Nuclear Deterrence: An Unproven Gamble That Risks Humanity – OpEd

By and

Is it justifiable for a country to go nuclear—on the grounds that it is doing so to protect itself from nuclear attacks? 

The argument is based on the concept of “nuclear deterrence”: a widely-challenged theory that nuclear weapons are intended to deter nuclear attacks prompting the question: would the Russians have invaded Ukraine if it was a nuclear power?

The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, were perhaps facilitated by one fact: none of these countries either had nuclear weapons or had given up developing them (as in the case of Libya).

“And that is why we will never give up ours,” a North Korean diplomat was quoted as saying, while pointing out that the invasions by the US and Western nations would not have taken place if those countries were armed with nuclear weapons.

But the 2017 Nobel Peace laureate, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organizations in over 100 countries, says “deterrence is an unproven gamble—a theory on which the future of humanity is being risked—that is based on the implicit threat to use nuclear weapons that has brought the world close to nuclear war on a number of occasions.”

The weeklong UN meeting of members of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which concluded December 1, called out the doctrine of nuclear deterrence adhered to by the nuclear-armed states and their allies as a threat to human security and an obstacle to nuclear disarmament, according to ICAN.

The nuclear deterrence doctrine condemned

The Executive Director of ICAN, Melissa Parke, said: “The condemnation of nuclear deterrence doctrine by the members of the TPNW at their meeting at the UN in New York is a highly significant move”.

Never before has a UN treaty laid out the threat that nuclear deterrence poses to the future of life on our planet. Deterrence is unacceptable. It is based on the threat to wage nuclear war, which would kill millions outright and lead to a nuclear winter and mass starvation that recent research shows would kill billions of people, she declared.

Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), (and who provided inputs during the drafting of the TPNW in 2017 on verification and other matters), told IDN the second session of TPNW meeting of states parties (MSP2) was noteworthy in that there was a thematic discussion on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, consideration of the status and operation of the Treaty.

This included victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance, complementarity with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and a report of a scientific advisory group (SAG) on verification of nuclear disarmament.

The political declaration adopted at MSP2 was heavy on rhetorical and hortatory statements but light on concrete calls for action, he argued.

TPNW States agreed to set up intersessional working groups in the lead up to MSP3 in 2025, and to consider modalities for an international trust fund for victim assistance and environmental remediation, as well as a consultative process on security concerns of TPNW States.

As regards the international trust fund, he said, “I am concerned that some ardent TPNW opponent States, such as Canada, Germany and Norway, may try to “whitewash” their credentials by offering funds for victim assistance but still resolutely continue to oppose and undermine the TPNW.”

A scientific advisory group set up

One important outcome of MSP1 was the establishment of a Scientific Advisory Group (SAG). It submitted a useful report to MSP2 on the status and developments regarding nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon risks, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament and related issues.

This report using available open source information provided a compilation of data on the status of nuclear forces based on the data and reports published by the Federation American Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the inventories of nuclear warheads and related nuclear materials, Rauf pointed out.

The is the second time that a scientific advisory group has been set up in support of multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. The first time such a scientific advisory group was set up was in 1976 with the establishment of the Ad Hoc Group of Scientific Experts to conceptualize a verification and international seismic data-exchange system for a nuclear test-ban treaty.

Rauf said existing nuclear disarmament verification exercises such as the US-led International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) and the QUAD basically have replicated existing IAEA practices and procedures on verification of the nuclear fuel cycle.

“There is, as yet, no agreement among States on any feasible or practical measures for verification of dismantlement of nuclear warheads. Indeed, the US is on record that it shall never allow any international oversight of nuclear warhead dismantlement,” he pointed out.

As such, for practical reasons, whether it should not be the focus on a variation of TPNW Article 4 (1), pursuant to which a nuclear-armed State divests itself of nuclear weapons and related infrastructure and accedes to the Treaty even though this would now occur after the TPNW entered into force in January 2021? he asked

And further to that, the verification effort be on the nuclear material from the dismantled warheads utilizing attribution verification with information barrier (AVIB). Also, understand that it will not be possible to get an accurate, complete and reliable accounting of weapon-usable nuclear material produced since 1945, he noted.

UN chief lauds successful conclusion of the second TPNW meeting

In a statement released December 1, UN Secretary-General António Guterres congratulated States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on the successful conclusion of their Second Meeting.

