Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Credit: United States Department of State.

The Erosion of The International Arms Control Regimes

By Sergio Duarte

The writer is an Ambassador, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, and President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

NEW YORK. 9 August 2023 (IDN) — Nuclear weapons burst into the international scenario 21 days after the signature of the Charter of the United Nations. For that chronological reason, the Charter does not mention nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the worldwide shock and horror following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led the General Assembly (GA) to adopt its very first resolution in January 1946, establishing a Commission charged with presenting proposals for eliminating atomic weapons from national arsenals. Later in the same year the same Session of the GA recognized the urgency of the need to prohibit and eliminate atomic and all other major weapons adapted to mass destruction. 

This was seventy-eight years ago. The Commission created by Resolution no. 1 was soon disbanded and attention shifted from elimination to “partial measures” in the nuclear field that were supposed to provide a basis for further progress. Over the following decades, a number of multilateral agreements aiming at curbing the spread of nuclear weapons were adopted and some limitation measures were reached.

Two categories of weapons of mass destruction, chemical and bacteriological, have been banned by multilateral conventions.  Nuclear weapons, however, still haunt humankind. Indeed, the nine countries possessing them are busy improving their arsenals by incorporating new technologies that enhance their speed, range and destructive power, in what can be described as “technological proliferation”.

Unilateral decisions or bilateral agreements succeeded in reducing the staggering amount of atomic weapons that existed at the height of the Cold War. Despite such reductions, an estimated 13.000-plus such weapons still exist today. At present, most of the arms limitation agreements between the United States and Russia have elapsed or been abandoned. The only one remaining is the New START Treaty, concluded in 2010, which has been unilaterally suspended by Russia.

Currently, no agreed limitations are in force for those two states or any other nuclear power, for that matter. The elimination of nuclear weapons and means of their delivery remains at best a distant objective for those that possess them.

Resolution 1887 of the Security Council of the United Nations, adopted in 2008 reaffirmed that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery constitutes a threat to international peace and security. No one disputes this statement, but most would agree that the very existence of nuclear weapons is what poses a major threat to world security.

No nuclear weapon has ever been destroyed or dismantled by virtue of a multilateral treaty. In contrast, the Antarctic Treaty (1961), the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Seabed Treaty (1972) banned such weapons where they did not yet exist. Latin American and Caribbean countries succeeded in negotiating a treaty to prohibit such weapons in their territories, a pioneer initiative later emulated by 113 States in four other similar zones as well as by Mongolia.

In the 1960’s the two major powers negotiated between themselves the main features of a draft treaty and presented it to the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC). The final text failed to achieve consensus in the Committee but was adopted by General Assembly and became the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970.

During the following 20 years or so many States gradually dropped their initial reservations and by the end of the 1990’s the overwhelming majority had acceded to it. The NPT is considered “the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime”. Only four states are not Parties to the NPT; all of them acquired nuclear weapons.

The NPT has been instrumental in preventing non-nuclear States from acquiring nuclear weapons or developing nuclear explosive devices. Episodes of actual or alleged lack of compliance by a few non-nuclear states with their obligations have been to a large extent resolved by a combination of political and economic pressure, including sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, coupled with diplomatic means.

However, deep differences of view among the parties of the NPT remain. Many non-nuclear Parties see lack of interest on the part of the nuclear-armed ones to act decisively towards eliminating their arsenals in fulfillment of Article VI of the instrument. Dissatisfaction has flared up on many occasions, at times threatening to unravel the non-proliferation and arms control architecture.

Six out of the ten Review Conferences convened so far ended without agreeing on a final document, including the last two, in 2015 and 2022. This state of affairs is detrimental to the authority and credibility of the non-proliferation regime and does not bode well for the upcoming Review Conference set for 2026.

A number of disquieting factors add to this somber picture. The Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear test explosions in all environments is not yet in force due to the lack of the necessary signature and/or ratification of eight of the 44 States specifically mentioned in its Article 14. The continuing absence of action by those eight States to start and/or complete internal requirements for signature and ratification reduces confidence in the effectiveness of the universal prohibition it intended to institute.

Another disturbing factor is the continuing inability of the multilateral machinery created by the I Special Session of the General Assembly on Disarmament (SSOD I) to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to it. Since the mid 1990’s no meaningful consensus on matters of substance has been reached in the deliberative multilateral instances at the United Nations, the Disarmament Commission (UNDC) and the First Committee of the General Assembly. Moreover, since the 1990’s the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has been unable to agree even on a program of work.

The international security system based on the Charter of the United Nations and developed over the past 78 years failed to prevent conflict in many parts of the world. Episodes of aggression and breaches of the peace continue to provoke death and destruction, particularly in developing areas, causing huge humanitarian crises and massive population movements that fuel xenophobic reactions in developed States and increase inequalities.

The Security Council, primarily responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, has been incapable of acting in situations of special interest to any of its permanent members, thus effectively shielding such states from any measure they do not agree with. In fact, the composition of the Council no longer reflects the geopolitical reality of today’s world and the changes in security perceptions since 1945.  Its reform is long overdue.

Recurring tensions between major nuclear powers as well between regional rivals threaten stability and the maintenance of international peace and security. Nuclear armed States adhere to military doctrines that contemplate the use of atomic armament in the circumstances that they consider necessary.  Until recently, these states used to argue that the existence of nuclear weapons was responsible for the absence of a war in Europe since the end of World War II.

That argument can hardly be sustained in the face of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Two European countries—one of which possesses nuclear weapons—are actually at war and three other nuclear states are involved, plus NATO, a nuclear alliance. Threats of use of these weapons have been made more or less stridently since the beginning of the hostilities and should not be played down.

If a nuclear conflict erupts, the whole architecture of international instruments on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament may not survive and the order established by the Charter of the United Nations may itself be endangered.

One important development since the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT was the promotion by many countries of the need for serious reflection upon the catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear explosives. Three international conferences in 2012 and 2014 debated the humanitarian emergency and the risks associated with nuclear weapons and concluded that no nation or group of nations would be able to deal effectively with the humanitarian impact of their use.

These conferences found that such risks are far higher and more widespread than previously assumed, and that countering them should thus be at the center of global efforts related to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Up to now, the most important result of those initiatives has been the negotiation and adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). It derives directly from the provision contained in Article VI of the NPT that call on each state party to pursue negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.

This is precisely what has been done. The Treaty is the first piece of legally binding international law aimed at banning nuclear weapons on a global scale.  Besides prohibiting the use or threat of use of such weapons, the TPNW proscribes their development, production, transfer, possession and stockpiling as well as their stationing in third countries.

It also establishes obligations of assistance to the victims of the use or tests as well as measures of remediation of environmental damage in areas contaminated in consequence of such activities. It is imperative that a large majority of non-nuclear states, ideally all of them, demonstrate clearly their rejection of nuclear weapons by adhering to the TPNW. So far the Treaty has 95 signatories, 68 of which have already ratified it.

The crisis of the international framework of institutions and agreements on nuclear disarmament makes clear that treaties are effective and durable as long as they are perceived to be in the interest of all parties. Confidence and credibility are essential ingredients of successful pacts between nations or groups of nations.

Further erosion of the disarmament architecture threatens the security of all States and must be prevented through cooperation and negotiation, taking into account the legitimate interests of the international community as a whole. Real security cannot be based on the threat of destruction of human civilization. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Credit: United States Department of State.

This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 9 August 2023.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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