Nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever conceived, inherently indiscriminate in those they kill and maim, and with an impact deadly for decades. They are the only weapons ever invented that have the capacity to wholly destroy life on this planet, and the arsenals we now possess are able to do so many times over. The problem of nuclear weapons is at least equal to that of climate change in terms of gravity - and much more immediate in its potential impact.
In late December 2009, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament headed up by two former Foreign Ministers, Australia's Gareth Evans and Japan's Yoriko Kawaguchi released their long awaited report aimed at reinvigorating, at a high political level, the global debate on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Prime Minister Rudd and then Prime Minister Taro launched the independent Commission in September 2008 as a joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese Governments. Thirteen eminent individuals from around the world, including South Africa's Speaker of the National Assembly (from 1994 to 2004), Frene Ginwala, acted as Commissioners.
The release of the report is important given that in May 2010, the five-yearly Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference will take place. The NPT is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. Based on a bargain of three pillars, the NPT was designed to: prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology; further the goal of nuclear disarmament; and, promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
However, the NPT is regarded as being in crisis. India and Pakistan, both of whom are known to possess nuclear weapons, have never signed or ratified the NPT. Israel has also not signed or ratified the NPT. While North Korea joined the treaty as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) in 1985, detonated a nuclear device in 2006 and regards itself as having withdrawn from the treaty.
India, for example has made it clear that it will never sign the "flawed and discriminatory" NPT. In addition, the previous Review Conference in 2005, failed to reach any substantive agreement and the divide between the non-proliferation first and disarmament first camps - between those accused of non-compliance with their obligation to disarm (the permanent members of the Security Council who have nuclear weapons) and those accused of non-compliance with their commitment to not develop or acquire nuclear weapons (the NNWS in general but Iran and North Korea in particular).
The International Commission's report will not please those who argue that the only credible guarantee against the use or threat of use of such weapons is their total elimination and for an immediate world free of nuclear weapons. The report, while conceding that ‘nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever conceived...' instead calls for the global stockpile of nuclear weapons to be cut to 2,000 from 23,000 by 2025.
On the positive side, the report does emphasise the de-ligitimisation of nuclear weapons and calls on the eight nuclear armed states to adopt a non-first-use policy and to remove their nuclear arms from high-alert status so that they can not be launched speedily.
In what the report calls "a Comprehensive Action Agenda" a time-table for the total elimination of nuclear weapons is presented:
Short Term Action Agenda (to 2012) includes:
• All nuclear-armed states declaring that the sole purpose of retaining the nuclear weapons they have is to deter others from using such weapons against them;
• A commitment by all nuclear-armed states not to increase their nuclear arsenals.
• Satisfactory negotiated resolution of the North Korea and Iran nuclear program problems.
Medium Term Action Agenda (to 2025) includes:
• Building support for a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention to legally underpin the ultimate transition to a nuclear weapon free world.
• Implementation of a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and a further agreement negotiated to put all fissile material not in weapons under international safeguards.
• Implementation of measures to reduce the proliferation risks associated with the expansion of civil nuclear energy.
Longer Term Action Agenda (beyond 2025) includes:
• The creation of political conditions for the prospect of major war or aggression to be so remote that nuclear weapons are seen as having no remaining deterrent utility.
• The creation of the military conditions in which conventional arms imbalances, missile defence systems or any other national or intergovernmental-organisation capability is not seen as so inherently destabilizing as to justify the retention of a nuclear deterrent capability.
• The creation of international legal regime and enforcement conditions that will ensure that any state breaching its prohibition obligations not to retain, acquire or develop nuclear weapons will be effectively penalized.
It is unfortunate that the Commission was unable to set a firm date by which time we should get to zero (no nuclear weapons). Whether the NPT Review Conference in May can do this is another question!
Written by: Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow, Arms Management Programme, ISS Pretoria