Banning nuclear weapons

On 27 October 2016, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, dealing with disarmament, global challenges, and threats to peace that affect the international community, voted on resolution A/C.1/171/L.41 [1] to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. This resolution calls to convene a convention in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their ultimate elimination. The goal of this conference is to ban all nuclear weapons, and thus to end the age of nuclear threat between the different states that possess nuclear weapons.

Analyzing the votes published by ICAN, it becomes clear that almost all states that do possess nuclear weapons did vote against this resolution [2], along with NATO Member States, apart from the Netherlands [3]. While organizations like Greenpeace wonder about this vote, several states have published a note explaining their vote [4]. They largely argue that the lack of support from nuclear states and a larger number of other states will make such a move premature and even impossible to carry out, and generally doubt the efficiency of a multilateral agreement on truly banning nuclear weapons. While there is broad agreement on the common objective of completely eliminating nuclear weapons, there are divergent views on how to reach this goal.

Luxembourg’s role in NATO

Luxembourg also voted against this resolution, and while the objective of eliminating all nuclear weapons seems to be desirable from a national perspective, the reasons to vote against this resolution are multi-fold: Firstly, one has to recognize that even though it is often accepted that the Cold war is over, nuclear deterrence is part of NATO’s security posture, a principle which has been established in Nato’s New Strategic Concept in 2010 [5] and has been reaffirmed in the latest two NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw. [6] The Strategic Concept underlines that NATO commits “to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons – but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.” Put differently, NATO will only envisage to reduce or eventually even remove their nuclear arsenal under the condition that the other nuclear powers do the same. Clearly, this has not been the case in resolution L.41 where all nuclear powers voted against the resolution, but North Korea.

NPT and other efforts

Secondly, there have already been previous initiatives to reduce the number of nuclear warheads, namely the Non-Proliferation-Treaty (NPT). [7] Article VI of this treaty states that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” However, the treaty does not indicate on how this goal can be achieved, but is mostly interpreted in two different ways: a) The 5 nuclear powers [8] need to find a common strategy on how to reach this; or b) An alternative route must be found.

Historically speaking, the 5 nuclear powers have not been able to find a mutual strategy since the 1970s on how to reduce their nuclear arsenal. While there have been bilateral treaties such as START-1 [9], New Start [10], and others, nuclear weapons still persist and until now a nuclear-free world doesn’t seem likely in the near future. According to diplomats,  nuclear states are not likely to deviate from this position as they consider treaties such as NPT the reason why no nuclear war has broken out, and believe that the concept of nuclear deterrence simply works.

International realities

Even if nuclear states overcame the mantra of nuclear deterrence, reducing and eventually eliminating their own nuclear arsenal would mean relying on trust on the other nuclear powers to do so as well. Given the recent frictions between Russia and the West, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has often been announced as a new stand-off or proxy war between the US and Russia, as well as the recurrent provocations from North Korea and the resulting instability in the region, a nuclear-free world is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Both India and Pakistan both use nuclear deterrence to keep their conflict from breaking out, and one could argue that the possession of nuclear warheads do promote peace in this region, since neither state dares to attack the other one in fear of retribution. Iran wanted to acquire nuclear weapons with the same reasoning, but thankfully an international agreement could be found and Iran is no nuclear power.

Trust is a major issue when dealing with abolishing nuclear weapons, as it renders states helpless and threatens balance. The idea of nuclear peace is still widespread, even though its efficiency is already debated in academia [11]. While it has been possible to negotiate a ban on chemical weapons [12], this could only be achieved because all major world powers cooperated, and these weapons do not have the same destructive power as nuclear warheads. Moreover, the creation of an international organisation which supervises nuclear dismantling has not seen any success, given the lack of punitive power of these organisations.

Flaws in the system

The problem of banning nuclear weapons and dismantling nuclear arsenals comes down to the same problem we regularly see in the Security Council: The only way to cooperate and to work towards a peaceful world is based on the permanent Members of the Security Council, or those that possess nuclear warheads. The imbalance of the international system, given the vetoes, and the lack of trust, the UN has been regularly criticized in its functioning. [13] As long as either the international system gets more punitive powers (which is very difficult to establish), vetoes get removed from the Security Council (which is hard to imagine and achieve), or the relevant actors want to cooperate (which is, as described, also difficult to achieve), it is not likely that we see any change in the near future. However, given that the resolution L.41 passed even without the big powers voting against it, leaves room for hope. Development might be slow on the subject, but it seems that process can be made, even without cooperation of the major nuclear powers, and while Luxembourg is bound by its NATO obligations, a more progressive stance such as an abstention from the vote could’ve send a more positive outlook.

Many thanks to R. Steinmetz for his valuable input & explanations.
Picture CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by United Nations.

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  2. US, China, Russia, UK, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, but not North Korea. []
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  6. View also: Nuclear deterrence and the Alliance in the 21st century. []
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  8. The NPT only recognizes five nuclear powers: The US, Russia, France, China, and the UK. Other states with nuclear warheads, namely India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel are neglected. []
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  11. Robert Rauchhaus: Do nuclear weapons promote peace? []
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  13. For instance by Stop illegitimate vetoes! []

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