Uncertainty Haunts the Future of Non-Proliferation Treaty and Disarmament

Viewpoint by Tariq Rauf *


Photo courtesy of UNITAR Hiroshima Office.

HIROSHIMA (IDN)—August 6 and August 9 will mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No sentient human being who has met or seen the hibakusha (survivors), or visited the hypocentres in the two cities, or seen the photographic evidence of the destruction of these two Japanese cities, can avoid being shocked and horrified by the devastation that nuclear weapons inflicted. [2020-02-28 | 30] JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | KOREAN | MALAY | THAI

Up until now, Hiroshima and Nagasaki mercifully remain the only instances in which nuclear weapons have been used in war; however, it has been the hope that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki serves as a constant reminder why preventing the further use and proliferation of such weapons – and why nuclear disarmament leading eventually to a nuclear-weapon-free world – is of utmost importance for the survival of humankind and planet Earth.

Collapse of Nuclear Arms Control

Unfortunately, the vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons is receding as the nuclear arms control architecture patiently built up over the past 50 years is collapsing before our eyes. On 2 August 2019, the United States formally withdrew from the 1987 Treaty on Shorter- and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) – foreshadowed in July 2019 by the Russian Federation suspending its compliance with the treaty . Under the INF Treaty, by May 1991, 2692 ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometres had been eliminated, 1846 by the USSR and 846 by the United States under mutual verification—and nearly 5000 nuclear warheads removed from active service.

This leaves only one nuclear arms reduction treaty in force between Moscow and Washington—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—that was signed on 8 April 2010, entered into force on 5 February 2011. By 4 February 2018, both Russia and the United States had verifiably met the central limits of 1550 accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed launchers (land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers). In fact, on 1 July 2019, under New START, Russia had 524 deployed launchers carrying 1461 nuclear warheads, and the United States had 656 warheads on 1365 launchers.

New START will expire on 5 February 2021, unless extended by Presidents Putin and Trump. Should New START not be extended, it will leave Moscow and Washington without any bilateral nuclear arms control treaty for the first time in over a half-century and likely lead to a dangerous new nuclear arms race.

For the first time in the history of Soviet/Russian-United States nuclear arms control not only are existing agreements being dismantled but the two sides have not been engaging on new measures for nearly a decade now; and both sides are modernizing nuclear arsenals and have lowered the threshold of nuclear weapon use in their declaratory and operational policies.

Furthermore, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not entered into force 24 years after it was opened for signature in 1996. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been unnecessarily rejected by 38 States that continue to rely on nuclear deterrence and they strongly object to the efforts of the vast majority of United Nations member States to implement effective measures for nuclear disarmament.

The negotiation of global treaties on the verified production ban on fissile material for nuclear weapons and on the non-weaponization of space have not started, and many other nuclear disarmament commitments remain unfulfilled while at the same time nuclear dangers are increasing.

The architecture and fundaments of bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control have been eroded by the events just noted, by the United States withdrawal in 2002 from the crucial Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and by the failure of the five nuclear-weapon States—China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States—to fully honour the commitments on nuclear arms reductions agreed in the framework of the 1995/2000/2010 NPT review conferences.

One also may note that the EU/E3+3-Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been abandoned by the United States leading to Iran stepping out of constraints on uranium enrichment, thereby further destabilizing the security situation in the region of the Middle East and raising the prospect of yet another war.

Doctrines of some nuclear-armed States now posit first or early use of nuclear weapons. The United States Defence Department’s new nuclear weapons guidance, Nuclear Operations (11 June 2019) clearly posits that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.” For its part, Russian military doctrine envisions “escalation to de-escalate” in countering superior NATO conventional forces, that is early but limited use of nuclear weapons. In South Asia, both India and Pakistan also contemplate use of nuclear weapons in a regional conflict.

It is highly disturbing that when nuclear weapon use is discussed, the vocabulary used is very often conveniently sanitized. The destruction by thermonuclear war and resulting humanitarian and environmental consequences are downplayed and substituted by antiseptic concepts of nuclear deterrence.

The grim reality is that more than 14,000 nuclear warheads of the nine nuclear-armed States are deployed at more than 100 locations in 14 States, the dangers of nuclear weapon use are increasing, and there are stocks of nearly 1,400 tonnes (or 1,400,000 kg) of weapon-grade uranium and 500 tonnes (or 500,000 kg) of weapon-usable plutonium good for more than 130,000 nuclear warheads. Remember, it takes 25 kg or less of highly-enriched uranium and 8 kg or less of plutonium for one nuclear warhead.

Not surprisingly, it is the view of many erstwhile personalities such as William Perry, former United States defence secretary, among others, that in today’s world the dangers of inadvertent, accidental or even deliberate use of nuclear weapons is higher than it was during the height of the Cold War. The Gorbachev-Reagan understanding of December 1987 that a “nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought” is no longer in the forefront of the minds of today’s leaders and nuclear war planners. This year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the clock (which puts into context how close we are to nuclear catastrophe) at 100 seconds to midnight; closer to catastrophe than any year of the Cold War.

