As we’ve previously discussed in this class, the specter of nuclear war haunts the world – so it prompts the question – can we ever eliminate nuclear weapons from the world? It’s an optimistic goal that has long been in the sights of activists, and as the documents from the United Nations General Assembly (L.41) and Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will demonstrate (A Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons), they’re aspirations for intergovernmental bodies and NGOs as well. Although the Cold War is over, large stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain, posing a significant risk to the safety of the world. The only way to ensure safety moving forward, according to these documents, is for multilateral disarmament among the world’s nuclear powers. Previous treaty frameworks already allude to the eventual disarmament of nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is what this group calls the “cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.” To that end, the Working Group of the UN General Assembly is convening a 2017 conference in New York to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. Let’s hope that they’re successful in producing a legal end to nuclear weapons. However, the question remains as to whether the nuclear-armed countries will acquiesce to such a ban.
Other weapons of mass destruction like chemical and biological weapons are governed by international treaties effectively banning their use; however, nuclear weapons have no such prohibition. Right now, what’s needed most is political will among the potential signatory countries to sign, enact, and then enforce a nuclear weapons ban. It might seem like the non-nuclear armed countries have little leverage over the nuclear-armed countries, but to give an interesting example, in 1987, New Zealand passed nuclear free zone legislation, which caused the United States to suspend its military alliance with it, but eventually the United States restored its alliance anyway. Broader security concerns seem to outweigh the desire to have nuclear weapons. Furthermore, as the Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will report posits, it is also possible to move forward with a complete ban on nuclear weapons without the support of the nuclear-armed powers. Perhaps the incremental process of eliminating nuclear weapons is insufficient for achieving the real goal of a world without nuclear weapons. We have to ask ourselves – what are we willing to commit in order to achieve a nuclear-free world? — Nicholas