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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

Nuclear Zealotry: In Search of Justification
By Jozef Goldblat

Ever since the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), by which the parties committed themselves to negotiate nuclear disarmament, the nuclear-weapon States have repeatedly assured world public opinion that they intend to fulfil this commitment and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons from their arsenals. However, these assurances lack credibility because the strategic doctrines of the great powers remain unchanged. In spite of the disappearance of the East-West nuclear confrontation and the general improvement in the international situation, the employment of nuclear weapons is still envisaged by the great powers as a way to react to any attacks on them or their allies at any point of the globe.

The nuclear zealots, who have turned their nuclear doctrine into an article of faith and protect it religiously against the criticism of doubting Thomases, assert that what they have in mind is not nuclear-fighting but nuclear deterrence. But what do they want to deter with nuclear weapons? Certainly not aggression by States having at their disposal only conventional means of warfare. For the conventional forces of the nuclear powers are quantitatively and/or qualitatively superior to the forces of any of their potential non-nuclear-weapon adversaries. They can, therefore, stop armed attacks by the latter without recourse to nuclear weaponry. In any event, using nuclear arms in response to the use of conventional arms would grossly defy the principle of proportionality enshrined in the humanitarian law of armed conflict. But we are told that the threat of use of nuclear weapons is indispensable to deter attacks with biological or chemical weapons. How plausible is this argument?

It is true that biological and chemical weapons are classified, along with nuclear weapons, as weapons of mass destruction. They have, nevertheless, some important distinctive features. Under certain circumstances, the use of biological weapons might produce very widespread fatalities and play a strategic role in war. This strategic utility, however, is no more than a supposition; nobody has yet used bacteria or viruses to wage a war. Only one biological agent has so far been identified as a potential warfare agent, and reliable means to deliver it to multiple targets have yet to be devised. In any event, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to recognize each and every unusual outbreak of disease as an aggression committed with biological means of warfare - there would be no 'signature' of the user. Attacks with biological weapons would not, therefore, be deterred by threats of nuclear retaliation. The likelihood of these weapons being used should instead be reduced by strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention. A worldwide network of epidemiological surveillance, if properly established, could alert the world community to outbreaks of unusual diseases. Other measures might include vaccination to prevent contamination, as well as the development of therapy techniques to apply after contamination. Effective civil defence could diminish the effectiveness of biological weapons to the point where their employment no longer appears worthwhile.

Chemical weapons are militarily useful mainly as tactical weapons. Consequently, the level of destruction they may cause cannot exceed a relatively limited theatre of war. Though used on several occasions in the past, chemical weapons have never played a decisive role in the outcome of hostilities. Paralleling the situation with biological weapons, the likelihood of chemical weapons being used should primarily be lessened by strengthening the treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, designed to abolish them. People could use warning systems with sensors capable of detecting chemical warfare agents, and protect themselves with masks, protective clothes and decontaminants. With the increased precision and effectiveness of conventional weapons, the employment of chemical weapons may no longer pay off for most countries.

Nuclear weapons are incomparable with any other means of warfare and there is no protection against the effects of their use. As reported by the United Nations, it is possible, using modern technology, to release from one nuclear weapon in one microsecond more energy than that released from all conventional weapons in all wars throughout history. The claim that nuclear deterrence is needed to avoid biological and chemical attacks is understood by many as a mere pretext to retain nuclear weapons forever, for may countries possess, and will always possess, the capability to produce some limited quantities of biological and chemical warfare agents. By excessively magnifying the dangers posed by biological and chemical agents, and by affirming that these dangers can be met only with nuclear weapons, the opponents of nuclear disarmament encourage nuclear proliferation.

As long as the great powers cling to the belief that nuclear weapons are needed, they will not give up these weapons. To render their professed commitment to nuclear disarmament trustworthy, they would have to undertake not to use nuclear weapons anywhere, against any target and against any country, whatever the status of that country - nuclear or non-nuclear, aligned or non-aligned, party or not party to the NPT or a nuclear-weapon-free zone treaty. As a corollary to such an undertaking, they would have to eliminate tactical nuclear weapons because of the first-use characteristics of these weapons: once deployed close to the front lines - as they must be to have military value - they are likely to be employed very early in armed conflict to avoid capture or destruction by the enemy's conventional forces. In addition, to reduce the risk of a surprise attack or of an unauthorized or accidental launch (for example, in response to a false alarm), strategic nuclear forces would have to be taken off alert.

Elimination of nuclear weapons would doubtlessly take many years. As long as these weapons remain in the arsenals of States, a ban on their use would, in fact, amount to a ban on their first use. For, according to the doctrine of belligerent reprisals, a second, retaliatory use of a banned weapon, to make a violator of the ban on first use desist from further illegitimate actions, would not be considered a breach, if it were proportionate to the violation committed and to the injury suffered. (Under no circumstance, however, may attacks on the civilian population and objects protected by international law be permitted.) In other words, nuclear weapons possessed by some States would serve to deter their first use by others. Nevertheless, it is 'no use' rather than 'no-first-use' that should become a norm of international law with regard to nuclear weapons, as it already is with regard to chemical and biological weapons under the 1925 Geneva Protocol. A legitimate retaliatory use of nuclear weapons would thus be an exception to the general rule of no use.

The proposed non-use obligations should be included in a multilateral treaty rather than in easily reversible unilateral declarations. The treaty could be open for signature to all States, not merely those recognized by the NPT as nuclear-weapon States, but should become effective only upon its ratification by all States which possess nuclear weapons or admit possessing the capability to manufacture such weapons. Violation of the treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons would have to be qualified as a crime under international law and treated as such. The Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted in July 1998, would have to be adapted accordingly.

Jozef Goldblat is Vice-President of the Geneva International Peace Research Institute.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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