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IPPNW, August 8, 2017

Nuclear disarmament, democratization and advancement of the rule of law in the international system

There are thousands of nuclear warheads held by 14 countries, namely the US, India, China, Russia, UK, Israel, North Korea, France, Pakistan, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, either kept in military bases, or freely circulating around the planet by air and sea.

We cannot survive an armed conflict, even a regional one with a limited use of nuclear weapons. And thus, we all remain in harm's way.

How is it then that even with this knowledge nuclear weapons still exist? How is it possible that these tools of the Cold War did not fade into history, even withstanding collective steps taken to reduce their diversity, proliferation and use in entire regions, from the first UN resolution in 1946 to the recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

As an attempt to answer these questions, we should consider last June when this international instrument was negotiated and adopted. All the countries, except for South Africa, that have produced, modernized, tested, and hosted nuclear weapons-or placed themselves under the nuclear umbrella for their national security-opposed this process and even tried to block and sabotage it.

This minority, including the five permanent members of the Security Council, which happen to be among the richest and politically more powerful countries in history, decided on this negative course of action at the expense of the safety and future of their societies and of the rest of the world.

They claim to act in the name of national and regional security. If they really wanted such a condition to exist, they should abide by the international legal order and governance they themselves contributed to create and develop since 1919, with the League of Nations, and its successor, the UN, in 1945.

This may sound naïve when recalling that those nations jumped out of the 30 years of world war with the same realpolitik lack of trust and were willing to maintain the global order based on large-scale, ruthless exploitation spearheaded by State-supported corporations; the military-industrial complex, and banking. The lessons learned from the lead up to the cataclysms of 1914 and 1939 did not endure.

We have lived over 70 years of nominal international democracy in which the one-State-one-vote has shown clear limits. Let's not forget that officially, the five principal victors of World War II, grouped as the ultimate guarantors of peace in the Security Council, have the final word when it comes to deciding what is best for the rest of the countries. Those States own the largest nuclear arsenals. Additionally, many of their allies--some former colonial powers-- have defined the political, social and economic life of nearly all the countries born in the second half of the 20th century.

Could it be that nuclear weapons are political instruments, helping to underpin the international relations as we know them? An affirmative answer to this question would mean that their prohibition is a conduit to revolutionizing world politics, while the democratization of the latter can have positive consequences in the eradication of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons prohibition leads to the stigmatization of these weapons, taking a toll on the legitimacy of their bearers and allies, questioning their role as responsible, trustworthy actors of the international relations.

Whilst in operative terms of functional diplomacy it is necessary to compartmentalize the multilateral agenda, it is unjustifiable to have a relativistic approach in the ultimate role of the State and, globally, of the UN. Or else, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the 2030 Agenda, and the Paris Agreement, were not negotiated and adopted in good faith, and that their contents and principles could be cherrypicked or completely put aside at will, depending on the circumstances, while condemning that same practice when perpetrated by rivals or enemies.

On the other hand, truly democratic international institutions and an authentic respect and application of the rule of law would necessarily lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. States would act in accordance with the commitments they have made, for instance, putting an end to nuclear deterrence by abiding by Article 1 of the UN Charter, which calls on States to refrain from the threat or use of force. Owners and hosts of nuclear weapons would have to stop stalling and immediately comply with Article 6 of the NPT, by getting rid of their nuclear arsenals in exchange of the non-proliferation.


We continue expanding, populating almost every niche of the planet; harnessing resources in intensive and extensive ways. We have the technological means to overcome most of the natural challenges we face. Our action over the past two centuries has been so thorough that because of it, a new geological era has been established, the Anthropocene. One of the markers of this influence is nuclear energy, and irresponsible military use of it that could drastically expand in the short run the mass extinction of species we are producing. Their use could not only translate into the end of any promise of sustainable development, but into the collapse of any socioeconomic, scientific and technologic achievements. They could permanently change life as we know it, including end of us as dominant species, or lead to our extinction.

As species we are new comers, having been around for no more than a couple hundreds of thousands of years, but we can, if we act now, extend our existence for tens of thousands of years more. Can we do so sustainably, in dignity and equality? Can we allow our descendants and the environment having a fresh start?

No society would be exempt from this, irrespective of their achievements and levels of welfare and power-over nature and other people. In the face of large scale disasters, while vulnerable groups can be affected first, eventually, everyone can be expected to face famine, disease, and violence.

Action against nuclear weapons ought to lay on intergenerational solidarity and justice, in a wider global humanistic action that transcends governments. Nothing for the people, without the people, irrespective of borders and generations.

Civil society has played an invaluable role in pushing States to act against HIV/AIDS; for the advancement of gender equality; the prohibition of antipersonnel landmines; reduction of greenhouse-effect emissions. Acting in concert, thousands of non-governmental organizations from around the world can be a force of change through solidarity in action. A solidarity that should make sense to everyone, even from a selfish position, in the knowledge that without it, no society will survive it in isolation, and sooner or later the plights of other will expand everywhere, affecting all peoples.

Non-governmental organizations of all origins and working on different issues, coming together both to respond to global challenges, and supporting one another's individual work.

Individuals and organizations working for the immediate and complete eliminations of nuclear weapons should not be the exception, and evolve to become architects of a planetary civil society compact. Nuclear disarmament should not be an end it itself, even less the achievement of a single treaty. Can we see this as part of a wider strategy of change for a more democratic and just international relations, responding to the legitimate needs and expectations of all?

Nuclear disarmament happens in the wider context of social action for democracy and rule of law in the international relations. Realizing this will make it possible to determine obstacles, needs and opportunities for multi-stakeholder action, through synergies and collaboration.

Getting rid of weapons of mass destruction is a means to a people-centered, rights-based democratic human security for everyone, everywhere, without exception.

by Hector Guerra

The author is an independent international relations analyst, specialized in the multilateralism of disarmament and human rights. He is a founding member of the Network for Human Security in Latin America and the Caribbean (SEHLAC Network).


Learn about Nuclear Weapons

Learn About Nuclear Weapons is a web-based educational material from the Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons for those who want to learn more about nuclear weapons: