The Imperative of Nuclear Disarmament & New Priorities in an Increasingly Dangerous World

The following call was recorded on July 20, 2016.

Our presenters were:
  • Jackie Cabasso, Executive Director, Western States Legal Foundation; North American Coordinator, Mayors for Peace; Abolition 2000 “founding mother”, and National Co-convener, United for Peace and Justice.
  • Dr. Joseph Gerson, Director of Programs for the American Friends Service Committee’s Northeast Region and Director of AFSC’s Peace & Economic Security Program. Dr. Gerson attended the recent No to NATO, No to War! Counter-Summit in Warsaw, Poland.Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 7.22.18 PM
  • Dr. John Burroughs, Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy. Dr. Burroughs is member of the international legal team representing the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the International Court of Justice in its cases against the nuclear-armed nations for their failure to disarm.
The call was co-sponsored by People Demanding Action (PDA) and PDA’s End War & Occupation team

Call Context

Nuclear weapons have again taken center stage in confrontations between the United States, its NATO allies, and Russia. The tensions engendered by this confrontation have been intensified vastly—potentially catastrophically—by the brandishing of nuclear arms by both sides. And the confrontation in Europe is but one of several potential nuclear flashpoints, with new tensions and arms-racing from the Western Pacific to South Asia. In Syria, the U.S. and Russia are bombing side-by-side and on different sides. An accidental or intentional military incident, could send the world spiraling into a disastrous nuclear confrontation. Yet as the Democratic and Republican party conventions get underway in one of the most consequential Presidential elections ever, nuclear weapons are barely being mentioned. 15,000 nuclear weapons pose an intolerable threat to humanity. The possibility of conflicts escalating into nuclear war is real. In a world where elites contemplate continual rivalry for increasingly scarce resources, military planners and corporations are preparing for endless competition in conventional and high-tech weaponry. All the nuclear-armed nations are modernizing their arsenals. This briefing call will address the growing dangers of wars among nuclear-armed states, U.S. plans to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal, and the need for new priorities and strategies to abolish nuclear weapons, end war and redirect military spending to meet human needs and defend the environment, at home and abroad.

Call Notes

Jackie Cabasso’s Speaking Notes

  • General Notes

    The Imperative of Nuclear Disarmament and New Priorities in an Increasingly Dangerous World

    UFPJ briefing call, July 20, 2016

    Speaking notes by Jackie Cabasso, Executive Director, Western States Legal Foundation

    (Note: Due to time constraints, I skipped the sections on nuclear weapons and climate change and nuclear power in my oral presentation.)

    When the Cold War ended, it was almost as if the planet itself breathed a huge sigh of relief. People in the United States and around the world hoped and believed that they had escaped a nuclear holocaust, and put nuclear weapons out of their minds.

    During the 1980’s, fear of nuclear war was by far the most visible issue of concern among the American public. Yet following the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons – especially U.S. nuclear weapons, disappeared from the public’s radar screen. Nuclear arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament became increasingly isolated from issues of war and peace. Professional “experts” in Washington, DC redefined post-Cold War nuclear priorities almost solely in terms of securing Russian “loose nukes” and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of “rogue” states and terrorists. 

    Meanwhile, embedded in the military-industrial complex, Pentagon planners and scientists at the nuclear weapons labs conjured up new justifications to sustain the nuclear weapons enterprise. Following the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991 Colin Powell, then-Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained, “You’ve got to step aside from the context we’ve been using for the past 40 years, that you base [military planning] against a specific threat. We no longer have the luxury of having a threat to plan for. What we plan for is that we’re a superpower. We are the major player on the world stage with responsibilities… [and] interests around the world.”  To implement this new strategy, “nonproliferation” – stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, was turned on its head. The new buzzword was “counterproliferation,” including the threat of a credible nuclear strike to dissuade other countries from developing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons that could be used to threaten the U.S. or its allies.

    The first UFPJ National Assembly in June 2003 presented an opportunity for nuclear abolitionists to reintegrate nuclear disarmament into the broader anti-war agenda. A proposal from U.S. Abolition 2000 groups to make nuclear disarmament a UFPJ priority was adopted, with little discussion or debate.  However, several delegates voiced objections to the effect that “nuclear disarmament is the Bush agenda!” Those individuals were referring to the Bush administration’s preventive war doctrine, carried out against Iraq and threatened against Iran and North Korea. They didn’t know that the U.S. had drawn up contingency plans for using its own nuclear weapons in Iraq. Their response exposed a vast lack of awareness in the new anti-war movement, reflecting the general lack of public awareness, about the continuing central role of nuclear weapons in U.S. “national security” policy. And it marked the beginning of an ongoing internal education process within UFPJ.

    The persistent work of UFPJ’s Nuclear Disarmament/Redefining Security Working Group and growing tensions between the U.S./NATO and Russia and the U.S. and China have converged, and the dangers of nuclear war are again being widely understood to be at the center of anti-war efforts in the U.S.

    71 years ago, the U.S ushered in the nuclear age with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, indiscriminately incinerating tens of thousands of children, women and men in an instant. Those bombs were tiny and crude nuclear weapons by today’s standards. By the end of 1945 more than 210,000 people – mainly civilians, were dead. Over 90% of the doctors and nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured by the bomb. The surviving hibakusha, their children and grandchildren continue to suffer from physical, psychological and sociological effects of the bombings. Heath effects caused by genetic damage to future generations are still unknown.

    Today, more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, most orders of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, 94% held by the U.S. and Russia, continue to pose an intolerable threat to humanity, and no disarmament negotiations are underway.

    According to a 2015 the Congressional Budget Office report, over the next decade the U.S. plans to spend $348 billion on its nuclear forces, and a review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review by the Congressionally-appointed National Defense Panel found that modernizing the nuclear arsenal could cost up to $1 trillion over the next three decades.

    Russia, China and the other nuclear-armed states are also engaged in major modernization programs – in the cases of Russia and China, this is partially in response to overwhelming U.S. conventional military superiority and deployment of missile defenses – a concept called “Strategic Stability” which underscores the intrinsic relationship between nuclear and conventional weaponry and illustrates the fact that you can’t just pluck nuclear weapons out of the equation, even if you wanted to. In 2015 the U.S. spent $596 billion on its military, more than twice as much as China and Russia combined, and more than one third of all the world’s countries combined.

    On Monday the British Parliament overwhelmingly voted in support of replacing the UK’s four nuclear Trident submarines – its only nuclear weapons system.

    Four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines carry the U.S.-made Trident ballistic missiles that give the weapons system its collective name and which each have the capacity to deliver up to 12 thermonuclear warheads. The fleet operates out of the naval base at Faslane in Scotland, but also makes use of the U.S. Navy’s base at Kings Bay in Georgia. Lockheed Martin Space Systems manufactures the Trident missiles at its factory in Sunnyvale, California.

    Strong opposition in Scotland to hosting the UKs nuclear weapons was a major factor in last year’s vote on independence. The recent British vote on Brexit and Parliament’s decision to replace Trident may lead to another referendum on Scottish independence.

    It was reported in the British press that newly-installed U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was challenged on her support for the program by a Scottish National Party MP, who asked: “Are you prepared to authorize a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children?” May replied with one word: “Yes.” Later, our friend, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn countered that he “would not take a decision that kills millions of innocent people,” saying: “I do not believe the threat of mass murder is a legitimate way to go about international relations.” This is actually a very understandable definition of “deterrence.”

    The UK, with an estimated 215 warheads, holds only 1.4% of the world’s nuclear warheads.

    On January 22, 2015 The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 3 minutes to midnight citing the “extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity” posed by “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear arsenals,” and the failure of world leaders to act.

    Recent studies by climate scientists have shown, a nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A drop in average surface temperatures, reduction of the ozone layer, and shortened agricultural growing seasons would lead to massive famine and starvation resulting in as many as two billion casualties over the following decade.

