The necessity of getting to zero

March 9, 2010

The goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, embedded in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has been embraced by a large majority of UN member states; by prominent diplomats, policy experts, and military leaders worldwide; and by overwhelming majorities of citizens in all countries where the question has been asked in public opinion surveys. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have both said that ridding the world of nuclear weapons is one of the most urgent priorities of the international community. US President Barack Obama committed himself to working for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” in Prague on April 5, 2009.

The importance—in fact the necessity—of getting to zero has been explained by senior ministers, diplomats, and retired military leaders in several countries, including the US. Their views echo the conclusions of international physicians, lawyers, scientists, and civil society organizations, who have been pressing the case for nuclear abolition almost since the beginning of the nuclear age, and certainly since the entry into force of the Non-Proliferation Treaty some 40 years ago.

The priority and urgency of nuclear disarmament have also been articulated by high-level international bodies convened for the purpose of assessing the nuclear threat and for recommending solutions. Among these have been the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (1995); the International Court of Justice (1996); the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Blix) Commission (2006); and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (2009).

The latter issued its final report in December 2009, the first paragraph of which should be committed to memory by anyone concerned with the survival of humankind:

Nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever conceived, inherently indiscriminate in those they kill and maim, and with an impact deadly for decades. Their use by anyone at any time, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, would be catastrophic. They are the only weapons ever invented that have the capacity to wholly destroy life on this planet, and the arsenals we now possess – combining their blast, radiation and potential ‘nuclear winter’ effects – are able to do so many times over. Climate change may be the global policy issue that has captured most attention in the last decade, but the problem of nuclear weapons is at least its equal in terms of gravity – and much more immediate in its potential impact.”

Despite this upsurge in global support for a world without nuclear weapons, the road toward zero remains obstructed and the pace at which the nuclear-weapon states and the policy elites seem content to move is unacceptably slow. Behind the encouraging rhetoric about a nuclear-weapons-free world we see only modest, incremental proposals that will likely postpone the negotiation of a comprehensive nuclear disarmament agreement—a Nuclear Weapons Convention—for another two or three decades or more. Even President Obama has said that a nuclear-weapons-free world may not be achieved in his lifetime.

To put it plainly, the world does not have the luxury of time when it comes to eliminating the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Every day that they remain in fallible human hands is a day in which we might experience a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Every day in which that catastrophe is averted must be counted as borrowed time.