By: Rizwan Asghar

Nuclear states are not ready to recognise the threat posed by nuclear power and remain unwilling to pursue ‘good-faith negotiations’ toward forging a more effective treaty banning nuclear weapons. This attitude not only violates certain norms of international law, but also demonstrates a failure to follow Article VI of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The start of negotiations to ban nuclear weapons at the UN has only served to highlight the continuing obstacles on the path to a nuclear-free world.

More than 130 states participated in the March session. However, all nine nuclear states, including Pakistan, boycotted the first round of negotiations held from March 27-31. The proposed framework does not include a step-by-step procedure for dismantlement and verification. In addition, there has been no agreement among participants on how to effectively stop the growing nuclear weapons stockpiles and their trans-shipment.

The next round of negotiations, expected from June 15 to July 7, will focus on the draft text of the treaty. The treaty must prohibit a range of activities related to the development and retention of nuclear technologies. For any meaningful progress to be made, the participating governments will have to address the problems of distinct and often conflicting objectives of different countries. Thus, the impact of these negotiations depends on the commitment of party states and the scope of the treaty’s provisions. Advocates of the treaty will have to pressurise their respective governments into concluding the treaty by the end of the second round of negotiations.

Some scholars argue that the proposed ban could end up undermining the NPT. This is a misleading argument because the NPT will remain in force even after the conclusion of the ban treaty. The nuclear ban treaty would, in fact, reinforce and complement the objectives of nuclear disarmament.

A ban on nuclear weapons would create new global norms against their further proliferation and take us one step closer to the goal of global nuclear disarmament. Given the fact that the treaty does not even need the approval of the UN Security Council, the negotiations should proceed despite opposition from nuclear-armed states.

Since 2010, we have witnessed an increased focus on the need to adopt a humanitarian-based discourse in respect of nuclear disarmament. More than 35 NPT signatories gathered in 2012 to endorse the view that abolishing nuclear weapons was a pre-condition for the survival of our future generations on this planet. They further agreed to make strong efforts at the state level to stigmatise and ban nuclear weapons before they wipe out all of humanity.

In an unprecedented move, representatives of 130 nations gathered in March 2013 to assess the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war. Although the event was suddenly boycotted by five NPT nuclear-weapon states – which termed it a distraction from other disarmament activities – this initiative started a new debate among nuclear experts on the moral dimensions of nuclear war. This was, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, that humanitarian grounds for abolishing nuclear weapons became a focal point for more than 130 countries to accelerate the pace of nuclear disarmament. These countries met again in 2014 to understand the circumstances under which nuclear war might occur.

Despite these multilateral efforts, the larger picture shows an utter failure to move closer towards achieving the goal of multilateral nuclear disarmament over the past two decades. Nuclear weapons present extreme dangers, but efforts for a world free of nuclear weapons have come to a standstill on different platforms.

The nuclear ban treaty is the only viable pathway forward and we must support it. Achieving the goal of nuclear disarmament will be a long but rewarding process. National security concerns are not the only reasons that explain the persistence of nuclear weapons. The conventional view propounded by strategic thinkers like Kenneth Waltz that war between nuclear powers is ‘highly unlikely’ is not applicable in the post cold-war era.

The dangers of miscalculation or accident have made the escalation of a small conflict into a full-scale nuclear war a real possibility. Many states continue to engage in an unstoppable nuclear arms race, raising genuine concerns about the future of regional security. However, the proponents of nuclear deterrence remain largely oblivious to this fact.

Another factor that helps explain why nuclear weapons have further destabilised the world is that the powerful establishments of different countries continue to pursue their agendas while ignoring the larger national interests of their respective countries.

The bottom line argument is that discussions about nuclear weapons should not be focused on narrow perspectives of nuclear security but on the indiscriminate devastation they cause. The UN vote represents a great opportunity to outlaw nuclear weapons in a universal and comprehensive manner. And we must look beyond our narrow national interests. The path towards a nuclear-weapons-free world is very long. Taking the first step may be hard but it is totally worth it.