    The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2016 passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee includes plans to design and build 12 new nuclear missile submarines, as many as 100 new nuclear-capable bombers, and up to 1,100 new nuclear-armed cruise missiles; to modernize approximately 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the various nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal; and requires the modernization and replacement of forward-deployed nuclear weapons, and dual capable fighter-bomber aircraft.

    On Dec. 16, 2015 Congress passed an Omnibus Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016 that provides $8.846 billion –$660 million more than the fiscal year 2015 level, for nuclear weapons activities. This funding will advance “life extension” programs for the B61 gravity bomb and the W76 and W88 submarine-launched warheads, invest in science, technology and engineering to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and upgrade or replace aging infrastructure, including for uranium and plutonium activities. This enormous sum is significantly higher (in inflation adjusted dollars) than peak Cold War spending on similar activities in 1985 under Reagan. And it doesn’t include an additional $1.798 billion for new delivery systems: strategic nuclear-armed submarines, long-range strategic bombers, replacement Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and a new long-range cruise missile.

    The U.S. is the only nation with nuclear weapons deployed on foreign soil, with approximately 180 nuclear weapons stationed at six NATO bases in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands. The recent attempted coup in Turkey raises huge questions about the security of the 50 U.S. B-61 bombs based at Incirlik in Turkey, which also serves as a base for coalition counter-ISIS air operations. The mutineers were able to keep their F-16s in the air only because they were able to refuel them mid-flight using at least one tanker aircraft operated out of Incirlik.  Eventually Turkish authorities closed the airspace over Incirlik and cut power The next day, the security forces loyal to the government arrested the Turkish commander at the base and other military officers.

    Over the past year, the U.S. has conducted a series of drop tests of the newly modified B61-12 gravity bomb at the Tonopah test range in Nevada. The Russian Foreign Minister has declared these tests “provocative.” The B61-12 has a “selectable” yield, making it up to four times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It has a new tail kit which provides precision guidance. This capability, along with the selectable yield, raises concerns that it could be considered more useable. Each new bomb will cost more than twice its weight in solid gold. And of the 480 B61s slated to become B61-12s, approximately 180 will be deployed at the six NATO bases in Europe.

    Today, in Syria, the U.S., Russia and France – three nuclear-armed nations – are bombing side-by-side and on different sides.  The U.S. and Russia, the two major nuclear powers, are facing off in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. An accidental or intentional military incident could send the world spiraling into a disastrous nuclear confrontation. The recent bombing attacks on neutral hospitals remind us that in the chaos of war such mistakes are all too common.

    To add to the potential conflicts among nuclear-armed states, the U.S. and China, are facing off against each other in the seas bordering China and other Asian nations. Typical of the cycle of saber-rattling between the U.S. and North Korea, on January 6, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test (claiming it was an H-bomb). On January 10, the United States deployed a B-52 bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons on a low-level flight over its ally South Korea in a show of force following North Korea’s nuclear test.

    The danger of wars among nuclear-armed states is growing.

    Nuclear weapons and climate change

    In 2007, Jonathan Schell wrote: “[G]lobal warming and nuclear war are two different ways that

    humanity, having grown powerful through science, through production, through population growth, threatens to undo the natural underpinnings of human, and of all other, life . . . we may be in a better position today, because of global warming, to grasp the real import of nuclear


    It’s easy to see the parallels in terms of effects, but it’s equally important to look at the common

    causes: nuclear weapons and climate change are predictable products of an economy and society dependent on endless material growth, driven for centuries by ruthless competition among ever growing authoritarian organizations.

    Deadly connections – nuclear power. Nuclear power is not a solution to climate change

    Nuclear weapons and nuclear power require identical materials and technologies. Their links are technical, environmental, historical, legal, political and economic. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power share identical technologies and an identical fuel chain, starting with the mining, milling and enrichment of uranium, fabrication of nuclear fuel, and operation of reactors, with deadly byproducts included long-lived nuclear waste. Enriched uranium at the front end, and reprocessing spend nuclear fuel at the back end can be diverted to nuclear weapons programs.

