The Road To A Nuclear Weapons Convention

- Jasjit Singh


While there has been an abiding desire and interest among the international comunity for total elimination of nuclear weapons, the reality also must be recognised that the focus and emphasis on nuclear disarmament that was so evident during the 1980s is almost totally absent in the 1990s. But it is significant that the President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and Nobel Peace Prize winner, eminent nuclear scientist (an erstwhile member of the Manhattan Project), Professor Joseph Rotblat, in his Nobel speech in December 1995 affirmed: "We have the technical means to create a Nuclear Weapon Free World in about a decade." (emphasis added). Other Pugwash scientists believe it is feasible to dismantle nuclear warheads in about 10 years, and that the goal of global nuclear disarmament can be achieved in 20-30 years. The problem lies with inadequate political will on one side, and strategic turf on the other side.

The primary objections raised against total elimination are built around a few arguments, mostly of non-technical nature. The Cold War, for example, used to be cited in justification for nuclear weapons, but the Cold War has been over for six years. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are sought to be justified and retained by the nuclear weapon states on the grounds that there is no Cold War now!

As we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, decisive movement toward total elimination of nuclear weapons becomes more important than ever before. The international community has concluded treaties to eliminate the other two categories of weapons of mass destruction which stand out as models for abolition of nuclear weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits possession, production and use of chemical weapons came into force earlier this year, on April 29, 1997. There is no justifiable reason for tardiness and opposition to total elimination of the third category.

Four years after the end of Cold War, the CSIS Nuclear Strategy Study Group (in the USA) had concluded (in 1993), "There is no consensus, nor any immediate prospect of one, that total and complete disarmament will under any circumstances be a feasible proposition."1 The report, however, went on to state that "it would be a tragedy if the present momentum toward international co-operation and disarmament passed without some attempt to establish a more robust nuclear end-state whose practical effect is virtually to eliminate the risk that nuclear weapons will be used." The permanent extension of the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) in May 1995 without any unambiguous, leave alone binding, commitment to nuclear disarmament only reinforced the concerns that nuclear disarmament is not likely to be pursued by the weapon states in any meaningful way in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, some new voices have also emerged since then to join the international community in demanding total elimination of nuclear weapons. China, unlike Russia, still supports the elimination of nuclear weapons, and has been seeking a no-first-use treaty among the weapon states. The argument that the world will be unsafe without nuclear weapons is only meant to further the narrow self-interest of the nuclear weapon states and their allies. Competent people like the former US Defence Secretary and senior military commanders in the report of the committee chaired by General Andrew Goodpaster have already argued that US security will be enhanced with total elimination of nuclear weapons.2 They have recommended a phased programme of disarmament that could be achieved in a couple of decades. Australian Prime Minister. Paul Keating, while announcing the setting up of the Canberra Commission of experts to work out a plan for total elimination of nuclear weapons had stated, "I believe that a world free of nuclear weapons is now feasible."3 He went on to say, "We want the nuclear weapon states to carry out their commitments to the elimination of their nuclear stockpiles by adopting a systematic process to achieve that result."

The adoption of the resolution of Principles and Objectives during the NPT extension conference itself reaffirms the commitment of Article VI of the NPT to negotiate the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The World Court judgement of July 1995 has categorically ruled unanimously: "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all aspects under strict international control."4 All the nuclear weapon states, declared and undeclared, have at various times articulated their support for total nuclear disarmament. The G-21 resolution specifically seeks tangible progress on nuclear disarmament. This paper seeks to outline some definitive measures and steps which would be necessary and are feasible in moving toward a nuclear weapon-free world.

The pre-requisites for achieving a convention to abolish nuclear weapons should be able to address the major reasons normally advanced against nuclear disarmament. The approach to elimination and prohibition has to be based on concurrent definitive movement along a number of mutually reinforcing and coverging pathways that seek to (i) establish a process of de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons so as to make nuclear weapons redundant and unusable; (ii) progressively narrow the scope and envelope of the role and deployment of such weapons; (iii) achieve deep reductions down to zero levels; and (iv) evolve an international security framework for a post-nuclear weapon world. Given the complexities of elimination, the starting point should be a reaffirmation of the intent to eliminate nuclear weapons at the earliest, and to make concerted efforts "in good faith" to achieve the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world.

De-legitimisation of Nuclear Weapons

All real changes in human history have come about as a result of force of ideas. It is necessary, therefore, that elimination of nuclear weapons also seeks to alter the belief system and ideas that have sought to justify nuclear weapons. The process of such change and de-legitimisation will have to based on three concurrent measures.

Binding Declaration of Intent

Although there are many treaties, agreements, communiques and declarations supporting the goal of elimination, especially as a long-term objective, it would be useful at this stage to re-state the objective of total elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons. Such a joint declaration will need to be unambiguous and should convey a decisive commitment to the goal of total elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons. The treaty prohibiting chemical weapons, which came into force on April 29, 1997, is a useful model to set the pattern for such a politically binding declaratory policy. As General Lee Butler states, "A clear and unequivocal commitment to elimination, sustained by concrete policy and measurable milestones, is essential to give credibility and substance to this long-standing declaratory position."5

A declaration along the above lines needs to be made essentially by the five declared and the three undeclared nuclear weapon states. The latter three (India, Israel, and Pakistan) are not members of the NPT and, it can be argued, are not bound as yet by any formal commitment to elimination. It would, therefore, be desirable to get them committed to the process and goals of elimination. The non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT have already foregone their right to acquire nuclear weapons, and are committed to Article VI of the NPT. It has also been suggested that Japan and Germany, as major non-nuclear weapon countries, should also be included among states that should carry primary responsibility for ensuring elimination along with the other eight.6

Creating a Legal Norm

The World Court has ruled that there is no specific law that declares nuclear weapons as illegal, although their use would be generally inconsistent with rules of armed conflict and humanitarian laws. It is necessary, therefore, that an appropriate legal norm be established on the road to total elimination of nuclear weapons. Such a convention could be modelled on the 1925 Geneva Convention, and could even, initially, allow the right of use in self-defence as long as the principle of proportionality is observed.

A resolution to this effect has been moved and passed with majority vote at the UN General Assembly regularly since 1978. The interest of some of the key players that pressed for such a convention earlier appears to have flagged somewhat. But if the goal of elimination of nuclear weapons is to be translated into reality, it would be necessary to establish the norms and legal framework that alter the legitimacy and the mindset that believes in the utility and usability of such weapons.

No-First-Use Commitment

Doctrinal changes in the use and utility of nuclear weapons is another aspect of the process of de-legitimisation. There is an urgent need for a binding political agreement among the eight declared/undeclared nuclear weapon states (five weapon states, and India, Pakistan and Israel) not to be the first to use nuclear weapons/capabilities. Of these, China and India have always supported the concept of no-first-use pledge. The Soviet Union used to support the concept also, but the Russian Federation has moved away from that position. However, it is not an absolutist shift. Last year, Russia and China agreed to a bilateral no-first-use (of nuclear weapons) commitment within a broader non-aggression pact. In a profound change from its earlier position, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) adopted the position in July 1990 that nuclear weapons were "truly weapons of last resort." The new Strategic Concept adopted by NATO in November 1991 further relegated nuclear weapons to margins of NATO strategy by stating that the "circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated" are "remote".7

The new NATO-Russia Founding Act signed at Paris on May 27, 1997, states that "Russia and NATO do not see each other as adversaries." President Clinton, speaking about the Charter stated, "The veil of hostility between East and West has lifted. Together we see a future of partnership too long delayed that must no longer be denied." President Chirac of France and Chancellor Kohl of Germany endorsed these views. As early as 1993, a seminal study by eminent experts in the USA had concluded: "The changing political landscape in Europe has produced a strategic revolution; neither deterrence of conventional attack nor deterrence of nuclear attack any longer requires the presence of large numbers of ...nuclear weapons on the European continent."8 The forecast of changes in the geo-political landscape, if anything, has been more profound and extensive than that visualised by the CSIS study. There is every reason to expect, therefore, that NATO would move at an early date from its current "last resort" position.

In the view of many experts, the current NATO position is well short of a no-first-use commitment. But if more recent developments are any indication, there is no reason why the NATO states would/should not go to fuller commitment to no-first-use at an early date. The most important development is the recent agreement between NATO and Russia regarding NATO expansion where, in fact, President Yeltsin made the surprise announcement that Russian nuclear weapons have been taken off their earlier mission of targetting NATO member countries.

