The U.N.’s unfinished nuclear business

    The United Nations General Assembly passed its first resolution in 1946. In the shadow of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the highest priority of the new body was a call for plans “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan focused on the terrible fact that 60 years on, the world still has no plan to be rid of what he called a “unique existential threat to all humanity.”

    Instead of elimination, the nuclear danger has grown and spread from one country with a few weapons to a situation where the United States and Russia have about 10,000 nuclear weapons each and have been joined as nuclear-armed states by Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and, most recently, North Korea.

    Others are not far behind. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has warned that there are another 20 or 30 “virtual nuclear weapons states” that have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time span. For these countries, it may take a threat from an existing nuclear-armed state, a change in leadership, a newfound desire for national power and prestige, a resourceful scientist or unexpected access to technology to tip the balance.

    Why has it come to this? Part of the reason is that all states who have or seek nuclear weapons share a common disregard for democracy and their own people — every state that has developed nuclear weapons has done so in secret from its people. No nuclear-armed state has ever clearly explained to its people what would happen if it carried out its nuclear war plans. Few citizens in such states know that in 1961 the U.N. General Assembly declared that “any state using nuclear and thermonuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”

    Another part of the reason is that every nuclear-armed state claims its weapons are for deterrence. In 2004, C. Paul Robinson, President of Sandia National Laboratory, who was responsible for the engineering of U.S. nuclear weapons, explained “deterrence.” He argued “deterrence … comes from the Latin root word ‘terre,’ meaning ‘to frighten with an overwhelming fear,’ as in the English antecedent — terror.” In short, to deter means to terrorize. Given this, should it come as any surprise that “terrorists” may be seeking nuclear weapons?

    All of this must change if we are to plan for and achieve the end of the nuclear age. As a first step, people and leaders everywhere need to accept that all nuclear weapons are created equal. They are all weapons of terror and should be seen as equally immoral, illegal, illegitimate and dangerous. This principle may make it possible to find the “common global strategies” that Annan argued are needed to “make progress on both fronts — nonproliferation and disarmament at once.”

    Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security is home to one such effort. The International Panel on Fissile Materials brings together independent experts from 15 nuclear-armed and nonnuclear countries, to find ways to secure and reduce all stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the key materials in nuclear weapons, and limit any further production. If successful, this would serve to reduce existing nuclear arsenals, limit the weapons capabilities of the 20-30 “virtual nuclear weapons states” and restrict terrorists from gaining access to a nuclear capability. For more on this, see IPFM’s “Global Fissile Material Report 2006.”

    But there are much larger questions that also need to be addressed. The Director-General of the IAEA has warned that “should a state with a fully developed [nuclear] fuel-cycle capability decide, for whatever reason, to break away from its nonproliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapon within a matter of months.” If so, can a world free of nuclear weapons risk relying on nuclear energy?

    An even bigger challenge is how states and people can feel secure when the United States has global interests and can unleash almost overwhelming conventional military force anywhere in the world. Lesser powers pose the same problem on a regional scale. The answer may lie again in the United Nations. The U.N. charter requires that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Holding all states, especially the most powerful, to this basic commitment may eventually prove to be the key to the rest.

Zia Mian is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security and a lecturer of public and international affairs at the Wilson School. He may be reached at [email protected].

[This article ran in The Princetonian - Friday, December 1, 2006]

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