Measures for Nuclear Weapons Abolition

Eiichi Sugie. Peace Research. Volume 35, Issue 2. November 2003.

Throughout the half-century-long Cold War that followed World War II, the superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—maintained massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons and threatened each other with mutual destruction. This policy of threat by nuclear weapons was called “nuclear deterrence.”

More than ten years after the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Cold War ended in 1989, we have entered the 21[Symbol Not Transcribed] century. Now that the U.S.-Soviet confrontation based on the Cold War has melted away, the need for stockpiling and planning to use nuclear weapons disappeared. Having shaken off the half-century-long spell of nuclear deterrence, we now have the best chance of regarding nuclear weapons as a relic of the Cold War, abandoning the strategy of “mutual destruction,” and breaking free of the danger and dilemma posed by nuclear weapons.

In July 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down an advisory opinion stating that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law” and “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.” The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) asks the nuclear weapons states to pursue in good faith negotiations relating to nuclear disarmament but does not obligate them to reach agreement. The ICJ required not only negotiation but the attainment of agreement.

The announcement of the advisory opinion infused fresh vigor into the pursuit of the abolition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear weapon states and international public opinion calling for such abolition.

One after another, neutral and non-aligned states without nuclear weapons and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have called for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. The report of the Canberra Commission urged the five nuclear weapon states “to commit themselves unequivocally to the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

At the UN General Assembly in 1998, seven nations (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden) submitted a resolution entitled “Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: The Need for a New Agenda.” The resolution called upon the nuclear weapon states “to demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to the speedy and total elimination of their respective nuclear weapons.” As the core coalition of non-nuclear weapon states seeking the complete abolition of nuclear weapons, the seven countries are called the “New Agenda Coalition.”

The activities of the New Agenda Coalition and the other non-nuclear weapon states, and the NGOs supporting it produced great results in the 6th NPT Review Conference held in April 2000. That conference adopted a Final Document calling upon the nuclear weapon states to make “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” This undertaking was made possible by the ending of the Cold War. It should have been the first step in the process of abolishing nuclear weapons.

Conditions for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

In order to render efficacy to the international public commitment to abolish nuclear weapons, as expressed in the Final Document of the NPT Review Conference, measures to stimulate the promotion of negotiations and to open paths toward realizing their potential are a precondition to beginning negotiations. These measures, or “practical steps that the nuclear weapon states can and should take immediately” must be acceptable to the nuclear weapon states. (New Agenda Coalition)

In brief, the measures must, through reducing dependence on nuclear weapons, decrease their political and military utility. This will require the nuclear weapon states to review their nuclear weapons policies. If the nuclear weapon states relinquish dependence on nuclear deterrence and promise not to use nuclear weapons, the reason for possessing them and the basis for dependence on them also disappears. Let me outline the measures, which are neither unrealistic nor foolish, but are simply not accepted by the nuclear weapon states.

(1) De-alerting

Nuclear weapon states keep their nuclear missiles in a constant state of alert so that they can be fired at any time. Even now, after the Cold War, they remain on alert. Nuclear weapons are in a state of readiness for war, for nuclear war. Because the U.S. and Russia possess massive quantities of nuclear weapons, in a political crisis we have no guarantee that the button for nuclear attack will not be pushed. There is a danger that nuclear weapons may be fired in an accident, by misunderstanding, by mistaken order, or for any other unintentional reason.

The U.S., Britain, and Russia have de-targeted their nuclear missiles. However, de-targeting is not the same as de-alerting. Detargeting is like a soldier resting his fully loaded rifle on his knees. At an order, he can immediately re-arm the rifle. The missiles loaded with nuclear warheads remain deployed on the bases. They can be reaimed at any time. De-targeting does not remove the potential for surprise attacks. It cannot alleviate the opponent’s sense of danger. If the bullets are removed from the guns and stored elsewhere, that is to say, undeployed by being removed from the delivery vehicle (the missile) and stored in a remote location, even in a crisis a surprise attack by the enemy is not feared. De-alerting is the first step towards mutual trust. Conversely, as long as each side worries about the other’s surprise attack, they are unlikely to sit down to negotiations. No longer do the U.S. and Russia refer to each other as the enemy. Therefore, negotiations are possible.

In the Final Document, “De-alerting” and “removal of nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles and their withdrawal from deployment” were rephrased more ambiguously as, “further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems.” Nevertheless, this method is an important and practical means of reviewing nuclear weapons policy.

(2) Banning the production of fissile materials

Banning production (cut-off) of fissile materials for nuclear weapons (enriched uranium and plutonium) is a prerequisite for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. We are already awash in plutonium. So, if we not only ban future production but dispose of materials presently stored or place them under international control, the abolition of nuclear weapons will become much easier.

