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Insights into Editorial: The great nuclear disarmament divide



Insights into Editorial: The great nuclear disarmament divide

29 August 2016

Over the past six years, a concerted effort by committed States, international organizations and civil society to reframe the international discourse on nuclear weapons around humanitarian considerations has gathered significant support. Momentum is now building towards the negotiation of a treaty to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons due to their unacceptable humanitarian consequences. A global prohibition on nuclear weapons could be concluded and have significant normative and practical impacts with or without the initial participation of the nuclear-armed States.

  • During the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament, held at the UN in Geneva this year, a majority of States expressed support for negotiating a prohibition treaty. A resolution to start negotiations is expected to be sought at the General Assembly in October.


Significance of Humanitarian approach:

The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons has aimed to change the terms of global debate, moving from notions of strategic stability focused on the perceived interests of the nuclear-armed States and their nuclear-dependent allies, towards a focus on the impact of the weapons themselves on people and places. Concentrating on these impacts raises fundamental questions about nuclear weapons’ acceptability, with the evidence clearly highlighting these weapons’ incompatibility with humanitarian considerations.

  • Such a reframing has implications for nuclear-armed States and their allies that depend on others’ nuclear weapons in their security doctrines. It shifts the burden of proof onto them to demonstrate the legitimacy of their position in the face of the unacceptable humanitarian effects of any use of nuclear weapons. It avoids engaging with deterrence-based arguments on their own terms, whilst seeking to challenge their deep acceptance.
  • The humanitarian approach to disarmament considers weapons from the perspective of harm caused, using a broader framing than legal argumentation alone. It aims to introduce doubt about accepted practices and whether these can then withstand the scrutiny of States and military commanders who consider themselves responsible actors.
  • The humanitarian initiative challenges the special status that the nuclear-armed States parties to the NPT have assumed for themselves as legitimate possessors, by seeking to delegitimize any possession of nuclear weapons.
  • Though the humanitarian initiative has arguably not yet had a great impact on domestic political discourse in nuclear-armed States, it is already creating tensions for the policies of some of their nuclear-dependent allies.
Nuclear Umbrellas
Nuclear Umbrellas

What happened during the recent talks?

Following two sessions of discussions during 2016, the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) adopted a report, with a recommendation that the General Assembly should convene a conference in 2017, “open to all States, with the participation and contribution of international organizations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The report will be sent to the UN General Assembly, where a resolution to start negotiations is expected to be proposed to take this forward.

  • The final draft produced by the UN working group had been carefully revised in order to achieve consensus and be adopted without a vote. But at the last minute Australia hardened its position and called for a vote. Ultimately 68 states voted to adopt the report, 21 states joined Australia in voting against adoption and 13 states abstained.
  • However, a recommendation with a specific start-by date is a reflection of heightened international public opinion seeking the signing of a treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons, focusing on their inhumane nature.


Why Australia hardened its position?

Australia has attempted to derail a ban on nuclear weapons at a UN meeting on disarmament, by single-handedly forcing a vote on a report that had been expected to pass unanimously.

  • Australia took the floor on behalf of 14 umbrella states to declare that the text was not acceptable. When the chair went ahead to try to adopt it, Australia intervened in its national capacity to block consensus and call for a vote.
  • The principal goal for Australia and around 28 other countries in nuclear alliances (also known as ‘umbrella states’) was to ensure that the group did not recommend the negotiation of a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
  • Australia believes that a simple Ban Treaty would not facilitate the reduction in nuclear weapon. It might even harden the resolve of those possessing nuclear weapons not to reduce their arsenals.
  • According to Australia, a complete ban would actually “divert attention from the sustained, practical steps needed for effective disarmament”.

Nuclear Umbrella:

Nuclear umbrella is generally understood to cover a form of military cooperation by which one or more nuclear-armed states provide supposed nuclear protection for one or more non-nuclear-armed states. A crucial point to understand about nuclear umbrellas is that they are not necessarily codified by authoritative documents. Rather, nuclear umbrellas are rooted in military and diplomatic practices.

  • A ‘nuclear umbrella state’ is a state without nuclear weapons under the supposed protection of the nuclear weapons of another state.
  • A nuclear umbrella is not simply a by-product of a military alliance involving nuclear- and non-nuclear states. In order to exist, a nuclear umbrella must both be contended and not explicitly refuted. Someone must declare that a relationship of extended nuclear deterrence is in operation, and then the other party (or parties) must accept that statement to be correct—either tacitly or explicitly.
  • Egypt, for example, a military ally of the United States, forcefully rejected the United States’ alleged offer of extending its nuclear umbrella over Egypt in 2009. Several other states, including Argentina, Syria, and the Philippines are allied to nuclear-armed states without being considered umbrella states for that reason. Nuclear umbrellas must be mutually accepted.


