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The ideal solution for an ideal world

| | in Oped

The Nuclear Zero campaign looks great on paper and in intent. But countries are not going to just give up their advantage without safeguards, writes SHAGUN GUPTA

As of October 31, more than five million people had signed the Nuclear Zero petition that calls on the ‘nuclear nine' (the US, UK, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) to “urgently fulfil their moral duty and legal obligation to begin negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament”. The petition is part of the Nuclear Zero campaign that began on April 24, 2014, with the filing of lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries by the Republic of Marshall Islands, in the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The lawsuits call upon each country to “pursue in good faith and conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament”. In accordance with Article 36 of the Statute of the ICJ, however, only three countries — UK, India, and Pakistan — currently face cases in the ICJ pertaining to the applications filed by the RMI.

The Nuclear Zero lawsuits form the crux of a resurging global movement towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, and in this instance, come from a seemingly unlikely complainant. The island nation was the test ground for the US nuclear programme between1946 and 1958. According to the RMI, 67 nuclear bombs were detonated over the Marshall Islands in this period (equivalent to 1.7 Hiroshima bombs detonated daily over 12 years). The key question is this: To what extent does the damage done to the Marshallese citizens, as a result of nuclear weapons proliferation by the five NPT countries, match up to that done by the four non-NPT countries?

Addressing this question is essential to ensuring that the issue of nuclear disarmament is met with nuanced reconsideration of global priorities, as opposed to a Darwinian scramble towards world peace. A nuanced reconsideration needs greater focus on threat perception surrounding nuclear weapons proliferation, and the relative advantage of asymmetric weapons capability for non-NPT nuclear countries.

Threat Perception and Security: In 1964, China tested its first nuclear weapon, resulting in a dangerous imbalance of threat perception and security in South Asia. In response, India tested its first fission device in 1974, and became fully nuclear in 1998. Shortly afterwards, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test in May 1998. Since then, the region has been a precariously balanced nuclear neighbourhood.

From a strategic perspective, the US till date has not recognised India as a ‘nuclear weapons state', and only pushed for a waiver on export restrictions of nuclear materials for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Given that such exceptions have not been granted to other countries, a nuclear India's strategic importance has increasingly been recognised by the US. In this context, the premise of Nuclear Zero, however promising, is ultimately unsustainable. A concerted move towards the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons by non-NPT states like India and Pakistan cannot be carried forward in isolation of the political discourse surrounding threat perception and security. 

Disarmament and the Balance of Power: Non-compliance with provisions of the NPT on part of Israel and North Korea are seemingly difficult to discern. A closer inspection of their nuclear policies however, reveals a similar regional trajectory. Israel's policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding its nuclear weapons capability has strong undercurrents of balance of power politics, especially given its complex regional neighbourhood. Disarmament or reduction of nuclear weapons capability will be inconceivable for Israel. To many this might be one of the greatest challenges as well as opportunities in West Asia, with a nuclear Israel bringing with it an escalated sense of insecurity and threat perception, as well as a certain measure of deterrence in the region.

The Korean peninsula represents yet another arena of regional contestation. A nuclear North Korea is perhaps a factor of ideology as much as it is about threat perception and capability. Multiple rounds of negotiations between North Korea, the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea have failed to deter the North Koreans from further developing their nuclear programme. Despite stronger sanctions from the UN since 2013, the country has refused to rejoin the NPT after its withdrawal in 2003, and has made no formal commitments to disarmament.

Envisioning an Alternative: The Nuclear Zero lawsuits call for an alternative world order which involves all nine nuclear weapons states negotiating in order to achieve a nuclear weapons free world. The premise is compelling, the vision hopeful. As the ICJ moves forth with proceedings on the cases involving India and Pakistan, it is worth considering whether a decision in favour of the RMI would truly be the beginning of a new era. The NPT failed to achieve inclusiveness and equality in a manner envisioned by countries like India. A Nuclear Zero ‘round' of negotiations would be doomed from the start if the concerns of threat perception, security, and relative capabilities in regional contexts are not given attention.

(The writer is a researcher at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

 
 
 
 
 
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