By Cesar Jaramillo
Make no mistake: neither North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test nor the recent high-stakes stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program are the root of nuclear insecurity. They are but symptoms of a nuclear disarmament regime in a severe state of disrepair.
While every other category of weapons of mass destruction has been specifically prohibited under international law, nuclear weapons — by far the most destructive of them all — remarkably still have not. What is needed is a global legal ban on nuclear weapons, with specific provisions for the elimination of existing arsenals and a timeline for verified implementation.
A rare opportunity for progress on this front has opened up. A UN-established Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) met in Geneva three times this year with a mandate to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.
The final OEWG report included a recommendation, supported by a majority of participating states, to convene a conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The expectation is that there will be a resolution to operationalize this proposal at the UN General Assembly First Committee (on disarmament and international security) when it meets in October.
Notably, Canada voted against the OEWG recommendation — along with most other members of NATO, itself a nuclear weapons alliance.
Perfect Conditions for Ban May Never Exist
Despite being a non-nuclear weapons state, Canada stands not with the growing number of nations, organizations, and individuals that believe that a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons is long overdue. Instead, Ottawa’s position is aligned with that of the few who question the merits of a nuclear weapons ban.
Canada’s current stance — and that of most nuclear weapons states — is that conditions are not ideal for a ban on nuclear weapons. But the reality is that they never may be. Nuclear disarmament negotiations must therefore be started, realized and concluded under geopolitical conditions that are predictably less than perfect.
An increasingly loud denunciation of the intransigence of states with nuclear weapons, however, has done little to persuade them to change course. Nuclear-weapons states still purport to be at the same time arbiters and direct beneficiaries of global norms on the acceptability of nuclear weapons possession.
Challenging Nuclear States’ Moral High Ground
Consider the lopsided logic by which the very states that have developed, stockpiled, tested, and used nuclear weapons deem themselves fit to chastise others on the risks of proliferation. The moral high ground they claim is built upon an extremely weak and inherently unjust foundation.
They demand immediate, consistent compliance with non-proliferation obligations, but disregard their own responsibility to disarm. They extol the value of nuclear weapons in safeguarding their national security, but expect no one else to embrace the same rationale.
Some countries deem the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons by certain states unacceptable, but seem content to accept the nuclear-weapons programs of military or economic allies, even outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) framework.
The United States and Canada, for instance, not only turn a blind eye to the notoriously opaque Israeli nuclear weapons program, but engage in nuclear cooperation agreements with India, contravening the longstanding principle that such cooperation should be reserved for NPT states parties.
The pervasive notion that the primary problem of nuclear weapons is the risk of their proliferation, and not their very existence, cannot be further perpetuated.
The Problem: The Very Existence of Nuclear Weapons
So let us be clear: the main problem with the existence of nuclear weapons is the existence of nuclear weapons. Proliferation concerns are no doubt important, but they will not be fully allayed unless and until the responsibility to disarm is taken seriously by states with nuclear weapons.
Especially problematic is the determination of several nuclear-weapons states to retain a nuclear arsenal as long as such weapons exist. This strategic, political, and logical straitjacket all but ensures that a world without nuclear weapons will never be achieved.
Today, more than 15,000 nuclear warheads continue to threaten civilization. Even a limited nuclear exchange would bring about incalculable loss of human life and catastrophic effects for the environment. So the objective cannot be nuclear weapons management or containment. Nor are sporadic reductions and reconfigurations of nuclear systems sufficient. Only complete and irreversible disarmament will do.
Humanitarian Imperative of Nuclear Disarmament
Tired arguments over the purported value of nuclear weapons possession have been replaced by a renewed emphasis on the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament. The catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use outweighs any and all alleged benefits.
Further, billions of dollars (some estimates put the price tag at more than $1-trillion) are slated to be spent modernizing arsenals and related infrastructure while the most basic needs of a significant segment of the world’s population are still unmet. From this perspective, the time certainly seems ripe for turning nuclear swords into ploughshares, so to speak.
The UN First Committee resolution on a legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons will afford Canada a unique opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the security of a world free of these instruments of mass destruction. Come October we will know whether it was seized. Or squandered.Φ
Cesar Jaramillo is executive director at Project Ploughshares, the peace centre of the Canadian Council of Churches, based in Waterloo, ON. His areas of expertise include nuclear disarmament, outer space security and conventional weapons control.