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Insights into Editorial: Can unarmed states prohibit nuclear weapons?

Insights into Editorial: Can unarmed states prohibit nuclear weapons?

nuclear weapons



Recently, a group of nations without nuclear weapons gathered to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. This has caused greater consternation among the nine nuclear-armed states and their shielded allies than the spectre of Armageddon through deliberate, inadvertent or accidental nuclear use.


What necessitated small nations to team up against nuclear weapon states?

It is being said that this conference is a direct result of the diminishing faith in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) process, the conference on disarmament, and the nuclear-centred world order even after the end of the Cold War.

Ever since the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, the nuclear-armed states failed on two counts. First, they failed to keep their commitments made in NPT review conferences, primarily on disarmament, thus alienating even the most loyal non-nuclear adherent. Second, despite the growing disconnect between the emerging nuclear disorder and the evolving world order, the nuclear weapon states (also permanent UN security council members) failed to accommodate aspirant powers and establish a new world order that was not based on nuclear weapons.


Nuclear-Weapon States:

The nuclear-weapon states (NWS) are the five states—China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States—officially recognized as possessing nuclear weapons by the NPT. The treaty legitimizes these states’ nuclear arsenals, but establishes they are not supposed to build and maintain such weapons in perpetuity. In 2000, the NWS committed themselves to an “unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”


Significance of this move:

  • The 120-odd nations that participated in the negotiations highlight that nearly two-thirds of UN members have been able to ensure their security without the possession or protection of nuclear weapons.
  • The conference and treaty will plug a serious legal gap in that nuclear weapons (unlike chemical and biological weapons) are the only weapons of mass destruction that are not prohibited by international law. This is an unfathomable lapse given the potential of nuclear weapons use to lead to global extinction.
  • The proposed treaty offers a significant opportunity, at the very least, to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence and subsequently to move towards a nuclear-free world order. To be clear, the treaty will not eliminate existing nuclear weapons in the first instance; it is more likely to establish an international norm that prohibits the development, acquisition, manufacture, possession, transportation, transfer or use of nuclear weapons.



The 40 nations staying away—less than one-fourth of all UN members—perceive that nuclear weapons are essential to ensure their security. This is also the rationale provided by the US and its allies to justify their nuclear weapons and their boycott of the conference.

This justification raises a fundamental question: “If nuclear weapons are truly indispensable in providing security, then why should not all states benefit from this advantage?” This argument also lays bare the fallacy that deterrence based on nuclear weapons is more stable than deterrence without nuclear weapons, given that relations among nuclear weapon states are crises-ridden.


Why are small nations worried?

Some of the countries spearheading the negotiation process—Austria, Cuba, Ireland, Mexico, Mongolia and Sweden—are likely to face the brunt of nuclear fallout if weapons are used in their region by the heavily-armed nuclear nations.

To put this in context, the fallout from the single biggest nuclear test conducted by the US on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific on 1 March 1954 with a yield of 15 megatons—five times more than all the firepower used in World War II—spread over 18,000 sq. km and showered radioactive material as far as Australia, India, Japan and the US. It was this one test that prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to propose a nuclear test ban treaty.


Arguments for nuclear abolition:

  • The abolition of nuclear weapons is an urgent humanitarian necessity. Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences. No effective humanitarian response would be possible, and the effects of radiation on human beings would cause suffering and death many years after the initial explosion. Eliminating nuclear weapons – via a comprehensive treaty – is the only guarantee against their use.
  • Nuclear weapons pose a direct and constant threat to people everywhere. Far from keeping the peace, they breed fear and mistrust among nations. These ultimate instruments of terror and mass destruction have no legitimate military or strategic utility, and are useless in addressing any of today’s real security threats, such as terrorism, climate change, extreme poverty, overpopulation and disease.
  • It would take less than 0.1% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal to bring about devastating agricultural collapse and widespread famine. The smoke and dust from fewer than 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions would cause an abrupt drop in global temperatures and rainfall.
  • Also, nuclear weapons programmes divert public funds from health care, education, disaster relief and other vital services.

Way ahead:

As envisaged in these negotiations, the treaty is likely to allow for the future membership of nuclear armed states with the objective of eliminating their nuclear arsenals, but only in cooperation with them. Thus, by participating in the negotiations, nuclear-armed states could underscore their commitment to a nuclear-weapon free world and also contribute to the contours of the treaty. By staying out, they gain nothing and lose goodwill.



The new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons will strengthen the global norms against using and possessing these weapons. And it will spur long-overdue progress towards disarmament. Experience shows that the prohibition of a particular type of weapon provides a solid legal and political foundation for advancing its progressive elimination.