Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: Opportunities and Roadblocks

Snyder_Susie_smartstuffBy Susi Snyder

The final preparatory committee meeting of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended on May 15 with adoption of an agenda for the 2010 NPT Review Conference. This is a positive step towards nuclear weapons abolition. However, the road to a world free of nuclear weapons still has many bumps to overcome, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), successful conclusions of a Fissile Materials Treaty (FMT), bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on a follow-up to the START treaty, regional security arrangements that include nuclear weapons sharing agreements and more.

Hope on the Horizon

On April 5, President Obama gave his historic speech in Prague which put disarmament first and contributed greatly to global momentum for nuclear weapons abolition. What made it so incredible was tFish Peace Ad - April 2006 with Flag - 2hat he, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, boldly stated that they need to deal with their own weapons first. The other nations that possess nuclear weapons will not negotiate nuclear disarmament until the U.S. and Russia, possessors of more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, come to their level.

Obama also resuscitated a position that left the White House with Ronald Reagan — “trust but verify.” In her Senate confirmation speech, Hilary Clinton talked about the need to negotiate a verifiable fissile materials treaty. This one word changed a U.S. position that has prevented negotiations on multilateral nuclear arms control and disarmament for years.

The body charged with negotiating a fissile materials treaty is the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). The 65-member CD has not negotiated any multilateral treaties in more than a dozen years. It is currently developing a program of work that includes negotiations on a fissile materials treaty, discussions on a treaty preventing an arms race in outer space, negative security assurances (legally binding guarantees that those with nuclear weapons will not use them against those who do not have them) and other aspects related to nuclear disarmament. The current CD proposal suggests that the fissile materials treaty would include verification provisions only possible since this shift in U.S. position.

Progress Will Be Slow

Of course, negotiations will be slow. The technicalities associated with verifying whether highly enriched uranium or plutonium has been diverted to military use alone will take experts a long time to come to consensus on. Fortunately, there have been many recent studies and proposals put forward by academics and non-governmental organizations that will help. Draft treaties written by Greenpeace and the International Panel on Fissile Materials in particular are worth considering, as they delineate which political, legal and technical issues need to be negotiated.

One of the challenges to negotiating a fissile materials treaty, also faced by the NPT meeting, was that the U.S. administration has not yet filled the positions needed for these discussions to take place. While appointments like the disarmament ambassador have not been confirmed, Rose Gottemoeller has been appointed as Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance and leads the NPT team in New York.

The NPT is the cornerstone for multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Article VI calls on the five recognized nuclear weapons states (China, France, Russia, U.K. and the U.S.) “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. The treaty was set to expire in 1995, but a package of decisions and a resolution calling for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East indefinitely extended it. Demonstrable progress on the implementation of that resolution will decide whether or not the next Review Conference ends in success or failure.

Nukes and the Middle East

Of course issues in the Middle East are complex. The 1995 resolution “Calls upon all States in the Middle East to take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems, and to refrain from taking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective” and also “Calls upon all States party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and in particular the nuclear-weapons States, to extend their cooperation and to exert their utmost efforts with a view to ensuring the early establishment by regional parties of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.”

Israel has failed to confirm or deny the existence of the nuclear weapons that everyone knows they have, and at the same time Israel, Egypt and Syria have not yet ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. The debates about whether the region should become a nuclear weapons free zone before it becomes a weapons of mass destruction free zone, or whether peace between Israel and Palestine is needed first, or whether all of this should happen at the same time are holding up the implementation of the 1995 resolution. Iran, under suspicion for seeking nuclear weapons capability, is another part of this situation.

CTBT – Another Bump in the Road

Another bump on the road to nuclear weapons abolition is the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban. With the nuclear weapons test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on 24 May, the urgency of a CTBT is heightened even further.

Currently, nine countries must ratify the CTBT before it can come into force: China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, United States, India, Pakistan and the DPRK (North Korea). Obama has dedicated resources and political will to ensure that it is ratified, but two-thirds of the Senate must also approve. One of the best things U.S. citizens can do now is tell their senators that ratifying this treaty will protect U.S. national interests and U.S. national security. Ratifying the CTBT, and shutting down the Nevada Nuclear Test Site would send a signal to the international community that the U.S. is ready to provide leadership toward multilateral security. However, some suggest that ratification will come at a price, and that the tradeoff will be the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That would send the wrong signal when the U.S. instead needs to repair international relationships damaged by the war on Iraq and build bridges towards collective security for the world.

The U.S. is also conducting a nuclear posture review, assessing what role nuclear weapons will play in future security strategies, as well as the state of the nuclear weapons complex. One proposal linked to this review is the “life extension” program (the new name for Stockpile Stewardship and Management). A recent report by Bob Civiak, “Transforming the U.S. Strategic Posture and Weapons Complex,” proposes some ways forward for the U.S. The report considers how to keep materials secure, as well as how to shut down parts of the nuclear weapons complex not needed in a world moving towards irreversible, verifiable disarmament.

Nuclear weapons disarmament is not free. Even cutting the budget for the National Nuclear Safety Administration to zero would not cause immediate nuclear disarmament. There are safety issues, cleanup, storage of plutonium “pits” at Pantex and other issues. All of these cost money. However, advocates should encourage spending for disarmament and dismantlement and oppose any new construction in the nuclear weapons complex.


NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a relic of the Cold War, is undergoing its first strategic review since 1999. Five countries host U.S. nuclear weapons under NATO — Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the Netherlands. Recently, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called these weapons “obsolete” and much of the German Parliament supports their removal.

The last irreversible and verifiable arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia was the START agreement, set to expire in December. Fortunately, negotiations have already begun on a replacement treaty — one that should include the principles of irreversibility and verifiability (as the SORT or Moscow Treaty of 2002 failed to do). Some have suggested that the nuclear giants may reduce to 500 weapons (both tactical and strategic) each. If this is achieved, it will mean that the multilateral processes to get to zero — the negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban that include China, France and the U.K. — can begin from a more level playing field.

The final hurdle that nuclear abolition advocates will have to overcome on the road to zero is the cynicism that keeps so many dedicated people from believing that a nuclear weapons-free world is possible. This doubt that nuclear weapons can be abolished or that progress is possible, fills the minds of both civil society and civil servants. With Obama’s historic speech in Prague we are at a historic moment. Neither doubt nor disbelief should keep us from walking down the road to a nuclear weapons-free world. Φ

Susi Snyder is Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, based in their Geneva Switzerland Secretariat. This exclusive to The PeaceWorker expresses her personal opinions and may not reflect the positions of WILPF or its associated Reaching Critical Will or PeaceWomen projects.

Photo courtesy of www.wilpf.int.ch

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