We might well ask why we find ourselves in such a dire predicament, especially since there was much talk about a peace dividend and new world order at the beginning of the 1990s when the Cold War ended and there was the promise of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in international security, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was extended indefinitely in 1995, the CTBT completed in 1996, the five nuclear-weapon States had agreed to an “unequivocal undertaking” to nuclear disarmament and a plan of action to that effect at the 2000 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences, respectively?

The principal reason is that the NPT nuclear-weapon States have not fulfilled their nuclear disarmament commitments as agreed under the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and its 1995/2000/2010 review conferences—albeit, both Russia and the United States claim that they have reduced their nuclear arsenals by about 80% over their Cold War heights—but both are busy modernizing their nuclear arsenals and lowering the threshold of nuclear war and have more than 1000 nuclear warheads on ready to launch operational status.

CEND: Creating the Environment [for Nuclear Disarmament] / to Never Disarm]?

The NPT will mark its 50th anniversary in 2020 and alarm bells already are ringing warning about impending failure of this year’s crucial NPT review conference. Returning to nuclear disarmament in the context of the NPT, the field is now crowded with several competing approaches: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) NPT States favour a three-phase time bound “plan of action”, in contrast the Western States stand by a “step-by-step” approach which has been slightly modified by a cross-cutting group called the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) that calls for “building blocks”; while another such group, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) supports a “taking forward nuclear disarmament” approach; Sweden has proposed “stepping stones”; and the United States has advanced the concept of “creating the environment for nuclear disarmament” (CEND)

These different approaches clashed at the 2018-2019 sessions of the Preparatory Committee and these competing views will be manifest at the 2020 NPT Review Conference—that will mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT.

Rainbows, Butterflies and Unicorns

The United States has held two meetings of CEND and a third is planned for early April. Many diplomats who attended did so because they could not “refuse” the United States’ invitation, others though sceptical did not want to be left out, and some were loyal troopers intoxicated by the promise of CEND as a “God send” to rescue the NPT.

A sober assessment of the CEND approach suggests that this initiative is geared to transfer the focus and responsibility for the “environment” and “conditions” for nuclear disarmament from the nuclear-armed to the non-nuclear-weapon States. In fact, the CEND approach as presently formulated is serving the cause of “creating conditions to never disarm”, because it is neither considering implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments already on the books nor operational doctrine of early use of (low yield) nuclear weapons.

The CEND approach states that the current environment is not conducive to nuclear disarmament. Such a view reflects amnesia, as many important multilateral and bilateral nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties were concluded during the height of the mistrust of the Cold War — including the NPT!

Hence, it would be appropriate to characterize CEND approach as based on “dreaming of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns to appear magically and sprinkle fairy dust leading to a new fantasy world of nuclear arms control”.

A senior United States official recently characterized supporters of nuclear disarmament in the framework of the NPT as “dim bulbs”, in other words as grossly stupid and their attitudes as “some admixture of stupidity and insanity”. Never has the level of discourse sunk so abysmally low, or abuse hurled so openly! If senior officials apparently are becoming unhinged and the level of discourse sinks into the gutter; this obviously cannot portend well for developing common ground between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states at the NPT review conference in two months from now.

Placing one’s faith in the “rainbows, butterflies and unicorns” of the CEND approach is not the way forward to save the world from the dangers of nuclear destruction! Faithfully implementing nuclear disarmament obligations in the framework of the NPT is the only way forward to salvation.

NPT at 50: from New York 2020 to Vienna 2021

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is on the verge of transmuting into a pandemic.Some arms control officials seemingly might be on the verge of losing their equanimity? Thus, perhaps we should seriously consider that the NPT review conference this year on its 50th anniversary, presently scheduled for New York from 27 April to 22 May, is postponed to next year (2021) and convened in Vienna (Austria)—the historic city of global conferences. Doing so should provide not only a civilized safe venue but also calmer heads and hopefully a less politically charged milieu to deliberate on matters of nuclear disarmament.

A world without nuclear weapons still remains a far-off goal and we need to heed the call of Pope Francis when during his visit to this city he clearly voiced his demand that world powers renounce their nuclear arsenals. He declared that both the use and possession of atomic bombs an “immoral” crime and a dangerous waste.

Let us recall Pope Francis’ lament in Hiroshima (last November): “How can we speak of peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war? How can we propose peace if we constantly invoke the threat of nuclear war as a legitimate recourse for the resolution of conflicts? May the abyss of pain endured here remind us of boundaries that must never be crossed”.

* Tariq Rauf is former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and former Alternate Head of the IAEA Delegation to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). It is based on his remarks at the Session with International Disarmament Experts, organised by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Hiroshima Office on 27 February. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 February 2020]

Photo courtesy of UNITAR Hiroshima Office.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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