Establishing nuclear disarmament17/03/17Defence
Jean-Marie Collin is an expert for many NGOs on defence, with a specialty in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. He is an associated researcher at the Groupe de recherche et d’information sur la paix et la sécurité, Belgium (GRIP) and vice-chair of Initiatives pour le Désarmement Nucléaire (IDN), as well as a member of La Campagne Internationale pour Abolir les Armes Nucléaires (ICAN France).
Collin shares his views on the history of nuclear arsenal and the importance of nuclear disarmament
Mankind has been living for 72 years with the ability to dramatically change its existence, by merely pushing a button. Nuclear weapons and their history, as witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 (and with more than 2,000 nuclear tests across the world), highlighted their immediate and long-term devastating effects, both with regard to populations and the environment. Although the worldwide arsenal has significantly decreased since the 1990s (from 80,000 to 15,000 weapons in 2017), these arms are still raising issues in terms of global security, while the multilateral process of nuclear disarmament has not progressed. A new way to reach better security seems achievable in 2017 with the negotiation of a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.
State of play
The worldwide nuclear arsenal today would represent about 15,500 weapons shared in nine countries: the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The gap, from the thousands of US weapons to the 300 French ones and probably a few dozen North Korean arms, is obviously huge. We are, however, aware that whatever the detonation, from one or several weapons (in case of an act of war, accident or terrorist attack), it will have disastrous humanitarian consequences all over the world. Nuclear weapons are indeed unconventional arms, but they are weapons of mass destruction because of their power (the biggest conventional bomb is near 11 tonnes of TNT, far from the 15,000 tonnes of TNT for the Hiroshima bomb) and their long-term effects on both health and the environment.
For these nine countries, security relies on the possession of this weapon and the nuclear deterrence policy as a logical consequence, which means the threat of reprisal in case of attack. Although they do not use their arsenal (in the first sense of use), these nations remain convinced that there is no other way to guarantee total safety. It is crucial to abandon this single doctrine. We must learn from our past, not in reference to the myths that were created to ease the spread of nuclear deterrence, but we need to rely on the reality of history.
If deterrence is the only way to guarantee ultimate protection, then why is history of the nuclear powers since 1945 full of contradictory examples? Why was the United States, the only nation that had a nuclear arsenal in 1948, unable to avoid the Soviet blockade of Berlin? Why did atomic fear not prevent China from rallying to North Korea in the war in 1950? If deterrence protects the states’ territories from those with nuclear weapons, why were the territories occupied by Israel attacked in 1973, and why did its main cities in 1991 (such as Tel-Aviv) suffer ballistic strikes? If deterrence impresses and makes powerful, why did the Argentines attack the Falkland Islands in 1982, while it belonged to the United Kingdom? Many examples have proved that political leaders, when they do have the will to act, ignored the nuclear deterrence of their adversaries. The released archives related to these conflicts have revealed that the use of nuclear arms was seen as a hypothesis. Which means that it could have (and could in the future) become a weapon like any other.
Towards the nuclear weapons ban treaty
Reaching nuclear disarmament is a long and complex process; it will only come if there is a clear will from the international community to reach it and to get rid of (then it is about banning) nuclear weapons. All the initiatives towards this way are positive, from the US-Russia bilateral negotiations to the implementation of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), but the creation of a norm to ban the nuclear weapons is an essential step before their elimination. When a weapon is banned, this weapon loses its stature and the norm induces a set of direct (international law, reinforcement of non-proliferation rules) and indirect (regulatory framework in the financial institutions, potential reconsideration of the deterrence policy of NATO) consequences, which do not take into account pressure that will be put on the states that do not want to comply with this law.
The negotiations (come from the UN resolution L41) of this future ban treaty will begin at the end of March and continue in June and is supported by a large majority of the world. This multilateral treaty is going to reinforce the norms of non-proliferation, and it will not make them weaker, as their opponents think. It is indeed very curious to think that the implementation of this legal regime, which will ban this sort of weapon, could make international stability weaker. Does that mean that we should ponder questions about the international community’s legitimacy as it banned biologic weapons (1975), chemical weapons (1997), antipersonnel mines (1999), cluster munitions (2010) and it aims to regulate the weapon trade thanks to a treaty (2014)? There is another surprising thought, from Belgium, which considers the ban only “as a final constitutive point allowing to make a nuclear weapon free world”. There would not be any interest in banning these weapons if they were already eliminated. Law has to be created to make an issue different, not to officialise the fact that there is no issue anymore.
 Wilson Ward, Armes nucléaires: et si elles ne servaient à rien? 5 mythes à déconstruire, Editions GRIP, 2015.
 Heather Williams, « Does the fight over a nuclear weapons ban threaten global stability? », Bulletin of the American Scientists, 9 février 2017
You can view the full interview in Pan European Networks: Government 22, due out in August 2017