Sunday, 19 September, 2021

Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

Hira Bahadur Thapa

August 6 marks the 76th anniversary of Hiroshima bombing when the world experienced the consequences of the first atomic weapons dropped on the city during World War II. Then, 140,000 people were killed. The US, being a part of war alliance opposed to Japan, had decided to test the most indiscriminate and inhuman weapons. Proponents of atomic weapons against Japan believe that bombing hastened the end of the war. Since their use in 1945 debate remains inconclusive whether nuclear weapons serve a good purpose by providing nuclear deterrence, which prevents nuclear weapons possessors from resorting to their use. Perhaps miraculously, no country has ever dared to use them for fear of being retaliated by nuclear weapons. In nuclear war, no one becomes the winner. But their presence still threatens world peace no less than they used to some seven decades ago.

In terms of devastation, many times more destructive nuclear weapons have been developed compared to those experimented in Japan. The number of countries acquiring them has increased too reaching nine albeit the international community hesitates to recognise Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan as nuclear powers. The other acknowledged are the world powers which occupy five permanent seats in the UN Security Council. In fact, endeavours aimed at curtailing the number of nuclear weapons both at bilateral and multilateral levels have been taken producing some progress in that direction. The large possession of nuclear warheads especially by the US and Russia, world’s two largest nuclear powers hardly rule out the possibility of nuclear Armageddon should their current testy bilateral relationship continue worsening.

Nuclear warheads
Today roughly 90 per cent of the world’s estimated total arsenal of nuclear warheads are possessed by the US and Russia. According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are now more than 13,000 nuclear warheads worldwide. The US has 5,800 while Russia possesses 6,375 nuclear warheads. Similarly, China, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea possess 320, 290, 215,160, 150, 90 and 30-40 nuclear warheads, respectively.

Indeed, the nuclear weapon states are in limited number and a large majority that does not hold nuclear weapons are involved in international measures to restrain their design, development and deployment. One of the breakthrough agreements made in limiting the number of nuclear weapon states is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of the Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
The above Cold War treaty was negotiated between 1965 and 1968. Signed in 1968, NPT came into force in 1970. Considered to be the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the treaty was established to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and advance the goals of complete nuclear disarmament. Extended indefinitely in 1995, NPT’s long-term goal of complete nuclear disarmament has remained elusive though its contribution in halting the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons is evidenced by the small number of countries holding such weapons. Most efforts to contain to spread of nuclear weapons have been patchy. Despite a slew of nuclear arms control agreements and nuclear weapons free zones, the international community has a long way to go before it rids itself of nuclear threat.

Bilaterally, both the US and Russia have made some progress in at least extending the New START (Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty), which has been extended for five years which was set to expire in February 2021. But the expectations generated by START’s extension in the first few months of Biden’s presidency have not been met as many predicted that both these major nuclear powers would engage in further strategic nuclear arms reduction negotiations productively. The US-Russia bilateral nuclear arms control talks have hit a snag, imperilling progress in the subject.

Furthermore, measures to restrict the development of tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons have failed. These weapons could be used as battlefield weapons as opposed to long distance strategic strikes. Paradoxically, there is no agreement to regulate these weapons and therefore, they are among the least regulated category of nuclear weapons in existing arms control arrangements. Despite announcing their intentions to eliminate the inventories of ground-launched tactical weapons in 1991 when START was first negotiated, the US and Russia have made limited headway.

It is true that thousands of tactical nuclear weapons have been withdrawn and disassembled. But since no treaties covering this class of weapons have been signed as yet there are no reporting requirements and resultantly no progress can be verified. These arrangements are intended for use alongside conventional forces; therefore, they are potentially even more dangerous threat than long-range strategic nuclear weapons. Experts believe that nuclear weapons designed for the heat of battle could make escalation from conventional weapons more tempting.

Nuclear weapons - be they strategic or tactical - are the most dangerous arms in view of their destructiveness. Even a small-scale nuclear conflagration could have devastating global repercussions which justify the extraordinary efforts to rein them in. But the dilemma is that the nuclear weapons capable countries are unwilling to relinquish them. They want to hold them for maintaining their status as nuclear powers. They have confidence that such weapons provide them credible deterrence during war.
After long years of difficult multilateral negotiations the members of the UN have signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2020. With required ratifications, the treaty has become effective already but worryingly none of the nine nuclear weapons capable states have either signed or acceded to it. Consequently, the treaty lacks universal support despite its merits.
Abolishing nuclear weapons is a sine qua non to world peace. The world cannot afford to bear the catastrophe arising out of the use of such indiscriminate weapons, whose lethality has increased several times more than in 1945.

(Thapa was Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008-09.