Other than the various environmental swords that hang over our heads the greatest threat to the future of human society is nuclear war. In recognition of this overarching threat, global society adopted the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1970. The Treaty has been signed by 191 nations, including the five nuclear-weapon states.
It was to be replaced by a more comprehensive nuclear disarmament regime in 25 years. This did not happen. Article VI obligated the nuclear states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” This hasn’t happened either. Indeed, rather than disarming as the treaty requires the nuclear states have been spending billions maintaining and upgrading their arsenals.
Now the recent United Nations month-long meeting to update the treaty has, like the 2015 session, ended in failure. The members came up with a final draft but Russia, one of the five nuclear states, refused to sign it, objecting to text about its control over Ukrainian nuclear facilities.
This failure occurs at a time when non-nuclear states are yet again encouraged to join the nuclear club. Russia has invaded a neighbour, killed its citizens by the thousands, bombed its cities into rubble, yet not a bomb will drop on Russia. It can bully it neighbours ruthlessly yet no-one dare attack a nuclear-armed state, even to retaliate against an invasion.
Iran is no doubt watching. It saw what happened to Muammar al-Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, both of whom intended to arm their countries with nukes but were talked out of it and paid the price. And then there’s Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of a shabby little country of 26 million impoverished souls that may suffer sanctions but which no one dare invade. Now Iran sees Russia’s impunity. The message is clear.
As Russian troops brutalize Ukraine, Chinese warplanes soar over the Taiwan Strait, and tensions in the Middle East continue to simmer, we cannot ignore the fact that it would take only a fatal mistake by one autocratic leader to trigger the ultimate catastrophe. In the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, humanity is “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”
Even now sensible people’s teeth are on edge as Ukrainians and Russians war against each other near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP). While Zaporizhzhia is no Chernobyl, all that shellfire is nervous-making.
Rafael Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned on Sunday, “The latest shelling once again underlined the risk of a potential nuclear accident at the ZNPP, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.”
If he’s worried, I’m worried. War can create disasters even out of peaceful uses of this extraordinary technology. Nonetheless, achieving serious nuclear disarmament continues to elude us.