    Nuclear power is not a solution to climate change. As Fukushima reminded us again, there is nothing good about nuclear power.

    In addition to the certainty of catastrophic accidents and the resulting massive releases of radiation that do not respect city, state, or national boundaries, there are routine emissions at every step of the nuclear fuel chain, from mining, milling and enrichment of uranium, to fabrication of nuclear fuel, to daily operation of nuclear power plants, to storage of spent fuel. These releases always endanger public health and safety. In addition, I want to underscore the fact that both the front and the back ends of the process, nuclear materials can be diverted to make nuclear weapons.

    Moreover, nuclear power is incredibly expensive and capital intensive, and highly centralized. Nuclear power plants take years to build and have a limited energy production lifetime before they become too dangerously radioactive to operate.  The dangers associated with producing and processing nuclear materials, and the extremely sensitive nature of these materials due to their inherently dual-use capability necessitate a level of secrecy and security that is fundamentally anti-democratic.

    Nuclear power benefits that infamous 1%, who know it’s such a bad economic gamble that they won’t even consider building new plants without federal loan guarantees and the Price-Anderson Act, which caps a utility’s liability for an accident at $10.8 billion.  It’s estimated that a serious nuclear accident could cost as much as $600 billion, the balance of which would most likely be paid by taxpayers.

    And, there is no way to safely dispose of, or sequester from living things and the environment, the highly radioactive spent fuel that remains deadly for more than 100,000 years – the same number of years that the human species as we know it is believed to have existed. The U.S. is has estimated to have well over 77,000 tons of such high-level radioactive waste, and the amount increases every day any nuclear power plant operates.

    Nuclear power is not a solution to global warming.  While it’s true that the fission of enriched uranium in a nuclear reactor to generate energy produces no carbon emissions, every other step required to produce nuclear energy releases carbon into the atmosphere. One independent report calculates that with high quality ores, the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is about one half to one third of an equivalent sized gas-fired power station.  For low quality ores the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life-cycle is equal to that produced by the equivalent gas-fired power station.

    Finally, nuclear technology has come to be viewed by the international community as the currency of technological sophistication. And, while the nuclear power and nuclear weapons infrastructures in the United States are for the most part separate, this is not necessarily true in potential aspiring nuclear weapon states.  Over the long term, that includes every country with nuclear power. We must do our part to delegitimize nuclear weapons and nuclear power and make renewable, sustainable energy the new gold standard.

    On Jan. 26, 2016, This January, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issued a dire warning to leaders and citizens of the world, that it is still three minutes to midnight, stating that: 

    “Three minutes is too close. Far too close. We, the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, want to be clear about our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016: That decision is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries.”

    But they did recognize two positive developments: “In July 2015, at the end of nearly two years of negotiations, six world powers and Iran reached a historic agreement that limits the Iranian nuclear program and aims to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weaponry. And in December of last year, nearly 200 countries agreed in Paris to a process by which they will attempt to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, aiming to keep the increase in world temperature well below 2.0 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial level.”

    They concluded that: “The Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord are major diplomatic achievements, but they constitute only small bright spots in a darker world situation full of potential for catastrophe.”

Joseph Gerson’s Speaking Notes

Outline: Joseph Gerson*, UPFJ Disarmament Webinar, July 20. 2016

1.History – Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Political & Unauthorized military actions that can result in N War
  • Members of JFK’s Executive Committee thought odds that U.S. would initiate nuclear was 50-50
  • Early on, Sec. Def. McNamara & Others, only a matter of time before USSR had ICBMS that could strike U.S. mainland: No real purpose in challenging USSR
  • JFK to RFK: If he hadn’t confronted USSR with blockade would have been impeached – political/nationalist pressures created existential crisis
  • Rogue actions: general increasing level of Defcon alert, destroyers depth charging submarine armed with nuclear tipped torpedoes
  • U.S. command and control significantly improved since then, but the unexpected happens & can’t we be sure about other nuclear powers either

