UN and Nuclear Disarmament
By Maya Garner
On August 6th and 9th, 1945, the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people, the vast majority of whom were civilians. In the shadow of the nuclear weapons race between the dominant world powers, the fear of annihilation swept through the world’s population during the Cold War that followed World War II, especially with the notorious Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1961 between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet as more nuclear weapons were developed and more countries in the world obtained them, the world is laid out very differently politically than in the immediate aftermath of World War II and no nuclear weapons have been used since. As the U.S. formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on August 2nd, 2019, it is now the responsibility of the UN to ensure the global disarmament of nuclear weapons, banning it in international law and preventing its use ever again.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there are today as of early 2019 an inventory of 13,865 nuclear weapons in the world, more than 90% of which belong to the United States and Russia. Of the world’s total inventory, 3,750 are deployed with operational forces. All of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, i.e. United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, are in possession of nuclear weapons and comprise the nuclear-designated states according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The international treaty of NPT is aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and encouraging nuclear disarmament. India, Pakistan, Israel are three of four UN member states that never accepted the NPT. North Korea acceded in 1985, yet announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 and . India developed nuclear weapons and conducted testings in 1974 and again in 1998, later the same month Pakistan conducted its first nuclear testings. Both countries insisted that the NPT was discriminatory. The State of Israel is believed to have nuclear weapons, a secret revealed to the press by the whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in 1986, but has neither confirmed nor denied this fact.
Reasons for developing and maintaining nuclear weapons include initial establishment of dominance as a world power as well as deterrence strategies. The risk of using a nuclear weapons is the triggering of a nuclear exchange, leading to potential annihilation of large portions of land, cities and citizens. This is a risk no country so far has been willing to take, and the world powers are kept in a Hobbesian trap, in which fear of a pre-emptive strike has resulted in the nuclear arms race of modern times, particularly between the United States and Russia after World War II and ongoing. Both China and India have pledged to the “no first use” policy (NFU) with China committing to “not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances” after first gaining nuclear weapons in 1964. All other nuclear countries have officially pledged to use nuclear weapons only in defensive circumstances, such as in the case of an invasion or attack against their territories or allies. NATO has rejected to adopt “no first use” on several occasions.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signed and ratified in 1987-88 and negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union, banning all ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with short-medium as well as intermediate ranges. In 2018, the U.S. Trump administration declared its withdrawal from the INF treaty, which was formally undertaken on August 2nd, 2019, accusing Russia of having violated the treaty for many years. The UN called for the U.S. and Russia to preserve the treaty, yet this call was not heard. UN Secretary António Guterres stated that “this will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles.”
In 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is the first of its kind to attempt to impose a legally-binding ban on the possession of nuclear weapons, seeking a total elimination of them. 25 countries have ratified the treaty with at least 50 countries required in order to come into effect. 122 countries voted in favor of the treaty, one against (Netherlands), one abstention, and 69 countries not voting. Among those who did not vote are all of the nuclear weapons state and all NATO members except the Netherlands. While chemical and biological weapons are prohibited, along with anti-personnel landmines, nuclear weapons are universally not prohibited. The reason for this can be traced back to their first – and only – use against Japan in 1945. The United States eventually emerged as one of the victors of the war. While the Nuremberg trials were some of the first international cases of accountability and prosecution for war crimes in case of the Axis powers and their supporters, war crimes committed by Allied Powers were not prosecuted. The use of nuclear weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians inevitably amounts to a war crime, which the western world has continued to attempt to justify. Yet the winners of World War II were ones to become nuclear states and to claim the permanent seats at the UN Security Council.
Although the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only two times in which nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. However, more than 500 nuclear weapons testings were conducted in different locations around the world between 1945 and 1980. The consequences from these testings are not fully known, and the effects of radioactive fallout can have lethal consequences and compromise health, while causing damage to the environment and contaminating food and water sources. Meanwhile, there have been at least 32 “broken arrow” accidents, including accidental launching or detonating, theft or loss, of nuclear weapons. Accidents involving nuclear power plants, infamously in Chernobyl in 1986, have caused similar radiation damage, deaths, and contamination of the environment, creating a strong case for renewable and green energy to replace nuclear energy and fossil fuels. Added with the possibility of nuclear war posing an existential threat to humankind, the development and possession of nuclear weaponry are a risk to public health and safety regardless of politics, and it must be opposed.
As the UN is expected in alignment with its founding principles to represent the universal interests of the world’s population, it must bring about successful nuclear disarmament. Since the cold war, popular movements have broken out demanding that their governments eliminate their nuclear weaponry – or demanding nuclear weapons are never developed by these states. The UN must find ways to support civil society in this call. The United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC) is a commission under the General Assembly in which nuclear disarmament is one of its key issues.The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) was formally established in 1998, yet has been about in different forms since a recommendation by the General Assembly in 1982, and its vision includes the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. These bodies, now in the midst of U.S.–Russia tensions, must persuade NATO countries to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and turn the call of civil society into a globally effective, universal reality of a nuclear-free world.