The paradox of the nuclear age

Climate change and nuclear war are the two most serious threats to human security and planetary survival. Governments are addressing the causes of climate change and the prevention of nuclear war, but political will to reduce greenhouse gases and eradicate nuclear weapons needs to be further strengthened.

Climate change is now visible and palpable, but the threat of nuclear war remains relatively abstract and unperceived among some complacent world leaders, despite the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons in a world that still resolves conflict by going to war.

Article VI of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) imposes a legal obligation on non-nuclear weapon states to forgo nuclear weapons and on nuclear weapon states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The latter states rhetorically agree to do so, but in fact continue to rely on nuclear deterrence for their security and maintain and modernise their nuclear arsenals. These double standards have perpetuated a system of nuclear haves and have-nots, paralysed the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva for the past fifteen years, and resulted in a stalemate in the NPT process.

Nuclear protagonists

Twenty-one years after the end of the Cold War, both the United States and Russia, the main nuclear protagonists, still wield more than 20,000 nuclear warheads. Both states are committed to further reductions, following the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which will reduce the number of deployed long-range nuclear weapons to 1,550 each by 2018. But domestic politics, US missile defence plans, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions have raised the barriers.
As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them. As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will one day be used by decision, accident or miscalculation. The future holds three options: maintaining the status quo through counter-proliferation measures, living dangerously with nuclear proliferation, or abolishing nuclear weapons.

In 1997, activists with expertise in international law, science, medicine and disarmament confronted the fundamental underlying nuclear dilemma and explored the legal, technical and political requirements for a nuclear weapons-free world and weighed the security concerns of all states.

There are many obstacles to nuclear abolition, but the fundamental ones are the lack of political will and the militarisation of diplomacy. But there are signs of a shift in thinking among past and present leaders, which has generated guarded optimism that the world could be rid of nuclear weapons in the next two or three decades. Four American 'cold warriors' and members of the US security establishment ­ Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn ­ have called for a nuclear weapons-free world. President Barack Obama has also voiced similar sentiments.
There is a great opportunity for middle-power states to take the initiative by convening multilateral negotiations, leading to the conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

The commencement of such negotiations would stimulate global civil society to generate a groundswell of public opinion and exert irresistible pressure on nuclear weapons states to join an abolition process, similar to the Ottawa Process, which persuaded countries with landmines to give them up and adopt the Landmine Ban Treaty. Such a global endeavour to abolish nuclear weapons will require the investment of considerable political capital by middle powers such as the New Agenda Coalition, which is composed of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden.

The conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention would require comprehensive multilateral negotiations, within a time-bound framework, reinforced by strong political will. The process would comprise a series of bilateral and multilateral steps, culminating in a legally binding instrument or framework of instruments. The process could take place in the Conference on Disarmament, the established but dysfunctional multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament, or through a series of specific international conferences, similar to the successful Law of the Sea conferences.

The paradox of the Nuclear Age is that the greater the striving for power and military security through nuclear weapons, the more elusive the goal of human security. For humankind to survive in an environmentally challenged and nuclear-armed world, it must learn from the mistakes of the past and forge a common, secure future. The moral challenge of our time is the unthinkable possibility of self-destruction on a global scale in a nuclear war or from climate change. The greatest priority for the future is to ensure that there will be a future.

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