Difficulties may also arise from Israel and Pakistan not coming forth with such commitments. In that case, the agreement could be concluded among the five declared nuclear weapon states and India; while Israel and Pakistan could be invited to join at the earliest opportunity.

Narrowing the Envelope

Progressive constriction of the envelope of nuclear weapons in terms of their role and deployment is necessary. Given the reality of a dramatically altered geo-political landscape, this should be based on three concrete measures.

De-activate Arsenals

Declaratory commitment should include announcement followed by action placing nuclear arsenals off alert, and detargetting of other countries. This would be a strong measure of reassurance of security of other countries, whether they are nuclear weapon states or not. At the recent NATO-Russia summit, President Yeltsin announced unilaterally that "Russia was going to remove the warheads from the nuclear missiles" that it has continued to target on countries of NATO.9 The goal apparently is to de-target NATO countries. Russia already has a 1994 agreement with the United States not to target each other's country with nuclear arsenals. The present Russian proposal would extend that unilaterally to other NATO countries.

We are closer to an accepted norm of de-activating arsenals than what is generally recognised. NATO and Russia have now agreed not to target each other. The only set of nuclear weapon states that still have their arsenals targetted at each other are the United States and China. This would suggest that while the problem of greater cooperation among NATO and Russia on measures to move toward elimination are techno-economic, the problem between China and the United States is much more fundamental pertaining to political and strategic goals of the two countries. One approach to reduce the political strategic divergence between these two countries is for the United States to undertake reassurance by agreeing to a no-first-use commitment in respect of nuclear weapons. This will also have a very positive impact on the overall situation in Asia, where many people are beginning to wonder whether an incipient Cold War has already commenced between the two great powers, China and the United States.

Separation of warheads from delivery systems is a logical progression to de-targetting of nuclear weapons against each other's territories. Removal of warheads from delivery systems offers the most viable, least costly, and most reassuring interim step. In fact, if accepted in principle by the declared weapon states, this offers the quickest method of reducing the risks associated with nuclear weapons, and enables a more equitable reliable transitional security arrangement.

Control and Reverse Nuclear Arms Race

There are a number of indications that the nuclear arms race is starting in qualitative terms. This is in contradiction with the goal of elimination of nuclear weapons.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has been concluded but it does not forbid qualitative improvements and new designs of nuclear weapons. The risk of vertical proliferation remains. Without an unambiguous commitment and irreversible movement toward total elimination of nuclear weapons, the present CTBT is not likely to come into force. This treaty has a fundamental weakness in that it would ban only explosive testing. Sub-critical tests by the United Stated in June only symbolise the severe limitations and inadequacies of the treaty. The principle and goal of a "comprehensive" test ban must include all types and forms of nuclear testing and designing of new types of nuclear warheads. At this stage it would be unrealistic to expect that the treaty finalised last year would be modified. There is a need, therefore, for unambiguous political statements indicating commitment to ensure that no (explosive or/and non-explosive) testing of nuclear weapons is undertaken by any state.

Ballistic Missile Defences. The United States (and its allies) are well set on development and deployment of anti-ballistic missile defence. This is already heading toward two developments. Firstly, the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) is likely to violate the provisions and spirit of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty thus undermining a major arms control agreement of the Cold War period. Conceptually, this opens the way for other violations and re-interpretation of international treaties with far-reaching consequences. Secondly, any BMD deployment in Asia is likely to be seen by China as threatening its strategic defence capability. The Chinese response may be expected to come in the shape of counter-BMD measures, both qualitatively as well as quantitatively with far-reaching implications for the security of Asia-Pacific countries. This will set in motion the dynamics of a new arms race which needs to be nipped in the bud by banning BMD deployments.

Abolish Strategic Weapons

Considering that total abolition of nuclear weapons remains a complex matter, it is necessary to separate the issues of strategic and tactical arsenals. Tactical nuclear arsenals undoubtedly play a role in nuclear warfighting. Since such warfighting scenarios are neither credible nor desirable, it would appear that abolition of tactical weapons should be a first priority. On the other hand, it is the strategic arsenals that should be eliminated first exactly for the same reasons.

Elimination of strategic arsenals will still leave the nuclear weapon states with adequate arsenals for their security. But narrowing the envelope to tactical/non-strategic arsenals would reduce the area and scope in which nuclear weapons could be employed. The risk associated with accidental use of long-range weapons will also reduce. The dangers attendent to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons are likely to provide a strong disincentive to their possible use. As part of this process, it would be necessary to eliminate ballistic missiles.

Long-range delivery systems like ballistic missiles and strategic bombers extend the envelope of use and threat of nuclear weapons. They bring an increased number of countries, even far away, within the range of the weapons carried. Ballistic missiles in particular are highly destabilising because of their short time of flight, high re-entry speeds and steep re-entry trajectories which combine to make credible defence against them extremely difficult, if not impossible at present. Two steps are required so that delivery systems remain an integral part of the elimination of nuclear weapons as much as they have been in their existence and strategy:

—Expand the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty abolishing land-based ballistic missiles of the USA and USSR/Russia to include missiles with ranges between 50-5,500 km and involving all countries of the world.

— Negotiate a global treaty to abolish all ballistic missiles, and place all space launch capabilities and activities under international safeguards.

Deep Reductions

In the process of moving toward total elimination of nuclear weapons, it would be necessary for the weapon states to undertake drastic reductions in their nuclear arsenals. It is significant that the US President's special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament matters, Thomas Graham, while acknowledging that the Pentagon was the major obstacle to nuclear reductions, called for the five weapon states to reduce their arsenals to 300 warheads.10 The process of deep reductions requires the following measures:

— Implementation of START II in accordance with the treaty terms. If there is any risk of delays in the process due to any reason, the warheads and delivery systems, etc. covered under the treaty should be separated from each other. Such warheads and delivery systems should be placed under an international police force for safe custody till destruction can be completed. Such a step would be in consonance with the Charter of the United Nations, and will overcome the difficulties on techno-economic grounds which are otherwise delaying the dismantling process.

— The United States and Russia should commence negotiations urgently with the goal of reducing their arsenals down to 500 total (including deployed and reserve) warheads each.

— The five nuclear weapon states should negotiate an agreement to reduce their arsenals down to 100 total warheads. This should involve the elimination of all strategic weapons, long-range delivery systems, and MIRV-ed systems. Agreement among the five declared weapon states and three undeclared weapon states would also be necessary to "cap" the programmes of the three on the basis of proportionality.

— Establish an international nuclear force (consisting of two-third non-strategic systems) to ensure an independent international response to a new proliferator.

— Move toward the end-state of total prohibition of nuclear weapons and establishing adequate verification measures.

Nuclear Weapons Convention

The convergent roads to the ultimate goal of elimination of nuclear weapons will need to negotiate a convention for the abolition of nuclear weapons which, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, prohibits production, possession and use of nuclear weapons. There are four plausible options in concluding such a convention.

Option 1: Step-by-Step Approach

The United States and its allies are generally proposing a step-by-step approach without a firm commitment. Defining a time-table for disarmament is simply not acceptable to them. In fact, any reference to a time-table is used as an argument to deny any commitment to disarmament on the grounds that this is "unrealistic." This appears to have forced the Canberra Commission to moderate its thinking.

On the other hand, given the reality that the weapon states have avoided fulfilling their commitments under the NPT and their efforts to avoid any commitment to disarmament during the process of permanent extension of the NPT, the non-nuclear weapon states feel cheated by the weapon states. This is why the demands at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva have grown in the recent past for an early conclusion of a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons. India stands out as the prime opponent of the open-ended so-called step-by-step approach. The absence of progress and commitment to disarmament was the primary reason why India was not willing to be a party to the CTBT. In the coming years, the weapon states may try to soften the demands for elimination of nuclear weapons by deeper reductions in their arsenals. However, this remains woefully short of the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world.

Option 2 : Phased Programme

A number of studies and demands by eminent persons have sought a phased programme for elimination of nuclear weapons. But the reality is that neither the step-by-step approach nor the phased programme has any chance of producing concrete results unless negotiations are started for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Option 3 : Time-Bound Programme

India has been at the forefront of demanding total nuclear disarmament. This is driven by the belief that nuclear disarmament will further the interests of international peace and security, the principle that indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction are incompatible with civilised norms, and the need for removing the nuclear asymmetry that has affected its own security calculus since the early 1960s. This guided its approach to measures like the NPT, etc., which have been arbitrary and lacking in balance of obligations. Its demands for a time-bound programme for disarmament have intensified in direct proportion to the unwillingness of nuclear weapon states avoiding any commitment, leave alone demonstrating any progress on their treaty obligations to negotiate and implement a treaty for the abolition of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the nuclear weapon states have used the demand as a tool to avoid any commitment to disarmament on the grounds that this is unrealistic.

Option 4 : Working Proposition

A way could be found to reconcile the various positions and options by some adjustments to each of the positions. For example, the negotiations and conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention prohibiting nuclear weapons could be sought within a time-bound programme, while the actual disarmament process could be undertaken in a phased programme with clear bench-marks to delineate progress. In the interim, the principle of proportionality would require to be accepted in respect of the capabilities of the declared and undeclared nuclear weapon states.

Security Without Nuclear Weapons

One of the arguments advanced against disarmament is that in a post-nuclear world, international peace and security will became a casualty. This is more a Euro-centred view based on the belief that peace was maintained for half a century by the existence of nuclear weapons. This is not surprising in view of the fact that Europe dragged the world into two world wars during the first half of this century; and the absence of war in the second half of the century in Europe is seen as contributed primarily by nuclear deterrence.

But the reality is that the nuclear half-century was full of over 275 wars, many of the longer, more vicious ones (like in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan) prosecuted by the great powers with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the border war between Soviet Union and China demonstrated that nuclear weapons did not stop a war between nuclear weapon states. There is no empirical evidence to indicate that abolition of nuclear weapons will increase the likelihood of war. As it is, war as an instrument of policy is no longer a feasible proposition in the coming years. Wars for territory have already passed into history. Society has become deeply integrated and interdependent. Globalisation of trade and growth of the multinational corporate sector, rise of international financial institutions, and increasing concern for casualties in public opinion across the world are powerful disincentives for war.

A conventional war between states has already become extremely costly and unaffordable. Unlike World War II, use of conventional weapons, for example, in Europe, could lead to hundreds of Chernobyl and Bhopal tragedies. For the developing countries also its cost is unbearable since it would retard their development by decades, as the case of Iraq clearly proves. In any case, prevention of war rests on conventional deterrence rather than nuclear weapons. The longer we stay with the logic of nuclear deterrence, the greater are the risks of proliferation.

Post-nuclear security must address the problem of breakout and a country clandestinely acquiring nuclear weapons even if highly intrusive and effective inspection and verification measures (like in the Chemical Weapons Convention) are incorporated in a Nuclear Weapons Convention. The logical approach to an insurance measure under this situation would be an international (residual) nuclear deterrent force. Even if such a force were under the joint control of the current five nuclear weapon states, it would eliminate risks and threats emanating from national arsenals and provide the requisite deterrence.

At the same time, it is necessary to shift the inter-state security paradigm from the traditional competitive model to a more cooperative framework. This will require an ever-increasing level of cooperation with potential adversaries and antagonists. A certain level of such cooperation had existed even among the great powers at the peak of the Cold War confrontations. The process needs to be given a conceptual framework and impetus to serve the needs of the 21st century. The 20th century has been human history's most violent century. The primary lesson of this century is the need for making the next century not only less violent, but a century of peace. Elimination of nuclear weapons is an essential ingredient of that process.


1. Toward A Nuclear Peace : The Future of Nuclear Weapons in US Foreign and Defence Policy, Report by the CSIS Nuclear Strategy Study Group, (Washington DC: Centre for Strategic and International Studies, June 1993), p.67.

2. An Evolving US Nuclear Posture, Second Report of the Steering Committee, Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, (Washington DC: Henry L.Stimson Centre, December 1995).

3. P.J. Keating, Prime Minister of Australia, Speech given on the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, October 24, 1995.

4. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, Communique No.96/23, July 8, 1996, International Court of Justice, The Hague.

5. George Lee Butler, "Time to End the Age of Nukes", The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 1997, p.36. The declaratory position he refers to is the fact that all the nuclear weapon states are formally committed to nuclear abolition in the letter and spirit of the NPT; and successive Presidents of the United States have publicly endorsed elimination.

6. "Going on Record": statement by 62 Generals seeking elimination, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 1997, p.35.

7. n.l, p.27.

8. Ibid.l,p.28.

9. John Vincur, "For NATO and Russia, A Landmark Charter," International Herald Tribune, May 28, 1997, p.1.

10. "Former US Nuke Official Urges More Warhead Cuts," Defence News, July 7-13, 1997.