Nuclear proliferation: an existential threat

A few weeks ago, I wrote on these pages about the catastrophic problem of climate change. My skepticism about the outcome in Copenhagen proved almost prophetic. Today, although I am not a nuclear scientist, I am concerned enough to speak to the existential threat of nuclear proliferation. Why? Speaking in Prague in April 2009 about the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, President Obama warned: "More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black markets trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one." I hardly need to say any more about the recent security breach involving the Nigerian student. Shouldn't we be alarmed?

Although we may not recognize this threat as present as we go about our daily lives, the recent surge of violence in Bagdad (127 killed, and more than 400 injured) and the Nov. 26, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai should nullify our complacency about nuclear proliferation. Clearly, the likelihood of two or more nuclear powers engaging in a war is remote at best. But I can't be sanguine about the prospects of a fanatical terrorist group not getting their hands on a design for a "dirty bomb" causing enough destruction to alarm us and open our eyes. Pakistan's nuclear scientist Dr. A. Q. Khan, who is said to have run a nuclear bazaar, should have taught us a lesson to remember.

Efforts to control nuclear weapons

Space limitations do not allow me to cover the 64-year long history of the U.N.'s attempts to restrain nation states from indulging in nuclear proliferation — only a few landmark events may be mentioned here.

In January 1946, the U.N. General Assembly's first resolution called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons "adaptable to mass destruction." In 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was opened for signature. It was intended to open a path to a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. The treaty was extended in 1995, leading to the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty by a vote of 158 to 3 with 5 abstentions. As of November, 151 states have ratified the test-ban treaty and another 32 states have signed, but not ratified.

In 1944, the world was free of nuclear weapons; as of 2009, humans have produced an estimated 140,000 of such artifacts of mass destruction. The current count of nuclear warheads stands at roughly 23,375. Russia accounts for 13,000 and the U.S. for 9,400 nuclear warheads. Now, will someone enlighten me as to why we need nuclear warheads in thousands? How many times can you annihilate your enemy? It would not be an exaggeration to say that these weapons are so calamitous that they pose an unparalleled threat to the very existence of contemporary civilization.

Three pillars of NPT

The road to nuclear disarmament is enshrined in the three principles of the non-proliferation treaty::

  • The principle of non-proliferation: The non-nuclear-weapon states refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon states agree not to transfer nuclear weapons or parts to them and others and also not to transfer fissile material to non-nuclear-weapon states.
  • The principle of disarmament: The nuclear-weapon states and other parties to the non-proliferation treaty commit themselves to an early stage nuclear disarmament.
  • The principle of access to peaceful nuclear technology: The treaty recognizes the right of all parties to develop and be assisted in the development of nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

Signs of hope on the horizon

Is there a reason to be hopeful for our world to be free of nuclear weapons?

While Iran and North Korea remain a cause for concern, I do see a glimmer of hope. Many countries, regions and cities within countries have declared themselves "nuclear free zones." Both South Africa and Libya have rolled back their nuclear programs. In 2008, while campaigning, then-Sen. Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons. Since taking the office of presidency, he has reiterated his commitment to their elimination. Speaking before the Nobel Peace Prize Committee last month and referring to the non-proliferation treaty, President Obama said: "In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear "¦ I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy." This keeps my hope alive.

Russy D. Sumariwalla is past president of the Southern Oregon Chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA. He was president and CEO of United Way International (now part of United Way Worldwide), and is currently president of Global Philanthropy and Nonprofits. He lives with his artist/writer wife Anita in Medford. For a more detailed discussion of the topic, see U.N. Chronicle XLVVI No. 1 & 2, 2009, used as a source for this piece.

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