Though such a cut-off has been an issue at the Conference on Disarmament for some years, negotiations have not progressed. This is because the U.S. refuses to dispose of the nuclear fissile materials it already possesses—a ban on their future production is the only possibility it will consider. By preventing use of fissile nuclear materials to be produced for nuclear weapons in the future, the U.S. seeks the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the Conference on Disarmament, the non-aligned nations are also insisting on the disposal of the present fissile nuclear materials or their placement under international control. In other words, refusing to limit their goal to banning future production, they intend to connect the ban with a clear plan for nuclear disarmament.

(3) Negative Security Consequences

Assurances by nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states that they will not use nuclear weapons on them (attack them with nuclear weapons) is termed “negative security assurances.” The five nuclear weapon states have declared non-use of nuclear weapons on non-nuclear weapon states. However, declarations are no more than unilateral statements, not an international treaty with legally binding power. In the declarations, four nuclear weapon states (except China) attach the reservation item, “except in the case of attack in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.” Many non-nuclear states seek the conclusion of a negative security treaty with legally binding power, but no such treaty has been realized.

Negative security assurances, the subject with the longest history in nuclear disarmament negotiations, has considered afresh in recent proposals. If such a regime is established, it will not only enhance peace and safety for non-nuclear weapon states, but also diminish the utility of the weapons, thereby contributing to their abolition.

(4) Reduction and elimination of tactical (non-strategic) nuclear weapons

Past nuclear disarmament negotiations targeted strategic nuclear weapons, which are long-range nuclear weapons prepared for the possibility of war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. No negotiations have taken place on the subject of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons except for a treaty concluded in 1988 to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces. The possibility that tactical nuclear weapons could be used is relatively high.

Both the U.S. and Russia have declared that they will remove nuclear weapons deployed overseas and return them to the homeland. However, since they are unilateral declarations, they can at any time be annulled and the weapons redeployed. U.S. policy, in particular, is to “neither confirm nor deny (NCND)” that its battleships and airplanes are carrying nuclear weapons. Thus, we have no way of ascertaining whether or not the U.S. Air Force and Navy deploy nuclear weapons overseas. Unilateral declarations do not open a path toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. Rather, they might even be a means to rationalize the possession of nuclear weapons.

At the UN General Assembly in 2002, the New Agenda Coalition submitted another resolution calling for the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. We must begin negotiation on reducing and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons as soon as possible.

(5) How to proceed with negotiations

Currently, disarmament negotiations are taking place between the U.S. and Russia only; they do not involve Britain, France, or China. The U.S. and Russia are the two countries possessing most existing nuclear weapons. Though the quantities possessed by the other three nuclear weapon states are enough to destroy civilization on earth, they are so negligible as to not pose a problem in comparison to the amounts owned by the U.S. and Russia. The gap is huge. For that reason, the three states refuse to participate in negotiations unless the U.S. and Russia reduce their stockpiles to their own levels. It is an urgent need that the U.S. and Russia greatly reduce their stockpiles and enable the start of negotiations among the five nuclear weapon states.

Even if these five states do begin negotiations, we cannot expect much from secret negotiations among the nuclear weapon states. The abolition of nuclear weapons is a problem not only for nuclear weapon states—it affects each person and each country on earth. As many non-nuclear weapon states as possible should participate in nuclear disarmament negotiations. Further, a system to supervise the process is needed, along with the pressure of international public opinion.

The Final Document asserts the importance of applying the “principle of irreversibility” to measures to reduce nuclear weapons, so we must establish an appropriate method and form for negotiations that will ensure progress without regression in nuclear disarmament.

The Choice for the 21th Century

The current U.S. administration not only refuses to abandon nuclear weapons, it is working on making their possession permanent by developing new plans for their use, and is trying to break the international commitment of 2000.

The Bush administration rejects the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and is trying to kill it. The administration is carrying out sub-critical nuclear tests, looking for a way to restart nuclear weapons testing, and indicating that it plans to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons which could defeat hard and deeply buried targets. The nuclear deterrence strategy limited the target of any U.S. nuclear attack to the Soviet Union. Now, however, the U.S. has called certain countries “rogue nations,” creating a new basis for considering third-world non-nuclear weapon states as targets for nuclear attack. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union understood that “nuclear war has no winners-it is the road to common annihilation.” The Bush administration appears to lack awareness of this fact.

The New Agenda Coalition presented a new resolution at the 2002 UN General Assembly. Without mentioning the United States by name, the resolution expresses deep concern that “emerging approaches to the broader role of nuclear weapons as part of security strategies could lead to the development of new types, and rationalizations for the use, of nuclear weapons.” It calls for “the full and effective implementation of the substantial agreements reached at the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

The international community now must choose whether to proclaim loudly the danger of the “rogue nations” and terrorism, in order to strengthen the role of nuclear weapons, or to grope for a plan to reduce it.