The Secretary-General said he is “encouraged by the work done by States Parties in collaboration with other stakeholders, which showcases what is possible within multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations and bolsters the global disarmament and non-proliferation architecture”. 

He welcomed the adoption of the political declaration, “contributing toward our shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons”.

Meanwhile, at the meeting, about 700 individuals, representing over 100 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) took part in an interactive process with the member states. And in what could be viewed as a much broader, week-long nuclear disarmament conference, more than 65 side events, including panel discussions, art exhibitions, concerts, and awards ceremonies were held inside the UN and around New York City. Jackie Cabasso, Executive Director, Western States Legal Foundation, told IDN compared to the rancorous August meeting of the States Parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which could not even agree on a Chair’s factual summary report, the TPNW meeting manifested a unified and unambiguous recognition that growing threats of nuclear war are intolerable and that the only solution is the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

“It is evident that even though the TPNW cannot achieve nuclear disarmament without the participation of the nuclear-armed states, its members are energetically using it as a platform to develop and disseminate information and analysis that is valuable in the broader global context’ she pointed out.

Examples of this were the report on gender impacts, including the disproportionate effects of radiation on women and girls’ health, and the first report of the Scientific Advisory Group on developments regarding nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon risks, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament, and related issues.

The Scientific Advisory Group also called for a new UN study on the consequences of nuclear war, given the last comprehensive studies were done in the late 1980s.

“In an important development”, Cabasso said, “States parties, for the first time, mandated member states, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), ICAN and other stakeholders and experts, to engage in consultations to “challenge the security paradigm based on nuclear deterrence by highlighting and promoting new scientific evidence about the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons and juxtaposing this with the risks and assumptions that are inherent in nuclear deterrence,” and to present their findings at the third meeting of States parties in March 2025.”

Nuclear deterrence is the Gordian knot

Over half the world’s population live in countries whose national security postures explicitly depend on nuclear weapons and the doctrine of “nuclear deterrence”-  “In my view”, she said, nuclear deterrence is the Gordian knot blocking the path to nuclear disarmament.

The Latin root of the word deterrence means to “frighten away, fill with fear”. In other words, to threaten. Deterrence undergirds entire military-industrial establishments and the national security states and elites they serve, she said.

It is an ideology which has outlived its Cold War origins and is used by nuclear-armed states to justify the perpetual possession and threatened use—including first use—of nuclear weapons.

The hard truth is that neither the NPT nor the TPNW can achieve disarmament until the nuclear-armed states are willing to reimagine a global system that puts universal human security above the narrow interests of “national security” enforced by nuclear coercion — euphemistically called deterrence, declared Cabasso.

Elaborating further, Rauf said: “In my view, chasing modalities for verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement is going down an endless rabbit hole”.

“The uncomfortable truth is that we cannot achieve 100% nuclear warhead dismantlement verification, we can do so for missiles, submarines, and bombers but not for the warheads—period!”

While this might be an interesting intellectual challenge for scientists and universities, it is not a practical option.

Recall, that at the height of the Cold War it was estimated that the global number of deployed nuclear warheads peaked in 1986 at an estimated 70,374. In all, it is estimated that more than 125,000 nuclear warheads were built since 1945.

Today, he said, there are about 12,500, What happened to the difference of nearly 58,000 warheads between 70,374 and 12,500; and the 112,500 from the 125,000? All were unceremoniously dismantled – unilaterally, without direct verification!

“I would recommend that TPNW States set up an International Panel of Scientific and Technical Experts (IPSTE) to advise the SAG on practical relevant aspects of nuclear disarmament verification comprised of experts with nuclear weapons and verification expertise – that is retired weaponeers and inspectors dealing with nuclear weapons matters,” declared Rauf.

Meanwhile, according to ICAN, the meeting also demonstrated that the TPNW is growing in strength. Several observing states announced their intention to join the treaty in the near term, bringing the number of states that have either signed, ratified or acceded to the treaty to more than half of all UN members.

Indonesia announced that its parliament recently approved ratification of the treaty and Brazil, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique and Nepal announced their intent to ratify soon.

The meeting was also attended by several NATO states and countries that rely on American nuclear weapons in their defence, including Australia, Belgium, Germany and Norway.

Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *