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Nuclear Weapons: a Relic of the Past

by

by Mohamed ElBaradei*

OpEd, "Süddeutsche Zeitung", 4 February 2009

(Read article in "Süddeutsche Zeitung", in German).

(Translated from German)

Imagine this: a country or group of countries serve notice that they plan to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in order to acquire nuclear weapons, citing a dangerous deterioration in the international security situation. "Don´t worry," they tell a shocked world. "The fundamental purpose of our nuclear forces is political: to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war. Nuclear weapons provide the supreme guarantee of our security. They will play an essential role by ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of our response to military aggression."

Withdrawing from the NPT is a drastic step, but every state party to the Treaty has the right to do so, giving a mere three months´ notice, if it decides that "extraordinary events" have jeopardised its supreme interests. The international uproar that would follow such a move is predictable. Yet the rationale I have just cited to justify nuclear weapons is taken from NATO´s current Strategic Concept. A similar rationale underpins the military doctrines of the other states with nuclear weapons. So the obvious question is: if leading world powers believe their security depends on having weapons that could annihilate our entire planet, and if they keep modernising and upgrading their nuclear arsenals and even conducting research into their actual use, how can we credibly expect other nations - in the name of maintaining international security - to refrain forever from seeking the same weapons?

The simple answer is that we cannot. The only way to prevent nuclear weapons from spreading and ultimately being used is to abolish them. At the same time, we must build an inclusive and equitable international security system in which no country feels the need to rely on nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, there is growing momentum behind the idea that eliminating all nuclear weapons is not just a Utopian ideal, but both possible and necessary. Not only the Kissinger-Shultz-Nunn-Perry quartet in the United States, but also other eminent figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Schmidt, Fernando Cardoso and Desmond Tutu have called for them to be scrapped. I am greatly encouraged that President Obama has made a firm commitment to making the elimination of all nuclear weapons a central tenet of his policies. So what do we need to do as an international community to build on the new momentum?

First, resume disarmament negotiations between the United States and the Russian Federation. Despite major cutbacks in the last 20 years, there are still some 27,000 nuclear warheads on the planet, 95 percent of which are held by these two countries. An initial target could be to cut to 1,000, or even 500, verified warheads on each side. This needs to be accompanied by the long-overdue entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and early negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty that would verifiably ban the production of material for nuclear weapons.

Second, we need to establish a mechanism for multinational control of the production of fissile material. This would counter-act an emerging phenomenon of more and more countries becoming "nuclear-weapon-capable" states, possessing the technology that could be used to make nuclear weapons in a matter of months, if they so chose. A multinational assurance-of-supply mechanism is a must to ensure that countries which want peaceful nuclear energy have guaranteed supplies of nuclear fuel without having their own uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technology. For any such mechanism to succeed, however, it must be universal, equitable and apolitical.

Third, we need to significantly improve the physical security of nuclear materials throughout the world. More than 1,500 incidents of illicit trafficking and other unauthorised activities involving nuclear or radioactive material have been reported to the IAEA. And this may be just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest risk we face is that a terrorist group could acquire nuclear or radioactive material - which they would certainly use as the concept of deterrence is irrelevant to them. All countries must therefore make securing these materials one of their highest priorities.

Fourth, the IAEA´s legal authority, technological capability and resources need to be substantially strengthened so it can credibly verify that countries are not secretly developing nuclear weapons and help to ensure that nuclear energy is used with the highest standards of safety and security. A high-level independent panel which issued a report on the future of the Agency last year said the budget should be doubled by 2020 and called for an immediate cash injection of 80 million Dollars to rebuild its dilapidated infrastructure.

Fifth, we need a return to a security system rooted in effective multilateralism. The Security Council must be drastically reformed so the world can rely on it as the primary body for maintaining international peace and security, as foreseen in the UN Charter.

States with nuclear weapons should demonstrate that they plan to live up to their legal and moral obligation to abolish all nuclear weapons. In particular, the five nuclear weapon states party to the Treaty must show that they are serious about their 40-year-old legal commitment to scrap all nuclear weapons by taking at least some of the steps I have outlined before next year´s NPT Review Conference. The division between nuclear weapon "haves" and "have nots" is not sustainable in the long term.

Concerns have been raised as to whether eliminating all nuclear weapons could actually have a destabilising effect and make major conventional conflict more likely. No-one is suggesting that we will get to zero nuclear weapons overnight. This, however, is no justification for not drastically reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world and taking concrete steps to diminish, rather than enhance, their role in military doctrines. Finally, it should not be beyond the ingenuity of humankind to figure out how to make the world safer without nuclear weapons, not least by taking a hard look at the root causes of insecurity and inequity.

The world has already banned the possession or use of both chemical and biological weapons. It would be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale if we cannot do the same for the most horrific weapons ever invented.


* Mohamed ElBaradei is Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This article reflects his personal views.