The US and Russia were continuing to ‘build down’ their nuclear arsenals towards a level of 1550 long-range deployed warheads on each side, according to the New START Treaty. Public concerns about the issue have correspondingly abated over recent years.
Nevertheless, there are still around 14,000 warheads (2020) of all types in existence, more than sufficient to devastate the entire planet. We need to keep up the pressure until these inhuman weapons are gone forever.
The nuclear-weapon states (NWS) all retain a more than sufficient “minimal nuclear deterrent”, and show no signs of eliminating their arsenals completely. In fact, in recent years the nuclear arms race seems to have restarted. President Trump has threatened not to extend the New START Treaty, citing Russian violations, and all three major nuclear powers are busily upgrading their arsenals at the present time.
Read on ..
The Non-Proliferation Treaty
The NPT is the centerpiece of the nuclear arms control regime. It has been moderately successful in restraining ‘horizontal proliferation’, in that the number of nuclear-armed states has risen only from five to nine in the years since the Treaty was signed: the US, USSR, Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea
The NPT has come under great strain recently, however. Two states that previously ratified the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) have tried to join the nuclear club. If these states succeed in defying the NPT regime, it is feared that the whole structure could collapse. North Korea is believed to have succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, and withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Iran purchased thousands of centrifuges for enriching uranium, obviously with the intention of building a bomb, although they continue to deny it. In 2016, a new accord with Iran was reached, which hopefully means an end to this particular problem.
Furthermore, critics argue that the nuclear-weapon states have still not fulfilled their implied promise of nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the Treaty, and have given no timetable for doing so. The Marshall Islands have mounted a legal challenge in the International Court of Justice against the nuclear weapon states, on their failure to implement their promises.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
The CTBT aims to forbid all nuclear testing, with the aim of preventing any further development of nuclear weapons. Approved overwhelmingly by the UN General Assembly in 1996, it has now been ratified by 164 countries. It needs ratification by 44 nuclear-capable countries listed in an Annex to the Treaty to come into force, but to date eight of those listed have still not ratified. As of 2019, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States have signed but not ratified the Treaty; India, North Korea and Pakistan have not signed it.
The Nuclear Missile Defence Scheme (NMD)
The NMD scheme, begun by the George W Bush administration as a defence against small-scale attack from “rogue nuclear states”, is still proceeding under the Trump administration.
The strong objections which were raised against its predecessor, the “Star Wars” (SDI) scheme under Ronald Reagan, still apply here:
The program is likely to lead to a new arms race, as rival great powers ramp up their offensive and defensive schemes in a vicious cycle. Already Russia has threatened to withdraw from arms control treaties, and beef up its military forces again, in protest against proposed NMD deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, which they see as aimed against them. In 2009 President Obama abandoned the plans for emplacements in Poland and the Czech Republic. .
Suspicions that the defenses will be improved over time to combat a massive nuclear strike will destabilize the whole balance of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), which despite being highly repugnant is a very stable posture of mutual deterrence;
It will be extremely expensive for the US;
It is unnecessary in any case. Even a ‘rogue nuclear state’ knows that if it ever actually launched its missiles, it would be obliterated in response, and so it will never dare to use them in anger.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)
The anti-nuclear movement generally is pressing for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, i.e. a treaty to ban all nuclear weapons and eliminate the existing arsenals over a set period, in a similar fashion to the other treaties banning weapons of mass destruction, namely the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
In 2016, United Nations member states voted overwhelmingly to start negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, despite strong opposition from nuclear-armed nations and their allies. In the vote in the UN disarmament and international security committee, 123 nations were in favour of the resolution, 38 opposed and 16 abstained. The resolution aimed to hold a conference in March 2017 to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination. It was passed on 7 July 2017. In order to come into effect, signature and ratification by at least 50 countries is required. As of 10 August 2020, 44 states have ratified the treaty. For those nations that are party to it, the treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities. For nuclear armed states joining the treaty, it provides for a time-bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons programme.
We are happy to support this campaign, and also other campaigns to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons, such as the PND campaign to take nuclear weapons off high-alert status.
It has to be said, however, that the nuclear-weapon states show no signs of acceding to these demands at present.
Nobel Peace Prize for ICAN
The Prize was awarded in recognition of the leading role of ICAN (the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons) in championing the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first major nuclear disarmament Treaty in twenty years. This is a statement from the non-nuclear-weapon states reinforcing their commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Now we need to challenge the Nuclear-weapon-states to respond, and fulfill their promise under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, namely to “negotiate in good faith” on nuclear disarmament. They should set up a Commission to lay out a credible path to getting rid of their nuclear arsenals and then to implement it, even if it may take a long time. The Nobel Prize Committee refers to this challenge in their announcement.
Nuclear powers the United States, Russia, Israel, France and the United Kingdom were among those that opposed the measure. Australia, as a long-time dependant on the US’s extended nuclear deterrence, also voted no.
The ICNND Report
The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament was set up jointly by the Australian and Japanese governments in 2008, and was co-chaired by Gareth Evans from Australia and Yoriko Kawaguchi from Japan. Its report, “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers” was issued in 2010. It proposed a phased approach to minimizing and delegitimizing nuclear weapons over an extended period. Among other recommendations, it proposed that pending the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, every nuclear-armed state should make as soon as possible, and no later than 2025, an unequivocal “no first use” (NFU) declaration. If not prepared to go so far now, each such state – and in particular the U.S. in its Nuclear Posture Review – should at the very least accept the principle that the “sole purpose” of possessing nuclear weapons is to deter others from using such weapons against that state or its allies. It proposed a 20-point list of recommendations which the 2010 NPT Review Conference should adopt, extending the ’13 points’ adopted at the 2000 Review conference.
The US Nuclear Posture Review
The Nuclear Posture Review by the US in 2010 renounced development of any new nuclear weapons such as the ‘nuclear bunker-buster’ proposed by the Bush administration, and for the first time ruled out a nuclear attack against non-nuclear-weapon states who are in compliance with the NPT treaty. While not a full declaration of “no first use”, it was a significant step in this direction.
The most recent Review in 2018 after Donald Trump's election was headed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The 2018 NPR maintains the need for a nuclear triad in the US defense strategy. There are a variety of options that have been proposed by the 2018 NPR. One of the statements made include a need to close a gap in the nuclear arsenal with low-yield nuclear weapons. This suggests that the US would consider using nuclear weapons if necessary on a smaller-scale regional conflict rather than all-out nuclear war. Other things to note from the 2018 NPR include a need to develop sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) to bolster the SSBN portion of the triad. The review also states the US's intention to not ratify the CTBT and rejects the idea of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Despite these recommendations and stances, the 2018 NPR is argued to be similar rather than different from previous NPRs. The NPR maintains that nuclear weapons are still meant to serve as a deterrent, which is the goal of these proposed actions to modernize the US nuclear arsenal.
Open letter to MPs, March 2017 - extract
A full-scale nuclear war would certainly be the worst catastrophe ever to befall the human race. Every effort must be made to ensure that it never happens. Australia has traditionally been a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament, and in fact we were the lead proponent of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty in 1996.
It was very disappointing, therefore, that Australia declined to support the motion when on 27 October 2016, 123 nations voted in the United Nations General Assembly to launch negotiations in March 2017 on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total abolition”. A major plank of Australia’s argument was presumably that without the agreement of all the nuclear-armed states any agreement will be largely symbolic, although it will certainly add to the moral pressure on the nuclear-weapon states to do something more on nuclear disarmament.
A Nuclear Weapons Convention would ideally prohibit the threat or use of nuclear weapons and establish a phased program for their complete elimination under strict and effective international control. We believe that it should be possible to craft a treaty that largely achieves those goals, and yet one that the nuclear-weapon states ought to be able to sign. It could include the following elements:
It should forbid any use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons, and thus reinforce the taboo against the actual use of these weapons which has held ever since World War II. The sole ‘legitimate’ purpose of these weapons should be as a deterrent, and even that should be dispensable over time;
It should establish a further interim barrier to the actual use of these weapons in the form of a sole purpose, or “no first use” declaration;
It should establish a Commission to determine the conditions under which the nuclear-weapon states would be willing to abandon their nuclear weapons entirely, and map out a program which would, over time, bring those conditions about. The nuclear weapon states would thus fulfil their pledge under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, namely that they would “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
We therefore recommend that Australia should play a constructive role in the negotiations at the United Nations on a nuclear weapons convention, and help to construct a convention that the nuclear-weapon states can adhere to. In particular, Australia should advocate the establishment of a Commission consisting of representatives from all existing nuclear-weapon states, to map out a path towards a future world free of nuclear weapons.
A/Prof C.J. Hamer
President, Scientists for Global Responsibility (Australia)
Some personal reflections
International Law and Global Governance
Why do the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) find it so hard to give up their nuclear weapons entirely? It is because nuclear weapons are, quite simply, the most powerful and cost-effective weapons in existence. The NWS would see it as endangering their national security, their core responsibility, if they were to give up their nuclear weapons and gamble their security on the good faith of their rivals and adversaries among the other great powers. From a realistic point of view, they simply cannot do it.
In order to get rid of these weapons entirely, we need a much stronger system of international law and global governance, sufficient to guarantee each nation’s security without the need for nuclear weapons. This was stated many years ago by Albert Einstein in his famous remark:
“In my opinion, the only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of world government, with security of nations founded upon law.”
The same point has been made again and again by others over the years.
This was the principal reason behind our setting up the World Citizens Association (Australia) a few years ago, to campaign for democratic global governance.
Reinforcing the NPT
Democratic global governance is not something that can be achieved overnight, and will take many years to come to fruition. But in the meantime, while the NWS insist on retaining their independent nuclear deterrents in spite of their promises under Article VI of the NPT, it is vital that the taboo against any further actual use of nuclear weapons be maintained. The non-nuclear weapon states are entitled to demand it. Hence it is very important that the NWS give reassurance by means of treaties or declarations of “no first use”, that the sole purpose of their nuclear weapons is to deter any attack from outside, and that they will never be the first to use such weapons. This is a major point made by the ICNND Report, and is expanded upon in my paper “Reinforcing the NPT”.
(Updated September 2020)