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The Paradox of the Nuclear Age

KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 26 2012 (IPS) - Climate change and nuclear war are the two most serious threats to human security and planetary survival. Governments are addressing the causes of climate change and the prevention of nuclear war, but political will to reduce greenhouse gases and eradicate nuclear weapons needs to be further strengthened.

Climate change is now visible and palpable, but the threat of nuclear war remains relatively abstract and unperceived among some complacent world leaders, despite the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons in a world that still resolves conflict by going to war.

Article VI of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) imposes a legal obligation on non-nuclear weapon states to forgo nuclear weapons and on nuclear weapon states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. (The text of article VI makes no reference to non-nuclear weapon States; it simply asks that the parties to the NPT agree to “pursue negotiations in good faith to end the arms race.” Perhaps we should clarify that point with the writer) The latter states rhetorically agree to do so, but in fact continue to rely on nuclear deterrence for their security and maintain and modernise their nuclear arsenals. These double standards have perpetuated a system of nuclear haves and have-nots, paralysed the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva for the past fifteen years, and resulted in a stalemate in the NPT process.

Twenty-one years after the end of the Cold War, both the United States and Russia, the main nuclear protagonists, still wield more than 20,000 nuclear warheads. Both states are committed to further reductions, following the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which will reduce the number of deployed long-range nuclear weapons to 1,550 each by 2018. But domestic politics, U.S. missile defence plans, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions have raised the barriers.

As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them. As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will one day be used by decision, accident or miscalculation. The future holds three options: maintaining the status quo through counter-proliferation measures, living dangerously with nuclear proliferation, or abolishing nuclear weapons.

In 1997, activists with expertise in international law, science, medicine and disarmament confronted the fundamental underlying nuclear dilemma and explored the legal, technical and political requirements for a nuclear weapons-free world and weighed the security concerns of all states. They asked if military security, based on militarism and nuclear deterrence, was compatible with human and planetary survival in the long term. They concluded that survival hinged on the abolition of nuclear weapons and proceeded to draft a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, which has illuminated the feasibility of abolition, in light of treaties that have successfully been adopted for the abolition of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

The United Nations has accepted the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention as an official document (UN Document A/C.1/52/7). More than 120 countries have voted in the United Nations General Assembly for negotiations towards a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would eliminate all nuclear weapons, prohibit their production, and prevent breakout through a strong verification regime.

There are many obstacles to nuclear abolition, but the fundamental ones are the lack of political will and the militarisation of diplomacy. But there are signs of a shift in thinking among past and present leaders, which has generated guarded optimism that the world could be rid of nuclear weapons in the next two or three decades. Four American ‘cold warriors’ and members of the U.S. security establishment ­ Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn ­ have called for a nuclear weapons-free world. President Barack Obama has also voiced similar sentiments.

There is a great opportunity for middle-power states to take the initiative by convening multilateral negotiations, leading to the conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. The commencement of such negotiations would stimulate global civil society to generate a groundswell of public opinion and exert irresistible pressure on nuclear weapons states to join an abolition process, similar to the Ottawa Process, which persuaded countries with landmines to give them up and adopt the Landmine Ban Treaty. Such a global endeavour to abolish nuclear weapons will require the investment of considerable political capital by middle powers such as the New Agenda Coalition, which is composed of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden.

A Nuclear Weapons Convention would prohibit the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons. In a wider sense, it would embody the universal condemnation of nuclear weapons and the codification of the norm against all weapons of mass destruction. Such a treaty would engender a wider social and political movement away from the militarisation of diplomacy and reliance on nuclear weapons. It would advance nuclear disarmament to the point of abolition and remove the existential threat of nuclear war.

The important difference between disarmament and abolition is that, while disarmament is primarily a technical process, abolition is a normative process that not only embraces disarmament but also prohibits the development, acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.

The conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention would require comprehensive multilateral negotiations, within a time-bound framework, reinforced by strong political will. The process would comprise a series of bilateral and multilateral steps, culminating in a legally binding instrument or framework of instruments. The process could take place in the Conference on Disarmament, the established but dysfunctional multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament, or through a series of specific international conferences, similar to the successful Law of the Sea conferences.

The paradox of the Nuclear Age is that the greater the striving for power and military security through nuclear weapons, the more elusive the goal of human security. For humankind to survive in an environmentally challenged and nuclear-armed world, it must learn from the mistakes of the past and forge a common, secure future. The moral challenge of our time is the unthinkable possibility of self-destruction on a global scale in a nuclear war or from climate change. The greatest priority for the future is to ensure that there will be a future.


(*) Ronald McCoy, a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist, is founder president of Malaysian Physicians for Social Responsibility and past co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

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