2. History of nuclear threats & signaling

  • See Empire & the Bomb – more than 30 U.S. occasions
  • during crises and wars, U.S. prepared and/or threatened to
  • initiate nuclear war/Nucler Signalling – including Post-Cold War (Iraq, Libya,Korea, China, Iran)
  • Other nuclear powers have made the threat at least once
  • In such crises, dangers of nuclear accidents and miscalculations (see Eric Schlosser)
  • Expect Continuity: Brad Roberts, Clinton Nuclear Advisor
  • . “As nuclear weapons played so central a role in the main international conflicts of the second half of the 20th century….it is difficult to imagine that they will not play some role in the main conflicts in the 21st century.”

3. Analogies to WW I

  • Michael Klare on not a new Cold War, but more akin to years immediately preceding WWI
  • rising and declining powers anxious to retain or expand their privilege and power
  • arms races with new technologies
  • resurgent nationalism, territorial disputes
  • resource competition, complex alliance arrangements
  • economic integration and competition
  • wild card actors including a U.S. Secretary of Defense who prepares for the NATO summit by imitating gangster movies by saying “You try anything, you’re going to be sorry”,5  as well as right-wing forces across the U.S. and Europe, and murderous religious fanatics.

4. Danger of soldier – fear or aggressive shooting down a warplane:

  • “In the atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust, the increased intensity of potentially hostile military activities in close proximity – and partuclarly air force and naval activities in the Baltic and the Black Sea areas – may result infurther dangerous incidents which….may lead to miscalculation and/or accidents and spin off in unintended ways.”
  • – Deep Cuts Commission – “Back from the Brink”
  • Applies also to US.-China-Japanese military exercises/operations
  • Global Zero past 21 months:
  • 146 U.S.-Russian military incident, 2 high risk, 33 provocative
  • 29 North & South Korea incident – 3 high risk
  • 40 US-Chinese military encounters in South China Sea – 10 deemed provocative
  • 54 between India, Pakistan and China


  • Gorbachev: “Nato has begun preparations for escalating from the Cold War into a hot one…All the rhetoric in Warsaw just yells of a desire almost to declare war on Russia. They only talk about defence, but actually they are preparing for offensive operations.”
  • Wm. Perry: Progress made to prevent U.S.-Russian nuclear war since end of Cold War unravelling
  • “The probability of a nuclear calamity is higher today….than it was during the Cold War….A new danger has been rising in the past three years that is the possibility there might be an exchange between the United States and Russia…brought about by a substantial miscalculation, a false alarm.” – Perry
  • Breedlove, in Foreign Affairs,
  • Russia an existential Threat
  • on more aggressive nuclear exercises
  • Back up: What NATO is: toehold on Western Eurasia for global dominance– 1949, Brzezinksi Geopolitics
  • keep Germany down, Russia out, US in
  • Post-Cold War Expansion – history of invasions from West
  • Led to Ukraine crisis
  • U.S./Western fears of Russian intervention in Baltics or Poland
  • NATO build up: Baltics, Poland, first strike-related Missile Defenses, Black Sea & Baltics,  High-Tech & Space domination
  • “Der Spiegel Article: “imagining the worst-case scenario is not reserved for Western hawks. It is also an unfortunate tradition fostered by Russian military thinkers.”
  • Anaconda Military exercise 31,000, largest since Cold War, Steinmeier“ saber rattling & “war mongering.” – new fears of war with Central Europe as front line
6. Russia on the Defensive
  • Don’t need to be an apologist for Putin, but need to look clearly
  • U.S. nuclear, conventional high-tech & space superiority –
  •      Lead to greater Russian reliance on nuclear weapons
  • NATO expansion violation of Bush/Baker – Gorbachev deal –
  • European Peace & Left Perceptions – U.S. over reaction
  • Poles in counter Summit: “We had Moscow, don’t want Washington”
  • Putin on considered nuclear weapons to reinforce control of Crimea,
  • Also nuclear threats vs. Denmark (Russian ambassador) and Poland over Missile Defenses

