Turning the dream of a nuclear-free world into reality

Russia and the US each retain thousands of nuclear warheads – more than 20,000 overall.  

Then there are the smaller nuclear weapon states: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the UK – all of whom, with the exception of the Europeans, appear to be increasing their nuclear forces. And then there are the nuclear wannabees: Iran first in line, Syria next, perhaps Burma third, all being helped by North Korea.

While we can argue whether the world has moved forward or backward since the Prague declaration, it clearly remains a long way from realizing the dream. What should we do?

It is past time to ditch the piecemeal, open-ended arms control approach that the nuclear weapon states have pursued for decades. Here’s a straight-forward proposal to get things moving.  

What if Presidents Obama and Medvedev appeared jointly before the UN General Assembly at its session this September and introduced a resolution determining that the possession of nuclear weapons is a crime against humanity, and calling all nuclear weapon states to commit themselves unequivocally to their elimination by a date certain?

This would go beyond establishing the Ought: nuclear weapons should be abolished. It would criminalize the possession of such weapons – immediately for most nations, somewhat later for the states currently possessing them. Such a resolution should also take the critical new step of directing the Security Council to figure out the How. The Council would be directed to establish a committee to negotiate within the coming year the detailed terms of the agreement. 

A special committee is necessary as key states, such as Brazil, India, and Japan, which either have nuclear weapons or advanced nuclear technologies, but are not permanent members of the Security Council, would have to take part in the negotiations if the results are to be considered legitimate.  The committee should not be so large that it is incapable of serious discussions, however, and, importantly, no member state should have a veto over its actions and decisions.  

There already exists a UN agency charged with such matters, the Committee on Disarmament (CD), but as any member-state has the right to veto any of the CD’s decisions, even a decision to take up an agenda item, it has been unable to hold substantive discussion for the past 14 years. The new committee should operate by majority, or reasonable super-majority, vote.  In the end, all states will retain a veto in that they will each choose whether or not to sign and ratify the disarmament treaty that results from the committee’s deliberations, but they should not be permitted to stand in the way of its completion. 

No doubt some of the nuclear weapon states will refuse to take part in the negotiation; the drafting should go ahead anyway. No doubt, once completed, some, perhaps many, states will refuse to sign or ratify the treaty. The US and Russia could begin to implement it anyway. 

The point is to begin to disarm on a clear timetable, showing people and officials in all nations that the leading nuclear powers are serious about their commitment, thereby strengthening efforts to secure nuclear materials and to stem proliferation, and creating strong pressures for others to follow suit. 

Many will say this path is too risky. We say to stay on the current path is suicidal. 

Ambassador Kampelman negotiated the Helsinki Accords on Security and Cooperation in Europe and served as President Reagan’s negotiator on nuclear and space issues. Dr. Blechman was assistant director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Carter and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center.