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Rachel Staley – WNN SOAPBOX

United Nations Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament

United Nations Security Council Summit on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament on September 24, 2009 was chaired by U.S. President Barack Obama. It was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council expressing the Council’s resolve to create conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. Image: Mark Garten/UNphoto

(WNN/ISN) London, UNITED KINGDOM: For more than seven decades, the complexities and dangers of nuclear weapons have preoccupied the world. Public opinion polls indicate that majorities in many countries favor a world without nuclear weapons, though many remain doubtful as to whether such a scenario is feasible. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, nuclear deterrence strategies were embraced by all of the world’s leading powers without resulting in nuclear war. In the 21st century, though the threat of nuclear confrontation has receded, the uncertainty of future threats undermines arguments for the abolition of nuclear weapons. For a wide variety of reasons, some governments around the world still seek to possess nuclear weapons, threatening the desirability and possibility of nuclear abolition.

The Anti-Nuclear Movement

After the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, movements to abolish nuclear weapons altogether took hold in many parts of the world. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, protests were staged in dozens of countries to demand democratic accountability over the possession of nuclear weapons. In the United Kingdom, the Greenham Common Women’s peace camp was established in 1981 to protest the deployment of cruise missiles at the Greenham Common Air Force base. In the United States, one million people came together in New York’s Central Park in 1982 to call for an end to the nuclear arms race.

After the end of the Cold War and the threat faded in people’s minds, large-scale demonstrations against the existence of nuclear weapons lost their appeal. The further development of international instruments such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency, deepened regulation of nuclear weapons and their fissile components, but none have yet established the ban ultimately sought by the anti-nuclear movement.

Nevertheless, there have been less-heralded attempts to do so. In December 1996, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution A/RES/51/45M, welcoming the “Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” which called on countries to fulfil their disarmament obligations and commence multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention. A Model Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) was drafted in 1997 by a consortium of experts and submitted by Costa Rica to the United Nations. It prohibited the use, threat of use, possession, development, testing, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons as well as a phased program for their elimination. Updated in 2007 and resubmitted to the NPT, the model NWC received 127 votes of support and, surprisingly, four states possessing nuclear weapons—China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—were among them.

In recent years, renewed support for nuclear disarmament has been expressed from many quarters. The ideal of a world without nuclear weapons has been promoted in op-eds in the Wall Street Journal by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz, and U.S. President Obama championed the goal in a 2009 speech in Prague. The British government also explicitly supported such a vision in 2007, a policy continued by the current government. Born out of this growing attention to nuclear weapons and disarmament, groups like Global Zero and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons have established global networks for proponents of disarmament, in particular to help create links between young people and policymakers.

Significant steps toward disarmament have also been taken in recent years. Among nuclear weapons states, the U.S. and Russia worked together to reduce their nuclear arsenals with the ratification of the New START treaty in 2010/2011. On the international stage, a program of work was adopted in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament later that year, and the 2010 NPT Review Conference launched a process to create a zone free of nuclear weapons and other WMD in the Middle East.

Abolishing Nuclear Weapons?

While mistrust among nuclear powers still exists after the Cold War and there remains an awareness of the threat of proliferation, the spectre of global nuclear annihilation that pervaded the Cold War has clearly receded. In the international system today, however, nuclear proliferation threats are increasing from both rogue states and terrorist groups. In this dynamic and unpredictable environment, it may no longer be possible to counter emerging nuclear threats with conventional deterrence strategies. President Obama declared in Prague in April 2009, ‘In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.’

Incremental approaches to reducing nuclear numbers have been attempted, but they are undermined by their unfairness to states with smaller nuclear stockpiles and by the fact that some states have yet to agree, even in principle, that a world without nuclear weapons is more appealing than one with them. In such an environment, and with the technical complexity of nuclear issues, the intricacy of the political relationships involved, serious deficits of transparency, accountability and trust, and the growing number of proliferation threats, nuclear abolition seems to many, not only impossible but even undesirable.

Nevertheless, it seems increasingly the case that nuclear weapons and the doctrine of nuclear deterrence may actually contribute to insecurity, rather than mitigate it. After all, the circumstances in which states can legally and legitimately use nuclear weapons are increasingly few. The acknowledgement in nuclear weapon states that the real value of nuclear weapons is political– rather than military – runs counter to widespread misperceptions about their vital military importance. Moreover, in the global climate of economic hardship and dwindling military budgets, decreased funding for nuclear weapons programs could yet render the prospect of abolishing them more plausible.

Dozens of treaties, initiatives, and institutions focus on a variety of issues aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. Though many of these instruments are largely ineffective, their existence alongside the diplomatic priority given to them in many countries indicates the strong support amongst many governments for the global anti-nuclear movement. For the movement to achieve its aims, new initiatives like a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and eventually a Nuclear Weapons Convention will need to be fully implemented without compromising existing instruments and initiatives. The NPT, for example, already provides a forum for states to work together to monitor and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons – through its three main pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This makes promoting ratification of and compliance with the NPT and its associated regime a critical aspect of the anti-nuclear agenda.

While the anti-nuclear movement accepts that the abolition of nuclear weapons is a daunting task, it insists – often quite persuasively – that it remains highly desirable. Few governments would openly challenge the explicit linkage at the heart of the non-proliferation regime that disarmament and non-proliferation are closely linked. If we value stronger non-proliferation measures and look to the majority world for support in establishing them, we therefore also have to seriously consider steps towards global disarmament. From the movement’s perspective, governments have the responsibility to ensure that the goals of total non-proliferation and complete disarmament are honored, and that future generations can live in a secure world, free from threats posed by nuclear weapons.


Rachel Staley is the programme support officer for the British American Security Information Council based in London. She holds an MA in Non-Proliferation and International Security from King’s College London.


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