Targeting Nuclear Armed States

Given our current path, it’s only a matter of time before there is another nuclear detonation. We must do everything in our power to prevent it.

By Earl Turcotte | 2016-04-01 12:00:00

Nuclear disarmament has been a stated goal of the international community since shortly after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Indeed, the first resolution brought forward in the United Nations addressed nuclear disarmament, and there have been many since. Yet seven decades later, nine states including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have amassed a combined arsenal of approximately 16,000 nuclear weapons, thousands of which are on high-alert status at any given time.

In 1995, the Government of Australia’s Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons observed:

“So long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any country has nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used, by accident if not by design; and any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.”

Given how close to nuclear calamity the world has regularly come, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans further concluded, “it has not been a result of good policy or good management that the world has avoided a nuclear weapons catastrophe for 70 years: Rather it has been sheer dumb luck.”

Notwithstanding bilateral agreements between Russia and the US that made some headway in years past, “momentum toward nuclear disarmament is going in the wrong direction,” notes Eric Schlosser.1 Russia is introducing new land-based and submarine-based missiles; China is not only increasing the number of nuclear weapons but is also deploying missiles that can carry multiple warheads. (China also recently indicated it is considering putting its entire nuclear arsenal on high alert status). France is adding new missiles to its submarines, as well as new warheads; the UK is investing in an expensive replacement for its Trident submarines; Israel is adapting its nuclear cruise missiles to be carried by submarines; India is building new long range missiles and a new reactor to produce plutonium; Pakistan is developing tactical weapons that can be used on the battlefield; North Korea claims to be increasing the size of its nuclear stockpile; (and in March, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un ordered that they be placed on high alert status and able to carry out pre-emptive strikes); and the US is in the early stages of a nuclear modernization program that will commission new land-based missiles, new ballistic missile submarines and new long-range bombers, at an estimated cost of a trillion dollars (US).

In January of this year, the NATO Secretary General warned that more than 30 countries have or are building ballistic missiles capable of firing nuclear warheads thousands of miles; and Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist with National Defense University in Washington, claims that a new type of hypersonic boost-glide weapon capable of travelling at more than 4,000 miles per hour and able to under-fly traditional strategic missile defenses will significantly increase the risk of a preemptive nuclear strike.

Of equal if not far greater concern is the prospect that non-state actors—terrorist organizations—will achieve nuclear capability. Daesh (Islamic State) openly boasts that it seeks to acquire a nuclear device and others will surely follow suit.

It is increasingly clear that humanity’s best and perhaps only hope of avoiding the unthinkable lies in the total elimination of nuclear weapons and establishing an effective global regime of control over nuclear technology and fissile material. A comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention is vital to the attainment of this goal.

Blazing New Diplomatic Trails

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1970 focuses on stemming nuclear proliferation. It also contains the following, legally binding obligation:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The legal obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons has since been reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice.

Though most nuclear armed states are party to the NPT, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5), they and their supporters have stymied every significant multilateral initiative toward nuclear disarmament for almost half a century. This blockage is made possible procedurally by largely restricting nuclear deliberations to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), a forum with limited membership (65 states) that requires consensus (interpreted as unanimous consent) before anything of substance is agreed. The CD hasn’t been able to agree even upon a program of work for almost 20 years and is, for all practical purposes, a dead forum.

States serious about nuclear disarmament have little choice in my view but to take this issue outside the Conference on Disarmament, to an open forum with rules of procedure that will prevent any one or small number of states holding up progress for the world.

Within or Outside the UN

States could opt for an independent process outside the UN framework similar to that used to negotiate the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty (the Ottawa Convention) in 1997 and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM or “Oslo” Convention) in 2008.

Without doubt, both the “Ottawa” and “Oslo“processes produced world-class treaties. Alternatively, it may be possible to harness the power of the apex organ of the United Nations—the General Assembly (GA).

Article 18 of the UN Charter states that each member of the General Assembly shall have one vote;

Article 19 states that decisions of the General Assembly on important questions shall be made by a two thirds majority;

And Article 22 states that the General Assembly may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions.

In 2015, with 135 votes in favour, the General Assembly easily passed Resolution L.13 entitled “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations” which has established an open ended working group (OEWG) that will meet for three, five-day sessions in Geneva in 2016 and submit to the next meeting of the General Assembly “recommendations on concrete and effective legal measures to achieve nuclear disarmament, in particular new legal provisions and norms to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”

At that point, the limited mandate of this OEWG will have been fulfilled.

The logical next step, in my view, is to seek an unambiguous mandate to negotiate a new Nuclear Weapons Convention, preferably under the authority of the General Assembly, ensuring that negotiations are open to all UN member states and are conducted using democratic rules of procedure. If for any reason, states fail to win such a mandate, I would strongly support initiating a process outside the UN Framework, as per mines and cluster munitions.

