Confronting nuclear dangers

The goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from this planet received a timely boost this year with the successful negotiation of a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in July 2017.

This Treaty is a remedy for some of the shortcomings in the existing legal and moral framework on nuclear weapons, but it is by no means the end of the road.

Prohibition sends a clear message that the majority of people in this world do not believe that nuclear weapons increase their security; but getting to elimination is a long-term activity.

While disarmament can take place, there remain areas of the world that can be described as being of “nuclear danger” – relatively new areas where nuclear weapons are present or where there is a serious risk of further nuclear proliferation.

Of course, “new” here is meant in relation to the time of the Cold War, the height of nuclear weapons folly. The legacy of the arms race means that the majority of nuclear weapons are still possessed by the U.S. and Russia, and nuclear disarmament must take place in the context of ever-more strained relations between these two.

Creative measures and reinvigorated political will are necessary to overcome the antagonism, not just between the U.S. and Russia, but equally amongst the other states possessing nuclear weapons. The fact that none of these states saw fit to participate in the UN-backed process on the prohibition of nuclear weapons shows the stark divide between haves and have-nots.

Since the early days of the Cold War, and continuing to this day, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs has been a relentless champion of disarmament. Since the very first conference 60 years ago, Pugwash has been synonymous with “dialogue across divides”, providing opportunities for scientists and policymakers to meet and confront the conflicts and issues of the world.

At this time, perhaps more than ever, such dialogue is needed. It is not simply that progress toward nuclear disarmament is slow, nor that too many weapons – 15,000-16,000 – continue to pose a threat to humanity. Rather, the world is in a dangerous moment with respect to forms of extremism and non-state actors, protracted and unresolved conflicts and the rise of various nationalisms. It is precisely at this time that more must be done to ensure people talk, listen and understand one another in efforts to build peace.

The founding goal of Pugwash is to decrease the salience of nuclear weapons that continue to threaten people’s security.

Kazakhstan set an example to the world by categorically rejecting the possession of nuclear weapons and the continuation of their testing at Semipalatinsk. Kazakhstan was also a leader in the establishment of Central Asia as a zone free of nuclear weapons. These are concrete actions that must be supported and other countries should follow their lead.

For the past 15 years, Pugwash has addressed the changing international environment. The Middle East, South Asia and North-East Asia are all areas where there is a propensity for conflict that is unfortunately matched with the existence of nuclear weapons or nuclear capabilities. The combination can create very dangerous situations of global significance, as we are seeing on the Korean Peninsula most recently.

Furthermore, where insecurity prevails there continues to be the danger of states seeking to rely upon nuclear weapons, either through developing their own programme or by the de facto reliance on other states to provide a nuclear umbrella. These examples of possible proliferation should be of grave concern to all states – they provide yet another reason to strengthen the existing normative framework governing nuclear weapons.

Promoting dialogue across the divides in these areas is with the hope of helping to lower conflict and hence the risk of possible nuclear use. This is the message of the founding document of the Pugwash movement, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955: “We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?”

In a country that is geographically very close to Kazakhstan, namely Afghanistan, there is war that has been going on for 37 years, with the direct involvement of Russia first and the U.S. later. The instability that comes from Afghanistan can further cause the spread of chaos in the entire region, and creates possible risks of spill-over into nuclear-armed Pakistan. For this reason, Pugwash has been very much committed to helping Afghanistan to find a peaceful way out of a conflict where no side is reasonably allowed to have a military victory. Afghanistan will be just one subject of a wide debate in Astana during the forthcoming 62nd Pugwash International Conference this week that aims to confront nuclear dangers.

The author is Secretary General of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.