Non-Nuclear Weapon States Lead on Nuclear Disarmament

UN Photo with permission

Forty-six years ago the international community did something incredible. They took a step towards sanity and a safer world and signed on to the Nonproliferation Treaty. Countries possessing nuclear weapons agreed not to spread them. Countries without nuclear weapons agreed not to pursue them and to place themselves under international inspection to ensure they were in compliance. And everyone agreed to talk about ways to end the nuclear arms race as soon as possible and ways to achieve nuclear disarmament.

By and large, the non-nuclear weapon states have kept their end of the bargain. Yes, there have been some violations, but not many considering there are 186 non-nuclear signatories to the Treaty. Also, the nuclear weapon states have made progress ending the nuclear arms race and proceeding with nuclear disarmament. Over the years, the US and Russia (formerly the USSR), the two largest possessors of nuclear weapons, have had numerous bilateral agreements to limit and reduce nuclear weapons. At their peak in 1986, operational warheads worldwide numbered approximately 64,452. As of 2015, that number was down to an estimated 10,315.

Pretty good, right? Well, yes and no. We’ve made progress, to be sure, but we haven’t made enough. Since the Treaty was signed, four additional countries have obtained nuclear weapons. And, current climate models show that a single regional nuclear exchange of 100 warheads the same size as the one dropped on Hiroshima would throw enough debris into the air to alter earth’s climate in a way never before seen in human history. The protective ozone layer would rapidly deplete. UV radiation would increase. The growing season for crops would shorten, and global famine would ensue. The effects would last for decades.

Understandably, frustration is growing among the non-nuclear weapon states that nearly five decades have passed and the world is still so at risk. So, this past October a group of them presented a resolution in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly to convene an Open-ended Working Group to explore what would need to be done legally to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. The Group is also tasked with making recommendations on steps that could be taken to realize disarmament negotiations that include multiple countries. The UN General Assembly adoped the resolution in December, and the Open-ended Working Group will meet this week in Geneva… without the participation of the nuclear weapon states.

UN Photo by Violaine Martin with permission

So, why aren’t the nuclear weapon states participating? Well, there’s a lot of history to this resolution. It’s not the first time a form of it has been discussed at the UN. And, it’s too hard to cover all of that in this short blog post. But, a couple of the key issues explain it:

  1. Nuclear weapon states are concerned with any process that might undermine the Nonproliferation Treaty, and they fear this might be it.
  2. Nuclear weapon states will not disarm unilaterally because of concerns about global security, and they think this process will override the incremental approach to disarmament they prefer to take.

Are we at an impasse then? Is there no progress to be made? I sincerely hope not. I appreciate the leadership of the non-nuclear weapon states in keeping the issue front and center and continuing to push for disarmament. As a citizen of a nuclear weapon state, I also understand and share the concerns regarding unilateral disarmament and the potential to undermine the Nonproliferation Treaty. So, I think we need to focus on where we agree rather than where we disagree. We all share the goal of a nuclear weapons free world, and we can realize the future of nuclear disarmament through challenging the status quo and engaging in ongoing, thoughtful discourse. I encourage the nuclear weapon states to continue to actively pursue dialogue with each other and with their non-nuclear partners in the Treaty about moving the needle on disarmament. Maybe this dialogue won’t happen within the context of the Open-ended Working Group, but it should happen somewhere, somehow.

UN Photo by Rick Bajornas with permission
“The nuclear weapon states need to take the non-nuclear weapon state’s concerns about nuclear weapons seriously; they are not frivolous. On the other hand, the non-nuclear weapon states need to appreciate that the Nonproliferation Treaty is the only multilateral treaty that obligates its parties to pursue nuclear disarmament, and nuclear disarmament is not simply a matter of political will. No state is going to disarm unilaterally or otherwise take steps that reduce its security or the security of its allies. Moreover, the verification challenges associated with lower and lower numbers of nuclear weapons are real, significant and technically challenging, and must be addressed.” — Ambassador Susan Burk, former Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation
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