7. U.S.-China

  • Nye’s Rational behind Pivot to Asia/Pacific
  • “Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework.”
  • 60% U.S. air & naval forces being deployed to Asia/Pacific, Buildup of Alliances
  • Global Times on China’s perception of threat from the sea – West “Playing with fire”
  • THADD Missile Defenses
  • U.S. Build Up in Asia-Pacific
  • New Cross-Straits Tensions with Taiwan
  • Tensions with Japan over Senkaku-Dioyu Islands (199 Japanese jets scrambled) – Armitage Inspired, fears of enforcement of Chinese East China Sea air defense zone.
  • 9 dot line – geostrategic role of South China Sea
  • China’s claim to 80% of South China Sea
  • Maritime build up/bases on shoals & rocks
  • Geopolitical center of the struggle for world power
  • – $5 trillion in trade, including N.E. Asia oil
  • Arbitration Decision a disaster for China, lost on all point, more isolated than since Tiananmen1989
  • Response: regular military air patrols over islands and shoals of South China Sea
  • Fears, China will create and attempt to enforce a South China Sea Air Defense Zone 
  • Clinton declared freedom of navigation in South China Sea a
  • vital U.S. interest – i.e. grounds for war
  • China’s dependence on nationalism to replace  communism, recall pressures of protests & rioting over Senkaku/Dioyu/ WWI!

8. Common Security Alternatives

  • Palme Commission – leading to 1987 End of Cold War
  • Neutral Ukraine with regional autonomy
  • Deep Cuts Commission the Brink Report Recommendations
  • Giving priority to U.S.-Russian negotiations to restrain and address the intense military buildup and tensions in the Baltic area.
  • “[P]revent[ing] dangerous military incidents by establishing specific rules of conduct…and revive dialogue on nuclear risk reduction measures.”
  • U.S. and Russia committing to resolve their INF Treaty differences and setting aside plans to deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
  • Addressing the growing danger of hyper-sonic strategic weapons.
  • End spending for $ trillion triad
  • Common Security negotiations with Russia & China a la those that led to INF Treaty 1987
*Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs and Director of the Peace & Economic Security Program of the American Friends Service Committee’s Northeast Region. He is available to speak in community and academic settings., 617-661-6130.

John Burroughs’ Speaking Notes

The Imperative of Nuclear Disarmament and New Priorities in an Increasingly Dangerous World

UFPJ briefing call, July 20, 2016

Speaking Notes of John Burroughs, Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The NPT requires almost all states in the world not to acquire nuclear weapons, and in Article VI obligates the nuclear-armed states parties (US, UK, France, Russia and China) to negotiate the elimination of nuclear arms.

The NPT has a well-developed safeguards system to verify non-acquisition of nuclear arms. The agreement with Iran on curbing its nuclear program is about compliance with the NPT and strengthens the non-proliferation regime.

Regarding disarmament, however, there is no international monitoring agency overseeing implementation of the disarmament obligation under the NPT, Article VI; reporting on stocks of nuclear weapons and their reduction and elimination; or monitoring their modernization, which is what is happening.

Far-reaching if general commitments made in the NPT review process in 1995, 2000, and 2010 to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in security policies, to verifiably and irreversibly reduce and eliminate arsenals, to bring the test ban treaty into force, to negotiate a fissile materials treaty, have mostly not been kept. No agreement could be reached at the 2015 NPT Review Conference due to disagreements on modalities for convening a conference on a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

2020 will be the 50th anniversary of the NPT, and the Review Conference that year will be an important event. Preparatory meetings will begin next year.

The United Nations

There is a long history of calls for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, going back to the very first resolution of the General Assembly in 1946.

