IPCS Discussion: Preventing Nuclear Use

04 Feb, 2013    ·   3807

Debak Das reports on the interaction with Dr. Rebecca Johnson on an imperative to disarm

Debak Das
Debak Das
Research Officer
Chair: Prof R Rajaraman
Dr. Rebecca Johnson
Nuclear Weapons have the capacity to cause catastrophic humanitarian harm. To work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, the catastrophic health and environmental consequences of nuclear use must be understood.
The problem today is that the ‘Arms Control’ approach is not working and a number of dangers still persist. They are: 
     •The spread of nuclear weapons and materials through proliferation (weak states           and armed extremists being of special concern here)
     •Rivalries among nuclear armed states (regional or great power adversaries)
     •Revaluing of nuclear weapons (as instruments of policy and power projections)
     •Doctrines of nuclear pre-emption or retaliation (leading to a continuous state of             alert,   thus increasing the chances of accidental or deliberate use)
Among the questions that must be asked about the current nuclear non-proliferation regime are, 
     •Does the NPT and the current arms control regime create incentives for        
       proliferation  and nuclear weapons retention/modernisation?
     •Can ‘nuclear security’ be achieved through the tools and institutions of the current          regime?
     •What would the process of nuclear non proliferation look like if there was a        
       devaluation of nuclear weapons use, including deterrence?
As a trained physicist, one can say that building a nuclear explosive device is not a difficult proposition. If the plutonium or the uranium can be enriched to a certain level, the physics of the rest is not really very difficult. This is why it is important to work towards a ‘global legally enforceable ban.’ This would have to be similar to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention. All countries were not party to the convention initially, but with time, as it became normatively unacceptable to possess chemical and biological weapons, almost all the countries got rid of their stockpiles and signed on to the treaty. Under the Rome Statute, the use of chemical and biological weapons are considered ‘crimes against humanity’’; the use of nuclear weapons are not. This is because of the centrality of nuclear weapons to the strategic doctrine of nuclear weapons countries. If a treaty goes into law, then even a country that is not a party/signatory to the original treaty is still bound by the international law. This is a principle that may have to be evoked if nuclear states remain the only non-signatories to a treaty calling for, the ban of the use of nuclear weapons, their deployment, production, stockpiling, and transit. Civil society pressure could and would have an important role to play in such an eventuality. 
The role of civil society in Britain’s decision about the Trident system is an important one and we may be on the cusp of victory on that front. The military are also not very convinced of the efficacy of continuing with the system. But in the case of a ban, such a debate would be immediately put to rest. There would thus then be no point in spending a hundred million pounds on upgrading or replacing something that is clearly on the way out. 
The debate has to about zero use. We still have these doctrines of nuclear preemption and retaliation. Even the doctrine of ‘No First Use’ is a doctrine of massive retaliation. The justification of the existence of these doctrines is that they exist as a deterrent. But in essence, they are doctrines that legitimise nuclear use. It must be realised that it is just not nuclear proliferation that is a problem, but nuclear possession itself. A problem with the current lobbying for disarmament is the centrality of numbers and looking at zero as a number to be achieved in terms of arms reduction. The 2005 NPT Review Conference was a complete failure and a deadlock. This was because of political scenario of the time, given that 9/11 had just happened and a war in Afghanistan and Iraq was on. But the fact of the matter is that the big states (P5) like the Article VI of the NPT, as it does not actually require them to do anything tangible. The 2010 review conference was treated as a great success but it actually was not. It could not strengthen the IAEA.  It was this failure that has led to the belief that the approach towards disarmament must be changed. 
That nuclear weapons should not be a currency of power was an idea that was gaining momentum, before India was instrumental in bringing this back to the fold. The Indian example proved that the non proliferation regime only punishes any country trying to acquire nuclear weapons. But once a country does cross the threshold, they are rewarded. So it is not possession that the NPT penalises, but the process of acquisition of nuclear weapons. Institutionalised cultural risk aversion of the international community means that even if there is a possibility that North Korea could retaliate with nuclear weapons, the latter would ensure that they are either dealt with kid gloves or rhetoric.
The concept of a nuclear winter which was definite and valid worry in the Cold War days has now been forgotten. The fear has moved to the possibility of a limited nuclear war in South Asia. But the potential fall-out still has catastrophic effects on climate change globally and could see temperatures across the planet fall by an average of 1.25⁰C for several years. 
A nuclear ban treaty should be the next step, and not the final step. The process starts with the delegitimisation and devaluation of nuclear weapons. A ban treaty is the next game changing step towards creating the conditions for the elimination of nuclear weapons.