A Nuclear-Weapons-Free World Is It Achievable?

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After the worst of times, we are perhaps entering the best of times for proponents of nuclear disarmament. At long last, advocates of the elimination of nuclear weapons have reason for some guarded optimism. The road to a nuclear-weapons-free world will be long and bumpy, but those expected to take the initiative seem to have finally decided to lead. That is encouraging.

Sixty-four years ago the world was free of nuclear weapons, but after the production of some 140,000 of these artifacts of mass destruction, there seems to be a significant shift in the role some Governments have assigned to them. They are no longer generally considered to be the best means to ensure national security. Deterrence and mutually-assured destruction have become outdated concepts in a world now more concerned with other questions and challenges, including widespread poverty, climate change, a worldwide economic and financial meltdown, and other threats such as the recent alarm over the pandemic outbreak of a new kind of influenza virus.

Above all, the motivation for seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons now seems to be a fear of the further proliferation of these weapons to other States and possibly to the so-called non-State actors, including terrorist groups. There is the rub.

Nuclear weapons are intrinsically dangerous and pose an unparalleled threat to the very existence of humankind. They do not enhance a country's security but, rather, imperil the survival of all nations, which should be the point of departure of nuclear disarmament efforts.

To dwell on the potential danger that they may fall into the wrong hands is to misconstrue the argument for their elimination. They should be banned because they are immoral--and probably illegal--tools of destruction. Since their use would likely be fatal for all, they cannot even be considered instruments of war.

The twin questions of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have been on the agenda of the United Nations since its beginning: the dawn of the atomic age coincided with its birth. The UN Charter, however, makes no mention of nuclear weapons for the simple reason that it was adopted at the San Francisco conference three weeks before the first test and six weeks before their use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The transcendental nature of the discovery of atomic energy prompted the delegates to the UN General Assembly's first session to address the issue immediately. In its very first resolution-- (I) of 24 January 1946--the Assembly established the Atomic Energy Commission, composed of the Security Council members and Canada, and requested that it submit specific proposals for ensuring the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes only, for the elimination of atomic and other weapons of mass destruction and for the establishment of a system of safeguards, including inspections, to prevent violations and evasions.

A number of specific proposals followed, including one by the United States in June 1946. As the only nuclear-weapon State (NWS), it was natural that the United States put forward its own ideas on the matter. These were contained in what became known as the Baruch Plan, which was based largely on the United States government publication A Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, issued in March of that year.

The US, which still held an unchallenged nuclear monopoly, called for an open exchange among all nations of basic scientific information for peaceful ends; control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes; the elimination of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction from national arsenals; and the establishment of effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying States against the hazards of violations and evasions.

Though forward-thinking in many aspects, the Baruch Plan had several drawbacks. …