It is not very difficult to come up with unimportant issues that get a lot of media attention, and vice versa. If you want an example of an important issue that does not get much media attention, it is the negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty by more than 130 states that is nowadays going on in the UN framework. The result is that many students of international relations, including foreign policy officials, are not even aware of the existence of these negotiations.
To imagine a world without nuclear weapons is a bridge too far for many who are in the daily business of diplomacy. Nevertheless, despite all skepticism, the odds are that the Nuclear Weapon States – that excel in their absence at the negotiation table – will already this year be confronted with a fait accompli. The odds are indeed that nuclear weapons will be declared illegal, maybe already in the summer of 2017.
To clarify, it is not only the use of nuclear weapons that will be declared illegal. It is also the threat of use, their acquisition, possession, financing, and transportation that will be banned. And rightly so. The use of nuclear weapons cannot be squared with modern international humanitarian law. By definition, the use of hydrogen weapons – that are a million times more destructive as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) that was recently used by the US in Afghanistan – cannot make a distinction between civilians and military, a key principle in international law. If chemical and biological weapons are declared illegal, if landmines and cluster munitions are banned, it is an anomaly that nuclear weapons have not been banned yet.
During the Cold War, the humanitarian debate was snowed under by the deterrence paradigm. Since ten years, a group of NGOs (including the International Red Cross and ICAN) and like-minded stated (such as Norway, Switzerland and Austria) have successfully reintroduced this humanitarian narrative: instead of looking to the practice of non-use of atomic weapons amongst states (= deterrence), it focuses on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons for individual human beings, for societies and for the globe as such. What will happen if nuclear weapons are reintroduced on the battlefield, be it in an authorized, unauthorized or accidental way?
Three intergovernmental conferences have been held in the period 2013-2014. Testimonies by people who have suffered from the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons tests, and testimonies by scientific experts showed very clearly that none of our societies are ready to manage the aftermath of nuclear weapons use. In all likelihood our societies will never be able to cope with such catastrophes, they concluded. One study by atmospheric experts demonstrated that the use of 50 atomic weapons by both India and Pakistan will result in lowering the regional temperatures due to the blocking of sun light, yielding a substantial reduction in food production (especially rice), that may lead to the starvation of 1-2 billion people, reconfirming the nuclear winter theories of the 1980s. It should be noted that that study only talks about the use of 100 nuclear weapons out of a worldwide arsenal of 15,000 nuclear weapons. It is clear that we are playing with fire.
Advocates of nuclear weapons point to the deterrence capabilities of nuclear weapons. While nobody denies these capabilities, the humanitarians clarify that these deterrence advantages are only for the happy few (and their allies), while the negative consequences of their use will be felt around the world and extended over many generations.
Most importantly, the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970) – obliges the five recognized nuclear weapon states to start multilateral negotiations to disarm their nuclear weapons. Admittedly, the Treaty does not specify a deadline. The negotiations have not even be started. It is abundantly clear that there are limits to the patience of the overall majority of the NPT members, which are the non-nuclear weapon states. All states in the world except the US, Russia, China, France and the UK (which are the official Nuclear Weapon States) have promised under the Treaty never to acquire nuclear weapons. They do fulfill their treaty obligations on a daily basis, even if they could use nuclear weapons as security or prestige elements too. The non-Nuclear Weapon States (at least those that are not allied to a Nuclear Weapon State) believe that the Nuclear Weapon States do not fulfill their disarmament obligations. Not only are there still 15,000 nuclear weapons around more than 45 years after the NPT’s entry into force, all nuclear weapon states are also modernizing their nuclear arsenals, making a mockery of their disarmament obligations under the NPT. Or at least that is the perception by the overall majority of the NPT members.
Some advocates of nuclear weapons believe that the Ban Treaty, which is complimentary to the NPT, will not make any difference as long as the Nuclear Weapon States are not involved. This is wishful thinking. Just as many of them never believed that the Humanitarian Initiative would be successful starting up and concluding negotiations on a Ban treaty, they will be proven wrong. Of course, the Ban Treaty will not automatically reduce the nuclear weapons arsenals. However, the Ban Treaty will strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons beyond the existing nuclear taboo. The hope is that this strengthened norm will reinforce those voices inside the nuclear weapon states that are critical of spending so much money on weapons that cannot be used and that in the near future will be regarded as illegal by most of the states around the world. The Ban treaty in other words will shame and stigmatize nuclear weapons and their possessors (and their allies). It is hard to believe that public opinion in democratic states that are nowadays appalled by the use of chemical weapons will remain silent with respect to the threat of use of much more destructive weapon systems, which in addition give the wrong signal to rogue states like North Korea and Iran. If we do not do anything, the world will be confronted with more nuclear weapon states, and in all likelihood the renewed use of nuclear weapons, one day. The only solution to prevent their use is to eliminate them.
The non-nuclear weapon states are not able to convince the Nuclear Weapon States to get rid of their nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Weapon States should themselves become convinced that the latter is in their national interest. Realists and foreign policy hawks like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn already believe so. The Ban Treaty is the best instrument to take that agenda forward, as classic arms control is already stalled for more than two decades. It is understandable that the Nuclear Weapon States do not like the initiative that is perceived as radical. It is not. It is a relatively small step in the direction of getting rid of nuclear weapons. Everybody (including the Nuclear Weapon States) will have to learn to live with the Ban Treaty and act according to its objectives. If not, an even bigger clash about the future place of nuclear weapons in international politics will take place.
Tom Sauer is Associate Professor in International Politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen (Belgium).
Is a nuclear weapons free world desirable ? If so, is it feasible (and how)? If not, what is the endgame (more proliferation, renewed use of atomic weapons, ...)?
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