Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 3 Autumn 2014
The case for nuclear disarmament is rooted in both concerns about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and about the ways in which international rights and responsibilities are exercised.
Hiroshima could happen again. The doctrines, actions, and postures by those that embrace the purported benefits of nuclear weapons seem more conducive to perpetuating, rather than renouncing, nuclear weapons retention.
Moreover, nuclear weapons continue to be framed as the supreme security guarantee for the majority of the world’s population—either through direct possession or by virtue of collective security arrangements. India and China alone account for more than 2.5 billion citizens whose governments continue to retain a nuclear arsenal and, with it, the distinct possibility of engaging in nuclear warfare.
This is why the primary rationale for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons rests in the possibility that a catastrophe could occur, by accident or design, and would likely involve greater numbers of vastly more powerful bombs than those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until all nuclear weapons are eliminated, an entirely preventable risk lingers. What drives the push for nuclear abolition is not just the recognition of what is essentially a truism—that if nuclear weapons exist, they might be used. It is also that:
- The unacceptability of this scenario has been exposed and denounced on political, humanitarian, strategic, economic, social, environmental, legal, and ethical grounds.
- The risk of nuclear weapons use is exacerbated with high-stakes international security tensions, especially between nuclear-weapons states.
- It defies logic that the odds in such crises will always favour nuclear restraint.
- We have the diplomatic and political capacity to begin a robust, multilateral process to achieve nuclear abolition.
- It is unlikely that this task will become easier if postponed.
No credible multilateral undertaking now exists that will lead to nuclear disarmament in the foreseeable future. Yes, there have been several efforts to further the nuclear disarmament agenda: from open-ended working groups to high-level meetings; from groups of governmental experts to informal consultations. But they have tended to navigate hypothetical waters and their proposals to pursue and achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world may never be implemented.
These worthy initiatives do address important matters: how particular issues could be tackled in an eventual nuclear disarmament process; which technical aspects would be relevant at various stages of negotiations; what verification mechanism would be in place under any number of theoretical scenarios; who might lead the process. And the same concerns are revisited through slightly different lenses year after year. The reality, however, is that there is no comprehensive abolition process to lead. Or disarmament to verify.
An increasingly loud denunciation of the intransigence of states with nuclear weapons can be heard around the globe. Calls for the immediate commencement of a serious process to eliminate nuclear weapons are more persistent.
In recent years, renewed attention to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has served as both catalyst and rallying point for a growing number of states and international civil society organizations. Key points include:
- The widespread and long-term devastation to ecosystems, the global economy, and human society from a limited nuclear-weapons exchange—even the end of human civilization and all life;
- The impossibility of providing effective emergency relief following the use of nuclear weapons; and
- Complete nuclear disarmament as the only certain way to avoid such a catastrophe.
From the humanitarian perspective the case is simple. Because the effects of the use of nuclear weapons are unacceptable, the risk that they might be used must be completely eliminated.
It’s a strong case, because it doesn’t require that debates about the usefulness of nuclear weapons be settled first. In other words, there doesn’t need to be consensus on the political or military role of nuclear weapons or on their effectiveness to deter aggression. So, the argument from a humanitarian perspective is not just that the benefits of nuclear weapons have been widely contested, but that any advantages—real or perceived—of nuclear weapons are outweighed by humanitarian considerations.
Further, the imperative for nuclear abolition does not only hold on humanitarian grounds. The difficulties in pursuing a world without nuclear weapons epitomize a broader multilateral system riddled with double standards. No realistic observer—in or out of government—would likely characterize the period since the NPT came into force as a time of significant progress in negotiating complete nuclear disarmament. The global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime constitutes a case study in inequitable, discriminatory global governance.
Nuclear-weapons states extol the virtues of nuclear weapons for safeguarding their national interests, but expect no one else to embrace the same rationale. They demand immediate, consistent compliance with the non-proliferation obligations of the NPT, but disregard their own responsibility to disarm. They consider nuclear weapons possession—or pursuit—by some states unacceptable, but seem content to accept the nuclear-weapons programs of military or economic allies, even if outside the NPT framework.
Some double standards are so entrenched that they hardly elicit any scrutiny. What does it say about the balanced application of international norms when each “P5 + 1” state (China, France, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, plus Germany) castigates Iran over its nuclear program, but has nuclear weapons on its own territory? The P5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council) are nuclear-weapons states under the NPT. Germany has U.S. bombs forward deployed on its soil at the disposal of NATO—in contravention of NPT provisions that specifically prohibit transferring and receiving nuclear weapons.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is often invoked to strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons. It is true that the use of nuclear weapons is incompatible with fundamental IHL precepts, including the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality, which govern the legal use of force and dictate that the anticipated civilian harm from an attack during conflict must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military gain.
However, IHL is insufficient to challenge the status quo. A key limitation of various resolutions, statements, and legal precedents rooted in IHL is that they specifically refer to the threat or use of nuclear weapons—not to their possession.
Nuclear-armed states claim that they are formally compliant with IHL provisions since they are neither threatening to use nor using nuclear weapons. Only if and when they do use nuclear weapons will they be in violation of IHL.
An argument could be made that mere possession amounts to threat. Nuclear weapons on high-alert increase the threat, as does the absence of a no-first-use policy. But not everyone would accept this reasoning. From the perspective of IHL, the case against possession is not nearly as strong as the case against use. And in the bizarre logic espoused by nuclear-armed states, there is no contradiction between possessing nuclear weapons and saying that they hope to never again use them.
In nuclear disarmament discussions there are frequent references to the research, development, possession, testing, stockpiling, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. In the end, the key feature is possession—which is where IHL falls short.
Given the inadequacy of IHL to fully address the risk posed by nuclear weapons, what is needed is a multilateral framework to unambiguously prohibit every dimension of nuclear weaponry—including possession—and to achieve the elimination of these weapons in a specified timeframe.
The continued existence of nuclear weapons is not a sign that the case for nuclear disarmament is flawed, but that some states refuse to accept it. For now, the “never again” mantra often voiced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors—or Hibakusha—is a plea, not a guarantee. □