Nu­clear-free world is still il­lu­sive

China Daily - - OPINION - The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­to­rial con­sul­tant for China Daily UK. Con­tact the writer at har­vey­mor­ Har­vey Mor­ris

The de­ci­sion of Nor­way’s No­bel Com­mit­tee to award this year’s peace prize to the In­ter­na­tional Cam­paign to Abol­ish Nu­clear Weapons, also known as ICAN, was de­lib­er­ately timely.

“We live in a world where the risk of nu­clear weapons be­ing used is greater than it has been for a long time,” a state­ment from the com­mit­tee said, cit­ing the dan­ger of more coun­tries, such as the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea, ac­quir­ing them.

These con­cerns were echoed by UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res, who wrote in a con­grat­u­la­tory tweet to ICAN: “Now more than ever we need a world with­out nu­clear weapons.”

Nu­clear weapons are per­haps the only ar­ti­facts cre­ated by hu­man­ity that only func­tion as long as they are not ac­tu­ally used. The cer­tainty of re­tal­i­a­tion in the event of a nu­clear at­tack by one nu­clear state against another would risk an­ni­hi­lat­ing both.

This con­cept of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion — known by the apt acro­nym MAD — has helped en­sure that in the seven decades since World War II, no nu­clear state has re­sorted to us­ing such weapons.

An ad­di­tional safe­guard is that most of the world’s nine nu­clear-armed states, in­clud­ing China, have pledged that they would not be the first to use them.

It has been ar­gued that the MAD doc­trine has worked to avert full-scale wars that might oth­er­wise have bro­ken out at mo­ments of high ten­sion be­tween nu­clear-armed states over the decades.

The in­her­ent dan­ger, how­ever, is that the pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear weapons in­creases the chances of the MAD de­ter­rent fail­ing. There is the risk of nu­clear weapons be­ing de­ployed by ir­re­spon­si­ble state lead­ers, in ad­di­tion to the night­mare sce­nario of such weapons fall­ing into the hands of a ter­ror­ist group.

Mis­takes can hap­pen, even be­tween such ra­tio­nal play­ers as the United States and the for­mer Soviet Union. For­mer Soviet of­fi­cer Stanislav Petrov was re­mem­bered on his death last month as the man who “saved the world” in 1983 when he calmly de­ter­mined that a com­puter alert that mis­siles had been launched from the United States was down to a tech­ni­cal er­ror.

The DPRK’s de­fi­ance of UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil de­mands that it halt its nu­clear and mis­sile tests, cou­pled with the in­creas­ingly bel­liger­ent tone of the White House, has been the fo­cus of cur­rent in­ter­na­tional con­cerns.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has mean­while cast doubt on the fu­ture of the in­ter­na­tional agree­ment un­der which Iran guar­an­tees not to de­velop nu­clear weapons, con­sid­ered by its ar­chi­tects to be one of the suc­cess sto­ries of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion.

The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil has con­sis­tently af­firmed that the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion and their means of de­liv­ery threaten in­ter­na­tional peace and se­cu­rity.

It has urged all re­main­ing states to add their names to those of the more than 180 that have signed the Com­pre­hen­sive Nu­clear Test Ban Treaty.

In 2009, in a ses­sion chaired by then US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil com­mit­ted to the goal of a world free of nu­clear weapons and es­tab­lished a frame­work for re­duc­ing global nu­clear dan­gers.

Ban Ki-moon, Guter­res’ pre­de­ces­sor as UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral, said at the time that “nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment is the only sane path to a safer world. Noth­ing would work bet­ter in elim­i­nat­ing the risk of use than elim­i­nat­ing the weapons them­selves”.

At the same ses­sion, Hu Jin­tao, then China’s pres­i­dent, said that re­mov­ing the threat of nu­clear war was vi­tal to re­al­iz­ing a safer world for all, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment re­mained a “long and ar­du­ous” task.

Given sub­se­quent in­ter­na­tional ten­sions, the route to that goal re­mains just as long and at least as ar­du­ous. The No­bel award to ICAN is a timely reaf­fir­ma­tion of a wide­spread de­sire to erad­i­cate nu­clear weapons. But it raises lit­tle hope that the nu­clear ge­nie will be put back into the bot­tle any­time soon.

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