You are here

Syrian crisis should re-energise broader disarmament efforts

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Cesar Jaramillo - program officer at Project Ploughshares (Ontario, Canada)

Whatever the merits of the deal reached to defuse the tension in Syria, the use of chemical weapons in its civil war confirms a sobering reality: if weapons exist, they will sooner or later be used — no matter how immoral, indiscriminate or contrary to international norms.

Any use of nuclear weapons in a populated area would be far more catastrophic than the highest estimate of casualties from the use of chemical weapons outside Damascus on Aug. 21. However, while various nations seem to be scrambling to respond to the events in Syria within days, the international community has not been able to follow a road map for nuclear disarmament to its final destination after more than four decades.

Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons have this in common: their use is immoral and illegal — even in times of conflict. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird sardonically called chemical weapons "a poor man's weapons of mass destruction." Even if true, the weapons of mass destruction of affluent countries are no more legitimate.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty was designed to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states from acquiring nuclear weapons and to compel nuclear-weapon states to eliminate them. More than 40 years later, the former have by and large fulfilled their non-proliferation commitments. Yet those that hold nuclear weapons have resisted, avoided or ignored not only their treaty obligations, but the groundswell of support for nuclear abolition from all corners of the planet. Instead, there is a discouraging and well-documented trend to spend billions of dollars on modernising nuclear weapons, pushing the goalpost of nuclear abolition ever further away.

Only five states party to the nearly universal non-proliferation treaty possess nuclear weapons, but their combined arsenals of more than 17,000 warheads could destroy our planet many times over.

Certainly, Syria should sign on to the chemical weapons convention, which mandates the destruction of chemical arsenals. The possession of weapons of mass destruction of any kind is the obvious fundamental prerequisite for their use.

It is just as clear that nuclear-weapon states should begin negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention. Until all nuclear weapons are eliminated, the threat remains that they will be used — by accident, miscalculation or design.

In his Sept. 10 televised speech to rally domestic support for eventual military intervention in Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama called the images of victims of chemical weapons "sickening" and stated that these weapons "can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant." He was right. But the same is true for nuclear weapons.

He also stated that the United States belongs to the 98 per cent of nations that have signed the chemical weapons convention. This is roughly the same percentage of states that have refrained from acquiring nuclear weapons. On the nuclear issue, however, the United States sits with the minority.

To be sure, Obama has spoken passionately in favour of nuclear abolition. In June, he acknowledged the grave danger posed by nuclear weapons and stated that "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." In Prague in 2009, he said the United States would take "concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons."

But setting lofty goals has never been the problem. Nuclear abolition has been an international objective for decades, supported in theory even by states with nuclear weapons. It is implementing this goal that has proved difficult. No reasonable observer would conclude that nuclear-weapon states have taken meaningful steps to "pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament" as obligated by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Opportunities for engagement on this issue continue to develop. Just this year, a UN open-ended working group met in June and August with a mandate to "develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons." The five permanent members of the UN Security Council — also the sole possessors of nuclear weapons within the non-proliferation treaty — were asked to join the group. Every single one chose not to.

Another opportunity comes on Sept. 26, when the UN holds a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament. In October, states will have the chance to solidify any progress initiated at that meeting during sessions of the UN General Assembly's first committee on disarmament and international security. These diplomatic gatherings constitute key occasions for the five permanent members of the Security Council to show the international community that their talk of a world free of nuclear weapons is more than empty rhetoric.

Efforts to prevent the use of chemical weapons, such as those currently in motion in response to Syria, are not only welcome, but indeed essential. The same arguments about the need to eradicate these weapons should apply, even more vigorously, to nuclear arsenals.

In Obama's televised address, the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth — and commander of its vast nuclear forces — spoke forcefully "of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used."

If there can be a silver lining to the devastation in Syria, it might be in reminding the world that the only foolproof way to ensure that weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological and nuclear — are never used is to completely eliminate them.


US intercontinental ballistic missile test
The US Air Force Global Strike Command test fired an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile on September 22. A second Minuteman III test-firing is scheduled for September 26. The US has an arsenal of 450 Minuteman III missiles. A Minuteman III test firing was postponed in April as the US did not want North Korea to "misinterpret" the missile test as a provocative act. Yet the timing of the September tests is also impolite − September 21 is the International Day of Peace, and a UN High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament takes place on September 26.