The commemoration of the first International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26 was a moment for introspection. The Cold War is behind us and it is nearly 70 years since the catastrophe in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, why are nuclear arms the most contentious of all Weapons of Mass Destruction, and nuclear disarmament as distant as ever? The answers are not far to seek. The 1966 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remains on date the only agreement to prevent the spread of these weapons outside the original five nuclear weapons states. But then, there are more countries today that flaunt these terrible weapons as a symbol of military might and many more that are perhaps perilously close to their acquisition. This bleak history is a commentary on the discrimination inherent in the NPT.
The treaty privileges the status quo; it obliges non-nuclear weapons states not to acquire nuclear weapons, without concomitant guarantees on disarmament from the Nuclear Weapons States (NWSs). The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty aims to prohibit all tests and explosions. A potentially crucial deal, it has yet to come into force because not all of the 44 countries with nuclear power reactors would ratify it. The big players in Asia’s geopolitics including India have kept out of it, as has Washington.
Formal negotiations to finalise a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty have not commenced in all these decades. At issue has been the question whether such a deal should cover existing or future stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium needed to produce nuclear weapons. The refusal of many non-aligned countries to sign up to a deal that would exclude current stocks from its purview, in effect preserving the hegemony of the NWSs, seem unexceptionable. The 2010 New START (strategic arms reduction treaty) limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 strategic delivery systems.
This is the most current legally binding and verifiable bilateral arms control accord between Washington and Moscow. Meanwhile, the five nuclear weapons free zones in different regions across the globe have not been backed by unconditional assurances by the original five NWSs not to use force. Against this overall backdrop, the recent global ban on chemical and biological weapons — other categories of WMDs — offers the hope of securing a similar abolition in relation to nuclear weapons at some time in the future. Efforts at the UN Conference on Disarmament towards the conclusion of a treaty may be long-drawn. But the stakes for world peace were never greater than they are today.