With or without Nuclear-Armed States

No doubt there would be fierce opposition from nuclear armed states, to either undertaking. At minimum, they would boycott the process and press their allies hard to do the same. This begs the question, “Is there any point in conducting nuclear disarmament negotiations without some or all Nuclear Weapons States?”


Recall that the legal obligation to pursue effective measures towards nuclear disarmament applies equally to all State Parties to the NPT, nuclear-armed or not.

A new Convention explicitly banning nuclear weapons will fill any legal gap that exists in international law and, over time, could become customary international law, legally binding on all states.

In either case, a new Convention will further strengthen the international norm against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons until the nuclear “option” is simply inconceivable and unacceptable to reasonable people everywhere, and this is reflected in individual nations’ and alliances’ security policies and doctrines.

Nature of the instrument

The UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), in collaboration with the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) based in Norway, recently produced an excellent analysis of various approaches and instruments under consideration by the international community.

They are in brief:

I fear that any multi-stage negotiating process could cost decades and would seriously compromise the quality of any results achieved. I strongly prefer the Comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention model, with one vitally important addition—means of verification.

It strikes me that three elements are essential and mutually reinforcing: (i) a comprehensive ban, (ii) a clear obligation to destroy nuclear stocks within ambitious timelines that would bind nuclear armed states immediately upon accession to the Convention, without need of further negotiation, albeit with provision for extension of said deadline where stockpiles are large and extra time can be justified, and (iii) effective verification measures to ensure compliance both with the ban and stockpile destruction—matters far too important to be left to “trust.”

Do it once and do it right.

Inclusion of these three elements might also increase the chances of getting nuclear armed states to participate in negotiations from the start, as they may wish to directly influence the establishment of any new international law or norm against which they will be judged. If they still choose not to participate, proceed without them and spare no effort to bring them in later.

Non-nuclear-armed states have every right as well as an existential stake in establishing new international standards that will impact nuclear-armed states. They have, or have access to, more than adequate nuclear and other expertise to effectively negotiate any and all aspects of a new Nuclear Weapons Convention, including stockpile destruction. The suggestion that they do not is wholly unfounded, as is the suggestion that nuclear-armed states will never accept standards that they themselves do not negotiate. History has demonstrated that new international standards, well-conceived and forcefully promoted, can and will be universalized over time.

Learning from Experience

Oslo, February 2007: Only forty- nine states have accepted Norway’s global invitation to a meeting to consider initiating a process “to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm.” Three days later, 46 support the proposal. Over the following year, preparatory conferences are held in Lima, Vienna, and Wellington and complementary regional events are held in various parts of the globe. With each event, momentum builds. When negotiations convene in Dublin 15 months later, 108 states are present and prepared to engage despite significant pressure from some powerful states not to do so. Also present are 20 observer states, numerous UN agencies, international organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and hundreds of NGOs from around the world that have come together under the banner of the Cluster Munitions Coalition. After ten days of intense negotiation, the powerful and far-reaching text of the Convention on Cluster Munitions is endorsed—unanimously!

Today, 118 states have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions and 162 have joined the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty negotiated a decade earlier. Lessons learned? Creative, muscular diplomacy works. Whether conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction, where there is determination, great things can be accomplished.


Nuclear armed states repeatedly call for “pragmatism” and “realism” with respect to the nuclear issue. A good place to start would be dispensing with the almost childishly naive notions that the nuclear appetites and aspirations of states and terrorist organizations will be contained indefinitely so long as anyone possesses nuclear weapons; and that the world can afford to wait until some unspecified measure of international peace and security is attained before getting rid of these weapons. Isn’t it obvious that the elimination of nuclear weapons is itself a pre-condition to attaining international peace and security?

Concerned citizens throughout the world must come together to induce, impel, and, if necessary, compel our leaders to reject the status quo; to refuse to be held back any longer, and to bring the collective diplomatic, political and economic might of the rest of the world to bear upon those who would continue to gamble with the future of our planet.

Proponents of the status quo “step-by-step” approach would be wise to consider the words of a man who, more than anyone else, understood the gravity of the threat posed by these weapons:

“The trouble with taking little steps, one at a time, in the hope of reaching the ultimate goal, is that while they are being taken, we continue to keep the bomb without making our reason convincing for those who do not have it. That of itself creates fear and suspicion, with the consequence that the relations of rival sovereignties deteriorate dangerously. So while persons who take only a step at a time may think they are approaching world peace, they actually are contributing by their slow pace to the coming of war. We have no time to spend in this way. If war is to be averted, it must be done quickly!” —Albert Einstein (1946)

As Senior Coordinator and Director of the Mine Action Team, Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (2005-2011), Earl Turcotte had lead responsibility for Canada’s engagement on the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Conventional Weapons, and negotiation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. From 2012 to 2014 he served as UNDP Chief Technical Adviser to the Government of Laos, in the Unexploded Ordnance Sector.


1 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2015, Vol. 71(6) 11-17.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2016

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