Image source: SIPRI - Photo: 2023

The Nuclear Arms Control Architecture is Collapsing

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS | 25 November 2023 (IDN) — A weeklong meeting of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), takes place in the rare context of two devastating conflicts involving nuclear powers: Russia vs. non-nuclear Ukraine and Israel vs non-nuclear Hamas, along with the growing nuclear threats from North Korea.

The meeting, scheduled to take place at the UN from 27 November to 1 December, is expected to review progress on the Treaty’s implementation and an agreement on action to further strengthen it, according to the 2017 Nobel Laureate International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

“This meeting and the Nuclear Ban Week matter because urgent action is needed to eliminate nuclear weapons given the threat that they could be used in conflict is at its highest since the Cold War due to Russia’s nuclear threats around its invasion of Ukraine, the conflict involving nuclear-armed Israel in Gaza and acute nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula,” said ICAN, one of the leading anti-nuclear civil society organizations (CSOs).

Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute, told IDN the dangers of miscalculation of a technical or human error leading to horrific results are higher now than ever before. 

“The intransigence of the nuclear weapons states (NWS) to live up to their ongoing legal obligations under the NPT and International Court of Justice’s unanimous decision to engage in good faith disarmament negotiations, evidenced by their (NWS’s) modernization and/or expansion programs and failure to live up to previous commitments, will be highlighted,” he pointed out. 

“Frustration will increase, and zealotry will be heard,” warned Granoff.

“The most important step that could be taken would be for delegations of heads of state from TPNW nations going directly to Washington and Moscow and meeting both on-and-off the record, at the highest levels possible, to impress upon the leaders—that despite all other issues (including war) and making sure that nuclear weapons remain inadmissible*—is imperative and that confidence-building measure on this subject must be created immediately.”

The Six Nation Initiative (in May 1984), where the heads of state of India, Greece, Tanzania, Sweden, Mexico and Argentina** met and moved the leaders of the US and the Soviet Union to make progress on nuclear threat reduction and disarmament was successful.

“Today, we need more than just six leaders of nations to step up. All nations that support the TPNW must strategize and come up with a plan to influence the states with the weapons and this must be done immediately and done with both public outreach and with diplomatic discretion.” 

Only he who keeps his eye fixed on the horizon will find the right road.”

Regarding today’s value of the TPNW, never forget the maxim of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold: “Only he who keeps his eye fixed on the horizon will find the right road,” declared Granoff.

Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a former member of the Eminent Persons Group for Nuclear Disarmament established by the foreign minister of Japan, told IDN that following the Trinity nuclear test detonation of 16th July 1945, nuclear scientist Leó Szilárd observed that, “almost without exception, all the creative physicists had misgivings about the use of the bomb” and further that “Truman did not understand at all what was involved regarding nuclear weapons”.

Unfortunately, said Rauf, this observation still rings true when it comes to leaders of today’s nuclear-weapon possessor States as well as of most of their diplomats and those of 30-plus countries in military defence arrangements underpinned by nuclear weapons.

Thus, it is no surprise that these countries relying on nuclear weapons continue viscerally reject the TPNW and peddle false narratives such as that the TPNW undermines the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), he added.

The nine nuclear weapons states are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the US, UK, France, China and Russia, plus India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. 

The nuclear-armed and their client States refuse to accept any benchmarks, targets or timelines for nuclear disarmament. The new flavour of the day is the amorphous concept of nuclear risk reduction.

Rauf said the “captive nations” of nuclear deterrence—still continue to downplay the catastrophic risks and devastating effects of nuclear weapons.

In response, most of the TPNW and non-aligned States counter that nuclear risk reduction is no substitute for nuclear disarmament, as does the UN Secretary-General.

On 25 September, marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, UN Secretary-General António Guterres clearly stated that, “The only way to eliminate the nuclear risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons” and urged countries to work together to banish these “devices of destruction to the history books, once and for all”.

“The vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons is receding as the nuclear arms control architecture patiently built up over the past 50 years is collapsing before our eyes”, warned Rauf.

“Nuclear arms control fatigue is increasing and in light of the Ukraine war it even has become controversial. It is highly disturbing that when nuclear weapon use is discussed, the vocabulary used is very often conveniently sanitized. The destruction by thermonuclear war and resulting humanitarian and environmental consequences are downplayed and substituted by antiseptic concepts of nuclear deterrence”.

An international order anchored in legal norms and treaties, he argued, offers the best hopes for survival. In this regard the NPT and the TPNW could establish a “right to nuclear peace” and stop nuclear weapons becoming a “perpetual menace”.

On a positive note, the TPNW is in the process of establishing a jus cogens rule (fundamental principle under international law) creating an erga omnes (obligation) for all States to renounce nuclear weapons.

Today’s world of puny men and a ‘Ship of Fools’

In this context, it is worth recalling Einstein’s prophetic words that, “Our defence is not in armaments, nor in science…Our defence is in law and order” —something in short supply today at the international level.

“In today’s world of puny men controlling 12,500 nuclear weapons, with 2,000 on ready to launch status, one may well recall the allegorical reference in (Book VI of) Plato’s Republic, about a “Ship of Fools”, in which the world might be depicted as a ship crewed by idiots and nit-wits unaware of their dysfunctional plight on a choppy sea.”

“We may stretch the allegory to cognitive dissonance about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons to a ship carrying the multitude of the world’s population along with the worshippers of nuclear weapons, and, far from being allowed to drift aimlessly, the ship is being piloted in acute disregard of mortal danger,” he declared.

According to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), the TPNW is the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be negotiated in more than two decades.

The Treaty was adopted on 7 July 2017 at the United Nations and entered into force on 22 January 2021.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described the Treaty as “an important step towards the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and a strong demonstration of support for multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament.”

The TPNW contains, inter alia, a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon-related activities. This includes undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

The Treaty also prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons on national territory as well as the provision of assistance to any State in the conduct of prohibited activities.

The Treaty requires States parties to assist individuals under their jurisdiction affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take environmental remediation measures in areas under their jurisdiction or control that have been contaminated due to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

The upcoming meeting is expected to hold a thematic debate on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. States Parties will also consider the status and operation of the Treaty, addressing issues that include universality; the total elimination of nuclear weapons; and victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance.

Other topics will include scientific and technical advice for the effective implementation of the Treaty, the complementarity of the Treaty with the existing nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime and implementing the gender provisions of the Treaty.

*In both G20 statements from Delhi and Bali, the U. and Russia as well as other states with nuclear weapons, affirmed the admissibility of nuclear weapons. 

**The original six leaders were President Raúl Alfonsin of Argentina, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, President Miguel de la Madrid of Mexico, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden and Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou of Greece. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image source: SIPRI

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

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