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Uncertain Prospects For Progress In Nuclear Disarmament


Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and a former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. He was president of the 2005 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.

NEW YORK (IDN) – Although humankind has known since the dawn of ages the sorrow, misery and devastation caused by war, the most catastrophic military conflicts in history are quite recent.

World War I lasted from July 1914 to November 1918 and claimed some 40 million lives, among civilians and combatants. In all, between 70-85 million people perished during World War II that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The estimated war casualties include those who are believed to have died from war-related causes, including captivity, disease and famine. [2019-02-06] JAPANESE | SPANISH

Nuclear weapons were used for the first time in 1945. By today’s standards, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs can be considered “low-yield”, but together they killed over 120.000 men, women and children in a few seconds and more subsequently.

History, however, taught us important lessons. 18th century Enlightenment philosophers suggested averting wars through understanding among nations. The Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 are among the first formal multilateral formulations of laws governing the conduct of hostilities and humanitarian action in armed conflict.

At the end of World War I, the League of Nations was created in January 1920 with the mission of maintaining peace and achieving the limitation of armaments. It was succeeded by the United Nations in October 1945, established in the aftermath of World War II by the victors of that conflagration, which ensured for themselves a privileged position and corresponding responsibilities for the prevention of “the scourge of war” and the maintenance of world peace and security.

The advent of the nuclear weapon dominated the debates in the first few years of the existence of the United Nations. The very first resolution unanimously adopted by the General Assembly on 24 January 1946 set up a Commission “to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy and other related matters”.

It was charged, inter alia, with making specific proposals “for extending between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information for peaceful ends” and “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”. In 1957 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world”.

Deep disagreement between the two major powers prevented any progress in eliminating nuclear weapons but the other two categories of weapons of mass destruction, bacteriological and chemical weapons, were eventually outlawed in 1972 and in 1997, respectively.

Despite the climate of mistrust and hostility that prevailed between the two major powers during the decades of the Cold War the international community managed to negotiate and adopt a number of multilateral instruments aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to areas where there were none, such as AntarcticaOuter Spacethe Moon and other celestial bodies and the sea-bed and its subsoil. The first zone free of nuclear weapons in an inhabited region, Latin America and the Caribbean, was established in 1967 and was emulated in other continents, encompassing today 114 countries.

The main multilateral instrument in the field of arms control, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force in 1970. It recognized the existence of five States possessing nuclear weapons who pledged to work for disarmament. The NPT gradually became accepted by all but four nations. All its non-nuclear parties relinquished the nuclear military option through a legally binding commitment subject to verification procedures by the IAEA.

The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) concluded in 1996 but not yet into force prohibited nuclear explosions in all environments, creating a taboo that reinforces the nuclear non-proliferation regime and helps constrain the development of new types of nuclear weapons. Most possessors of nuclear arsenals adopted unilateral commitments on their size and on the conditions of their possible use. The total number of nuclear weapons existing in the world is said to have decreased to about 15,000 today.

One would expect that those and other encouraging developments would have facilitated further progress toward nuclear disarmament. Current reality, however, points to an uncertain future.

International strains intensified since the close of the 20th century and agreements aimed at reducing tensions between the two major powers and at limiting their nuclear forces seem at risk. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is no longer in force and the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, widely regarded as essential to European security, seems doomed. By the same token, the 2011 New START agreement may not be extended beyond its expiration date in 2021.

None of the instruments adopted over the past decades contains a clear, legally binding, time-bound and irreversible obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons, in contradiction with the ideals expressed in the Preambles of such instruments.

Fifty years after the entry into force of the NPT in 1970, the five nuclear weapon States have yet to act convincingly on the promise “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” contained in its Article VI. The credibility of treaty commitments is at stake.

None of the instruments adopted over the past decades contains a clear, legally binding, time-bound and irreversible obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons, in contradiction with the ideals expressed in the Preambles of such instruments.

But action by the existing multilateral machinery is urgently needed to ensure the elimination of the threat posed to every nation’s security by the existence of nuclear weapons. The Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament has been at a standstill since 1996. In fact, effective measures of nuclear disarmament have never been the subject of substantive discussion in that body.

Short-term prospects for progress are far from reassuring. New challenges arose. Nuclear weapon States are currently engaged in “modernizing” their arsenals and in exploring new technologies for use in war, from cybernetic attacks to new supersonic vehicles and from low-yield “usable” nuclear devices to artificial intelligence (AI) applied to warfare. Competition for military supremacy among them threatens to bring the world to the brink of extinction.

Obsession with the maintenance of their exclusive status led nuclear States to shun participation and fiercely oppose the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Leading to their Elimination (TPNW), adopted in 2017 by 122 States. Governments and media in nuclear weapon States and their allies usually ignore or deride the TPNW, which they self-servingly describe as detrimental to the regime established by the NPT.

All this bodes ill for the 2020 Review Conference of the NPT. The previous one in 2015 did not achieve consensus due to longstanding disagreements between nuclear and non-nuclear States.

The possibility of two failures in a row haunts the parties to that important treaty, aptly considered the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The success of the 2020 NPT Review Conference depends on its ability to promote convergence on an international nuclear order that ensures lasting peace and security for all.

The necessary conditions for constructive debate and agreement on effective measures of nuclear disarmament are well known: adherence to established norms and principles of international law, respect for generally accepted standards of behavior among nations and good faith compliance with commitments accepted in the past.

Nuclear weapon States share the primary responsibility for progress, which is in the interest of the whole community of nations. Exceptionalism does not fit well in our interdependent world and will not increase its security. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 January 2019]

Photo: Sergio Duarte speaks at the August 2017 Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs held in Astana, Kazakhstan. Credit: Pugwash.

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