As for nuclear weapons, their significance stems their catastrophic effects, both human and environmental. We are fortunate to have heard the testimony of the hibakusha about the effects produced from the use of just one such weapon.
These weapons are dangerous even when they are not used. Consider the number of accidents that have already occurred. Weapons lost at sea in both the Atlantic and Pacific — and never found. Weapons that were destroyed in plane crashes in Greenland and Spain, which left behind radioactive contaminated landscapes.
Then there are additional risks of unauthorized use, sabotage, and terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities or weapons, not to mention economic cost, and environmental damages incurred during the production of such weapons.
Despite these hazards, some 23,000 such weapons still exist, held by nine countries, with the United States and Russian Federation possessing by far the largest number. Many are still held on high alert status. There is no Nuclear Weapons Convention, yet there are detailed, long-term plans in all possessor States for modernizing nuclear weapons or their delivery systems.
Today over half the world’s population lives in countries whose national security postures explicitly depend on nuclear weapons and the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.
Now, what can possibly be done in response to this situation?
Until a Nuclear Weapons Convention is negotiated to outlaw all such weapons, several so-called “partial measures” have been pursued by the world community. One such measure is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which 190 States have joined — though the DPRK (North Korea) has announced its withdrawal. In 1995, the parties to the NPT extended the treaty indefinitely, but only as part of a package deal that included the ‘Resolution on the Middle East’ — which mandated efforts to establish a zone banning all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — nuclear, biological, and chemical.
Other partial measures are initiatives to promote the development of regional nuclear-weapon-free zones. So far, five such zones have been created — in Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Pacific, Africa, and Central Asia. In each of these cases, the purpose was explicitly framed as a step toward global nuclear disarmament. In other words, the goal of excluding nuclear weapon from a given region was by no means the only goal of the treaties establishing such zones. Global nuclear disarmament is also an objective of all these treaties.
Today, 113 States belong to such regional nuclear-weapon-free zones. These treaties not only ban the possession/production of nuclear weapons. They also ban the stationing/basing of such weapons in the region. In addition, and unlike the NPT, these treaty regimes also provide for legally binding security guarantees from the nuclear-weapon States — who, through the various treaty Protocols, promise never to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against any party to such a zone.
It is clear therefore that progress in establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East would strengthen the NPT, by finally implementing the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East and the Action Plan adopted by the NPT States parties in 2010 concerning the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the region.
It would also help to promote global nuclear disarmament, by further demonstrating the illegitimacy of the very existence of nuclear weapons — as well as their lack of value in providing genuine security.
Finally, it would also help the Middle East “peace process” by serving as a substantial confidence-building measure. A rigorous, verified, irreversible treaty excluding such weapons from this region would help in producing the type of political climate that would be conducive to progress in addressing other security issues, and eventually in achieving the long-sought goal of “peace in the Middle East.”
This result will not happen automatically. Civil society has a substantial role to play in helping to move this process along. Individuals and groups can work to educate the public to appreciate why such a zone would serve their interests. Their advocacy efforts can help to encourage governments to make the establishment of a zone a real priority of their policies. Even individual citizens can help this process by writing letters and articles, joining groups that are working for this goal, and countless other such actions — the imagination offers no limits for positive work in this field.
So yes, nuclear weapons remain a serious threat to the world. Yes, something can be done about them. Yes, the Middle East can take an enormously positive step forward toward this goal by establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone. And yes, world peace and security would be strengthened as a result.
* Randy Rydell is Senior Political Affairs officer at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) in New York.