U.N. Can Help Devalue Nukes as Geopolitical Currency

WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION, 2 Sep 2013

Thalif Deen – Inter Press Service-IPS

When the 193-member U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) holds is first-ever high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament in September [2013], there is little or no hope that any of the nuclear powers will make a firm commitment to gradually phase out or abandon their lethal arsenals.

At the beginning of 2013, eight states – UK, the United States, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel – possessed approximately 4,400 operational nuclear weapons, according to the latest Yearbook released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Nearly 2,000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert, SIPRI said.

Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute and adjunct professor of International Law at the Widener University School of Law, told IPS, “What is needed to counteract the slow pace in arms control and disarmament is higher political profile.”

For example, he said, if certain leaders were to say at the General Assembly, “My country is one of 114 countries in a nuclear weapons-free zone. We want to help countries relying on nuclear weapons for security to obtain the benefits of helping to make the entire world a nuclear weapons-free zone.”

The SIPRI report highlights the need to bring commitments made solemnly at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in 2012 to advance nuclear disarmament into action.

Promises must mean something, said Granoff.

If all nuclear warheads are counted, says SIPRI, these eight states together possess a total of approximately 17,265 nuclear weapons, as compared with 19,000 at the beginning of 2012.

The decrease is due mainly to Russia and the United States further reducing their inventories of strategic nuclear weapons under the terms of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), as well as retiring ageing and obsolescent weapons.

At the same time, says SIPRI, all five legally recognised nuclear weapons states – China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States – are either deploying new nuclear weapon delivery systems or have announced programmes to do so, and appear determined to retain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely.

Of the five, only China seems to be expanding its nuclear arsenal.

And of the others, India and Pakistan are both expanding their nuclear weapon stockpiles and missile delivery capabilities.

“Once again there was little to inspire hope that the nuclear weapon-possessing states are genuinely willing to give up their nuclear arsenals,” according to SIPRI.

“The long-term modernisation programmes under way in these states suggest that nuclear weapons are still a marker of international status and power,” says Shannon Kile, senior researcher at SIPRI’s Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation.

Asked if the upcoming UNGA disarmament conference will produce anything tangible towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, Kile told IPS that in light of current trends in global nuclear arsenals, the General Assembly cannot be reasonably expected to be able to adopt concrete measures that will require the nuclear weapon-possessing states to begin eliminating these weapons or to change their nuclear force postures and operational practices.

However, the positive role the UNGA can play in terms of strengthening existing norms and political commitments to pursue nuclear disarmament should not be underestimated, Kile said.

This involves, first and foremost, maintaining political pressure on the nuclear weapon-possessing states to reduce the role and salience of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies and defence postures.

This could be done, for example, by persuading these states to adopt explicit declaratory policies ruling out the first-use of nuclear weapons, and to provide legally-binding negative security assurances – that is, guarantees not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.

In the longer term, he said, the UNGA can contribute to and strengthen efforts to devalue nuclear weapons as a currency of international geopolitics and to delegitimise their possession.

“This will admittedly be a part of a long-term process that will require considerable patience and diplomatic persistence but its normative significance should not be overlooked,” Kile added.

Granoff told IPS the deals the administration of President Barack Obama believed it had to make to get the START Treaty ratified in the U.S. Senate included modernisation of aspects of the nuclear arsenal. Some modernisation simply keeps the weapons in a stable situation while others actually improve accuracy and reliability and could be construed as a form of vertical proliferation, he said.

“Such activities should not be funded, but even if they are, they are not being brought into practice because of military geo strategic planning,” Granoff said.

However, he said, it is not the case that such actions affirm the status of nuclear weapons or a commitment to abrogate pledges under the NPT to move toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

“They only represent short term political deals necessary in an extremely difficult domestic partisan environment to achieve modest arms control measures,” Kile said.

But to say that the policy is not to move in the correct direction is incorrect, he added.

Granoff said there is a new open-ended working group in Geneva that will come up with recommendations.

Norway recently hosted a large conference with many countries highlighting the horrific humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. These activities bode well for our future, he said.

“It is odd that the P5 (UK, United States, Russia, France and China) did not participate in these activities,” Granoff added. “It shows, however, that they can cooperate and come up with the same strategy and positions when they want.

“Our job is to help push the issue of the abolition of nuclear weapons up the political ladder so that they will cooperate on disarmament,” he said.

Asked about the absence of North Korea from the list of nuclear weapon states, Kile told IPS, “The section of the Yearbook’s nuclear forces chapter dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapon capabilities notes that it is not known whether North Korea has produced operational (militarily usable) nuclear weapons.”

An operational weapon is not the same as a simple nuclear explosive device and would require more advanced design and engineering skills to build, he said.

“We have published in SIPRI Yearbook 2013 the estimate of six to eight nuclear weapons to indicate the maximum number that North Korea may possess, based on publicly-available information about its plutonium production activities.

“But again, it is unclear whether North Korea has actually produced operational nuclear weapons, so we did not include it in the table in the press release,” he added.

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