A Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

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Although few people are aware of it, there has been considerable progress over the past decade toward a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons.

For many years, there had been a substantial gap between the pledges to eliminate nuclear weapons made by the signatories to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 and the reality of their behavior. To remedy this situation, in 1996 the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy — the U.S. affiliate of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms — began to coordinate the drafting of a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention. Formulated along the lines of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, this model nuclear convention was designed to serve as an international treaty that prohibits and eliminates nuclear weapons.

Although the late 1990s proved a difficult time for nuclear arms control and disarmament measures, the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, joined by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the International Network of Engineers Against Proliferation, continued its efforts. Consequently, in 2007, these organizations released a new model treaty, revised to reflect changes in world conditions, as well as an explanatory book, Securing Our Survival.

In 1997, like its predecessor, this updated convention for nuclear abolition was circulated within the United Nations, this time at the request of Costa Rica and Malaysia. In addition, it was presented at a number of international conclaves, including a March 2008 meeting of non-nuclear governments in Dublin, sponsored by the Middle Powers Initiative and by the government of Ireland.

Although the Western nuclear weapons states and Russia have opposed a nuclear abolition treaty, the idea has begun to gain traction. The Wall Street Journal op-eds by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn have once again placed nuclear abolition on the political agenda. Speaking in February 2008, the U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Sergio Duarte, condemned the great powers’ "refusal to negotiate or discuss even the outlines of a nuclear-weapons convention" as "contrary to the cause of disarmament." Opinion surveys have reported widespread popular support for nuclear abolition in numerous nations — including the United States, where about 70 percent of respondents back the signing of an international treaty to reduce and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Of course, it’s only fair to ask if there really exists the political will to bring such a treaty to fruition. Although Barack Obama has endorsed the goal of nuclear abolition, neither of his current opponents for the U.S. presidency has followed his example or seems likely to do so. John McCain is a thoroughgoing hawk, while Hillary Clinton — though publicly supporting some degree of nuclear weapons reduction — has recently issued the kind of "massive retaliation" threats unheard of since the days of John Foster Dulles.

Furthermore, the American public is remarkably ignorant of nuclear realities. Writing in the Foreword to a recent book, Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security, published by the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, the Western States Legal Foundation, and the Reaching Critical Will project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Zia Mian, a Princeton physicist, points to a number of disturbing facts about contemporary U.S. public opinion. For example, more Americans (55%) mistakenly believe that Iran has nuclear weapons than know that Britain (52%), India (51%), Israel (48%), and France (38%) actually have these weapons.

Although the United States possesses over 5,700 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, more than half of U.S. respondents to an opinion survey thought that the number was 200 weapons or fewer. Thus, even though most Americans have displayed a healthy distaste for nuclear weapons and nuclear war, their ability to separate fact from fiction might well be questioned when it comes to nuclear issues.

Fortunately, there are many organizations working to better educate the public on nuclear dangers. In addition to the groups already mentioned, these include Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Federation of American Scientists, Faithful Security, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. And important knowledge can also be gleaned from that venerable source of nuclear expertise, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

But there remains a considerable distance to go before a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons becomes international law.

Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany and co-editor of the new book, Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future.

This article originally appeared in the History News Network.

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