Controversies surrounding this practice:

The practice of extending nuclear umbrellas has caused considerable controversy, as it arguably undermines efforts at nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. By subscribing to supposed nuclear protection, umbrella states signal that nuclear weapons are useful tools to enhance national security.

  • Another controversy has been over certain states’ simultaneous adherence to a nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaty and a nuclear umbrella. On the definition above, four countries are in this situation per 2015: While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are simultaneously members of Collective Security Treaty Organization- CSTO and parties to the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, Australia is simultaneously under the US’ nuclear umbrella and a party to the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone.
  • Even more controversial is the practice of ‘nuclear sharing’, whereby one or more non-nuclear-armed states are engaged in the nuclear planning of one or more nuclear-armed states. This is standard practice in NATO, where all member states bar France are members of the Nuclear Planning Group.
  • The United States has also long engaged in a practice of stationing nuclear weapons in allied countries. Nuclear warheads are still hosted by five NATO member states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. American weapons were previously also stationed in the NATO members Canada, Greece, and the United Kingdom, and in (non-NATO members) the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan.
  • The practice of stationing nuclear weapons in other countries has been sharply criticised by a number of states. They point out that Article I of the NPT commits the five recognised nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) not to transfer nuclear weapons or technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. The corollary Article II commits non-nuclear weapon states not to receive nuclear weapons.


Why a complete ban on nuclear weapons is necessary?

Nuclear and Radiation Accidents: This is the biggest disadvantage for Nuclear Weapons as it can accidentally lead to massive radiation disaster.

Low level of Radioactivity from Normal Operations: The nuclear weapons industry produces a large volume of low-level radioactive waste in the form of contaminated items like clothing, hand tools, water purifier resins, and (upon decommissioning) the materials of which the reactor itself is built.

Terrorism: There is danger that nuclear weapons in politically unstable countries like Pakistan may fall into the hands of rogue terrorist elements. These organizations have little fear of reprisals and can use these nuclear bombs in a cavalier manner against major cities for frivolous reasons.

Disability and Cancers amongst affected Population for Decades: Nuclear Weapons were only used by USA against Japan when 2 low level nuclear bombs were dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The Bombs not only killed thousands but also caused disability and radiation diseases amongst survivors and helpers. These effects were still being felt even now almost 65 years after the bombs were destroyed in 1945.

Environment Disaster: These Nuclear Weapons not only kill humans but also destroy the environment and the wildlife for hundreds of years. The residual radiation kills all plants and animals making it a dead zone for hundreds of years. The Chernobyl site where a nuclear power plant disaster took place is still unusable today.

Diverts Resources from Productive Uses: Nuclear Weapons are very costly for small countries with limited resources like Pakistan and North Korea. While the majority of the population remains mired in desperate poverty, developing nuclear weapons diverts precious resources to nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear Delivery Mechanisms like Fighters, Missiles and Submarines also cost billions of dollars.

Nuclear Weapons Testing causes Pollution and Degradation: Before Nuclear Weapons Testing was banned, they used to cause huge pollution of land and water by major powers. Thousands of Nuclear Tests by the Big Powers resulted in radiation pollution of the sea and land.


Way forward:

The OEWG process reflects a great disarmament divide not only among the nuclear haves and have-nots, but also among the umbrella states. On the one hand, there are umbrella states that are addicted to their nuclear protection, even though it is not apparent that such security is omnipotent. On the other hand, there are umbrella states that clearly feel trapped by the protection provided, but are unsure how get out of this situation. This debate will now play out on the floor of the UNGA.

  • The recommendation for ban will now be submitted to the fall session of the U.N. General Assembly. A majority of 107 U.N. member states are said to be in support of starting negotiations, indicating that there is a sufficient chance that the resolution will be passed.
  • A treaty comprehensively banning nuclear weapons, with or without the initial participation of the nuclear-armed states, would change the global legal and political landscape with respect to nuclear weapons, making clear that the international community as a whole finds these weapons unacceptable.
  • Such a ban treaty would build on the existing legal regime and fill current gaps in the framework with respect to prohibition, providing legal clarity and increasing stigma against nuclear weapons. It would have a significant normative and practical impact through making a series of prohibitions, from possession to cooperation and financing, and including positive obligations such as victim assistance.



The commencement of negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, which now has considerable support from a diverse range of states and regions, would generate significant attention that could begin to affect domestic political calculations in the nuclear-armed States, whether they join the treaty initially or not. In the longer term, these States would increasingly lose control of the narrative around nuclear weapons after the declaration of their illegality, with unpredictable political and practical consequences. Pushback against the humanitarian initiative from the nuclear-armed states and their allies has increasingly included anxiety about a ban.