Nuclear disarmament has proved to be extremely difficult, and other topics have taken center stage at the UN, including human rights and development. But it is also fair to say that in recent years there’s been a resurgence of desire for multilateral approaches guided by morality, law, and global – not narrowly national – interests, expressed both within and outside the UN. Most notably, there were governmental conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear explosions held in 2013 and 2014 in Oslo, Nayarit, Mexico, and Vienna.

In 2015, the General Assembly adopted no less than three new resolutions addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions, carrying forward the initiative. The United States voted against all three resolutions, as did Russia, the United Kingdom, and France; China abstained.

The General Assembly adopted a resolution sponsored by Mexico and other states to establish an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. The Permanent Five opposed the resolution. Open to all UN member countries and also to civil society, the OEWG is charged to “substantively address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”


Meetings in Geneva this year were lively and constructive. None of the nuclear-armed states participated. It is possible that the OEWG will give rise to negotiations within or outside the UN on an agreement prohibiting nuclear weapons – a ban treaty – that would be concluded by non-nuclear weapon states only if necessary.

Also on the horizon is a UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament to be held by 2018. High-level means heads of states or foreign ministers.

International Court of Justice

In its 1996 Advisory Opinion, the International Court of Justice interpreted Article VI of the NPT and unanimously declared the obligation to pursue in good faith and conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control. The court’s formulation of the obligation and its underlying analysis compel the reading that the obligation applies universally, including to states not party to the NPT. I have an article explaining the opinion and marking its 20th anniversary in the July/August issue of Arms Control Today.

Three nuclear disarmament cases brought in April 2014 by the Marshall Islands against India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom are now before the ICJ. These are contentious cases that will lead to binding judgments between the litigating states, not advisory opinion proceedings. They are based on the Court’s declaration of the disarmament obligation in its 1996 opinion.

Why did the Marshall Islands bring these cases? I can do no better here than to quote Tony deBrum, former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands and its co-agent before the Court. It has been a privilege for me as a member of the international legal team to work with him. On November 30, 2015, the Right Livelihood Award was given to Foreign Minister Tony deBrum and the People of the Marshall Islands “in recognition of their vision and courage to take legal action against the nuclear powers for failing to honor their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law.” In his acceptance speech at the Swedish Parliament, deBrum said: “I have seen with my very own eyes [nuclear] devastation and know with conviction that nuclear weapons must never again be visited upon humanity. This is not just an issue of treaty commitments or international law, though it is that, and not just an issue of ethics or morality, though it is that too, but this is an issue of common sense – how could any one common person walking down the street ever permit the possession or use of such weapons?”

In the case against the UK, a central issue is whether the UK is breaching the obligation to pursue negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament by opposing and refusing to participate in multilateral deliberations and negotiations on that subject. The issue is posed acutely by the UK’s absence from the 2016 UN open-ended working group. As I mentioned, the working group is charged with addressing legal measures to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. Its deliberations are premised on the view of most states that the time to negotiate legal instruments relating to nuclear disarmament is now, not some distant future. That is also the implication, the Marshall Islands contends, of the disarmament obligation articulated by the court.

Unlike the UK, India and Pakistan support General Assembly resolutions calling for commencement of multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament, although they are not participating in the working group. In their cases, a principal issue is whether they are breaching the obligation and the requirement of good faith in implementing it by engaging in improvement, diversification, and quantitative build-up of their arsenals and failing to seek negotiated limits on such activities.

Hearings on preliminary issues in the cases against India, Pakistan, and the UK were held in The Hague in March. The issues concern whether the cases come under the terms of the three states’ declarations accepting the court’s jurisdiction and whether the cases are otherwise suitable for determination on the merits. The court’s judgments on preliminary issues are expected this fall.

In April 2014, the Marshall Islands also filed applications against the six other nuclear-armed states (China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia, and the United States), but none of them have current declarations on file accepting the court’s jurisdiction. They have ignored or, in the case of China, declined the Marshall Islands’ requests that they come before the court in the matter.

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