Several months ago, even the most politically engaged Americans had probably never heard of either the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
That was no longer the case after August 21, when news broke of a chemical attack in Syria that led to the agonizing deaths of more than a thousand people. A U.S. military strike on the regime of Bashar al-Assad was only forestalled by Russian diplomacy, intense public resistance in more than one Western nation, and Syria’s agreement to join the CWC. Just a few weeks later, the OPCW won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
Chemical weapons have been banned all around the world since 1997 by the CWC. Biological weapons have been banned all around the world since 1975 by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
So why aren’t nuclear weapons banned by a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC)?
In April 2009 in Prague, President Obama told an adoring throng that he intended “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” His administration has undertaken some baby steps in that direction. Most notably there has been the New START Treaty with Russia, which placed ceilings on each side’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers (albeit placing no limits on either “tactical” nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear warheads sitting in a warehouse). There has also been an ongoing series of multilateral Nuclear Security Summits that focus on securing all things nuclear from aspiring terrorists.
But the president has rebuffed any kind of initiative inside his administration to define what an NWC might look like. He has not convened any kind of consultations with other states to explore how state parties might go about negotiating an NWC. And he has never even stated that an NWC is the eventual goal of American nuclear policy.
Yet a very elaborate and carefully constructed Model Nuclear Weapons Convention—the product of dozens of scientists, lawyers, nuclear experts, and former government officials, and based in large measure upon the CWC—has been floating around the nuclear policy arena since 1997. Every year since, always completely unnoticed in the United States but widely recognized elsewhere, the UN General Assembly has passed a quite explicit resolution on the matter. It doesn’t just vaguely announce support for nuclear weapons abolition. Nor does it consign that goal, as President Obama did in Prague, to a date “perhaps not in my lifetime.” Instead, it calls for “commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention, prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons, and providing for their elimination.”
But the U.S. government has refused even to recognize a new UN working group tasked with pursuing formal intergovernmental dialogues about the road to nuclear weapons abolition. Last month, at the UN’s first-ever “high-level meeting” on nuclear disarmament, a low-level British official—dispatched to speak to the assembled on behalf of the UK, the United States, and France—expressed the “regret” of all three countries over the initiation of the new working group, the convening of the high-level meeting itself, and “the push for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.”
The Chemical/Biological Precedent
The OPCW has been portrayed in recent weeks as primarily concerned with overseeing the destruction of chemical arsenals—today in Syria but previously in both the United States and Russia. But the fundamental raison d’etre of the OPCW, as envisioned in the CWC itself, is not just to authenticate the destruction of existing stockpiles of chemical weapons but also to verify, over the very long term, that they never again re-enter history.
Both the CWC and the BWC provide for significant intrusions on national sovereignty in order to ensure such perpetual compliance—including, in the case of CWC, surprise, no-notice inspections. The BWC is unfortunately far less robust after the George W. Bush administration sabotaged efforts to build an accompanying verification regime with real teeth. But the prospect of compliance with the CWC and BWC is enhanced by the encouragement of “societal verification” (whistleblowing) and independent monitoring by national governments. Moreover, a taboo against the possession and use of these agents has arguably grown more widespread with each passing year. The signatories of these two conventions have concluded that they can forever forsake chemical or biological “deterrents,” because they are confident that the mechanisms of the CWC and the BWC will prevent potential adversaries from developing a secret stash and deploying apocalyptic chemical or biological arsenals.
There’s no reason why the nuclear-armed nations cannot someday arrive at the same conclusion about their apocalyptic nuclear arsenals as well.
The administration’s willingness to relegate the achievement of nuclear weapons abolition to the distant future becomes all the more excruciating when comparing the great horror that chemical or biological weapons could inflict with the far greater horror of a single nuclear warhead. Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists likes to say, “I hate the term WMD. Nuclear weapons are not in the same category as chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are the only thing that can destroy a city in a second.”
Or, indeed, a world in a morning. More than two decades after the Cold War’s conclusion, the shadow of full-scale global thermonuclear war, with thousands of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles passing each other over the North Pole, seems almost impossible to imagine. But the possibility remains for severe miscalculation during a hot political crisis involving one or more nuclear-armed nations. So too, however unbelievably, remains the opportunity for what we might call “accidental atomic apocalypse,” as illuminated so vividly in Eric Schlosser’s recent book Command and Control.
Also, we cannot rule out the possibility of a future geopolitical conflict between members of the nuclear club. History happens. Arms races happen. Unless humanity can someday manage to establish something like a world republic, the logic of anarchy will endure. So long as several thousand atomic weapons persist, so too will persist the possibility of not just genocide, but specicide (the extinction of all human life) or even biocide (the extinction of all terrestrial life).
That, of course, would exterminate not only every single living thing on our planet today, but all the future life on our planet yet to come. This is the “crime against the future” that we commit right now, every single day. Our reliance on nuclear deterrence places at risk an infinity of potential lives, never to be born, on and on into an infinity of tomorrows.
Perhaps we might we call that “chronocide.”
Creating the Convention
The nuclear weapon states—most especially the world’s leading nuclear state, the United States—should now do what the UN General Assembly has called on them to do for 17 years. They should initiate some kind of multilateral negotiating process, aimed at the eventual goal of designing and enacting a universal, verifiable, and enforceable Nuclear Weapons Convention.
Such a convention would outlaw the possession of nuclear weapons by all countries, provide for their dismantlement and elimination by a designated deadline, and create mechanisms to ensure that nuclear weapons never return to haunt humanity ever again. Many experts maintain that a ban on nuclear weapons would be considerably easier to verify than the bans on chemical and biological weapons.
Such a convention would also quite likely include something like an “Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” Which might just merit another Nobel Peace Prize: either for that hypothetical future agency, or for the world historical figure who launches the initiative to finally bring it into being.