Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London dp27@soas.ac.uk

The Future of Disarmament – Getting There

“The existence of nuclear weapons presents a clear and present danger to life on Earth. Nuclear arms cannot bolster the security of any nation because they represent a threat to the security of the human race. These incredibly destructive weapons are an affront to our common humanity, and the tens of billions of dollars that are dedicated to their development and maintenance should be used instead to alleviate human need and suffering.”
– Oscar Arias Sanchez

The wheels of nuclear disarmament are turning, albeit slowly. Fraser et al. argue that “there has never been a better time to achieve total nuclear disarmament.” Indeed, the push towards nuclear disarmament is pressing, necessary and increasingly feasible. Two major events seem to herald promising times ahead for the future of nuclear disarmament: the election of a US President who has indicated a clear commitment to nuclear weapons abolition and Iran’s apparent new readiness to address international concerns about its atomic ambitions. It is hoped that political leaders around the world capitalize on this opportunity to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

As it stands now, the number of nuclear warheads globally is about 17,000 (World Nuclear Stockpile Report, May 2013), down roughly 75 percent over the last thirty years, due mostly to significant cuts made by the US and Russia. However, more than a decade and a half has elapsed since the Cold War has ended and it is unacceptable that the world’s nuclear stockpile remains at such an alarmingly high level. Last month, Australia’s ambassador to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Christine Hackl, warned that, “without complete disarmament, we will stand to lose the fight against proliferation in the long run.”

At the centre of the fight to achieve a sustainable and effective abolition of nuclear weapons, lies the necessity to negotiate a “comprehensive, irreversible, binding and verifiable treaty” (Fraser et al. April 2009), what has been termed a ‘Nuclear Weapons Convention’ (NWC), which would regulate all relevant aspects of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Indeed, in the past, this kind of treaty has been at the heart of eliminating whole classes of weapons, from chemical and biological weapons to landmines. While it is true that a number of multilateral treaties have been established with the aim of preventing nuclear proliferation and testing; the two most important are the ‘Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’ (NPT) and the ‘Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty’ (CTBT). It is argued that the NWC, whose aim is to prohibit development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, will be a more effective legislative tool to lead the world towards a nuclear-free world. The NWC has the blessings of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, as well as the firm commitment of two thirds of all governments (indeed, nations that support a nuclear weapons convention make up approximately 81% of the world’s population, with the fence-sitters accounting for 5% and the opponents 14%)[1]. It is therefore believed that the time is ripe to push for the early realization of the NWC so that we can have an enforceable international legal mechanism to prevent the development and use of nuclear weapons.

The second proposed pathway towards a nuclear-free world would involve serious commitment by powerful states to work towards nuclear non-proliferation and for them to cease testing nuclear weapons. It cannot be stressed enough that despite international outrage, which is often expressed towards the practice of states such as the US, North Korea and Russia to test nuclear weapons, this has not deterred states from testing their nuclear capabilities. As recently as last month, the US Air Force tested a nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), an action that prompted the international community to doubt President’s Obama vow to work towards a nuclear-free world.

Earlier this year, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test at its underground testing site. The practice of testing nuclear weapons is not only seen as an act of provocation, but also openly and belligerently defies the CTBT, in which states agree to ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. The obvious solution therefore lies in states making a firm pledge to stop the practice of nuclear weapons testing once and for all.

Another path worth pursuing in the quest for nuclear disarmament would be the reform of NPT governance.  A number of countries, including Canada and Ireland, have put forward a proposal that would help remediate some deficiencies of the current non-proliferation/disarmament regime. The step forward would be scheduling annual meetings of NPT state parties with a rotating executive “responsible and empowered to assess and take action regarding non-compliance with non-proliferation and disarmament obligations”[2] under the NPT framework. Another proposal involves the creation of an Agency or Council, which would devise clear and effective strategies to help states move towards the abolition of nuclear weapons or take punitive actions against non-complying states.

It has also been suggested that there should be an “authoritative international accounting of warhead and fissile material stockpiles, nuclear weapons delivery system and spending on nuclear forces.”[3] This would help considerably in providing the basis for evaluating progress in the disarmament process and identifying benchmarks. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated in his five-point proposal for disarmament that nuclear powers should be more proactive in providing the “amount of information they publish about the size of their arsenals, stocks of fissile material and specific disarmament achievements.” This indeed would increase transparency and make states more accountable.

Moreover, it is strongly advocated that states should pursue the principle of good faith, which is recognized as an important aspect of international law, when considering nuclear disarmament. In fact, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides that “pacta sunt servanda” – every treaty is binding upon the parties to it and it must be performed by them in good faith.[4] Therefore, all states that have ratified the NPT should take positive steps towards ensuring that they are complying with the treaty, as well as engage in negotiations that would create a strict and effective regime for nuclear disarmament.

The future of nuclear disarmament is not bleak, and with the right amount of commitment and good faith from nuclear powers, the fight towards a nuclear-free world can surely be won. However, states should refrain from only paying lip service to nuclear disarmament and take meaningful and results-orientated steps to be completely rid of nuclear weapons. Only when the international community demonstrates genuine willingness to cooperate among themselves and act accordingly, can we really aspire to a world where we no longer have to live in fear of the threat of nuclear weapons.

Krishnee Appadoo, MA Candidate in International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS

[1] Towards a Treaty banning Nuclear Weapons, ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,

[2] The Need for a Coherent Nuclear Non-Proliferation/Disarmament Regime – 53rd Session of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, 26 Feb 2010, UN Headquarters, New York

[3] Ibid

[4] Article 26, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties