Ending nuclear lawlessness

Zia Mian and M.V. Ramama
April 13, 2017
In the last week of March, at the United Nations in New York, history was made as diplomats from about 130 countries started formal talks on an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The goal is simple: declare it illegal for any country to produce, possess, stockpile, deploy, threaten to use, or use nuclear weapons. The final treaty could be approved and ready for signature before the end of this year.
Not surprisingly, none of the nine nuclear weapon countries showed up, India and Pakistan included. Numbers are not on the side of the nuclear weapons states, however. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, staged a public boycott outside the negotiating hall but managed to rally only a ragtag band of about 20 diplomats, mostly from Eastern Europe.
Ms. Haley claimed that, as a mother, “there is nothing that I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons” but she insisted that as an American “to ban nuclear weapons now would make us and our allies more vulnerable.” Clearly, however, she was not willing to accord the same protection to all countries. Ironically, it took an Indian Ambassador to inadvertently puncture this claim to nuclear privilege: “The language of privilege and entitlement has no place in today’s world.”
The nuclear weapons ban talks are the fulfilment of a long-standing demand that all countries deserve equal security. For decades, the world has pressed the handful of countries with nuclear weapons to free humanity from the nuclear danger. The very first resolution at the UN, passed in 1946, called for a plan “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”

The Cold War race

The driving force for the demand for a nuclear weapon-free world is a simple humanitarian impulse, the love and compassion for other human beings — as even Ms. Haley realised. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass destruction and history has shown their use brings immeasurable death and suffering. It was this realisation that led to the November 1961 UN General Assembly resolution that declared: “Any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity, and as committing a crime against mankind and civilisation.”
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union argued that the world was in a life or death struggle and nuclear weapons were a tragic necessity. Both sides knew no one would win in a nuclear war but they prepared to fight regardless. It was an insane and murderous logic: since neither side could allow the other to prevail, the only acceptable outcome to both was mutual assured destruction. A handful of states followed them down into this moral pit: answer mass destruction with mass destruction. Tragically, this included India, which was warned by none other than Mahatma Gandhi that “the moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs”.

Resistance of the nuclear club

The end of the Cold War offered the hope of a new start for the world. The UN General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. In July 1996, the court issued an advisory opinion, with two key conclusions. First, “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” And, second, “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” The door opened to a nuclear weapons ban.
In the 20 years since the court issued its judgment, countries with nuclear weapons have simply refused to comply. Rather than starting “negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament”, they have sought to block them, choosing to launch long-term costly programmes to maintain, modernise, and in some cases augment their nuclear arsenals.
Non-nuclear states and peace movement activists went back to basics. They launched an international effort to highlight nuclear weapons capacity to cause widespread suffering and indiscriminate harm. This won support from the majority of the world’s countries. At the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2014, officials from 158 countries showed up. This process led to the adoption of a historic resolution at the UN last October “to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.
India and Pakistan abstained from the UN vote. India’s main argument was that nuclear disarmament talks should only happen at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The reason was simple: the Conference on Disarmament works by consensus, which means any state can block progress. India used this feature to try to block the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, and Pakistan now uses this power to stop talks on a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Their prescription would mean continued inactivity on nuclear disarmament.

Time to force the issue

Most of the other nuclear weapons states, led by the U.S., did not try to hide behind diplomatic procedure. They simply insisted that the world wait for them to decide when they are ready to give up their nuclear weapons. After 70 years, the vast majority of countries around the world suspect that day may never come. After all, the world would never have banned slavery if we had to wait for all the slave owners to agree in advance that slavery was a bad thing and that they were ready to end it.
Rather than waiting for that day, the nuclear weapon-free countries have decided to take matters into their own hands. Their first step is the ban treaty. It lays down a clear marker for what weapons the world thinks no state can seek, possess and use in wartime. This is how other weapons have been banned, be they chemical weapons, biological weapons, landmines, or cluster munitions.
Of course, as has happened in Syria with chemical weapons, there are occasional violations of the international laws banning weapons of mass destruction, but the world now condemns such actions and decent people everywhere would support efforts to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. The possibility of violations has never stopped countries from passing laws and agreeing on what should be prohibited. India, Pakistan, and all of the nuclear weapons states should prepare to give up their arsenals or be treated as outlaws.
Zia Mian is co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security with the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. Views are personal


  1. All well and good, but what to do about North Korea. Can the “decent”

    nations disarm while Kim is still nuking up?

    * Michael Marien

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