain only an aspiration. At the very least, a time-bound decision to conscientiously start considering the challenges and implications of negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban is required by 2015.

Those still not convinced that a global ban on nuclear weapons is necessary for nuclear abolition should speculate on how the world could eliminate nuclear weapons without such a legal instrument. No feasible alternative comes to mind.

Cesar Jaramillo, program officer at Waterloo-based Project Ploughshares, sat on the international civil society panel that addressed national delegations during the 2013 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory conference at the United Nations in Geneva.

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