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Universal Nuclear Disarmament: What Can India Offer?

Meanwhile, the NFU would allow the NWS to retain the notional sense of security that they derive from their national nuclear arsenals. NWS would not only pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, but could always retaliate to inflict unacceptable damage. They would have the theoretical freedom to possess the weapons but pledge not to use them first. Gradually, the desire to possess, or improve an unusable weapon would lessen, making it easier to give up the weapon. Therefore, this step would work towards enhancing the gradual irrelevance of the nuclear weapon, especially when reinforced by a ban on use or threat of use of the weapon, quite as on the pattern and experience of the 1925 Geneva Convention. It may be recalled that it was 68 years after the Geneva Protocol that the Chemical Weapons Convention was finally signed in 1993. The decision in 1925 itself came after a large scale use of chemical weapons by both sides in the First World War which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. Despite the high level of damage suffered, it was realized that chemicals weapons did not actually make a difference in the outcome of the war and the nations that used them reached the conclusion that those weapons were not effective in war.

Two questions, however, beg examination when one considers the decision to accept ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. Would a decision/treaty that bans the first use of nuclear weapons lead to an arms race in the field of conventional armaments? Would nations that give up the nuclear weapon move towards greater acquisition of conventional weaponry in order to bridge a perceived security deficit? While there are no empirical studies on the subject, it might well be the case that in the short term, nuclear disarmers lean towards greater conventional acquisitions. However, this trend is unlikely to last if nuclear disarmament is either the result of or results in more cooperative and secure inter-state relations. It is natural to assume that NWS will decide to disarm on the basis of a broadly consensually agreed upon verifiable process. Such a step would obviously generate greater confidence as it progresses and would have a benign effect on the international security climate. Hence, the possible spurt in conventional modernization could subside over a period of time. This trend could be further reinforced by a parallel process of conventional arms control akin to the Conventional Forces in Europe model.22 It may be recalled that the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988 too had catered for simultaneous reduction in conventional weaponry as a means for moving towards a nuclear free and non-violent world order.23

Parallel agreements that provide means to control a conventional arms race would ease the process of nuclear disarmament and especially help address the second, and a far thornier question of how one could get countries like North Korea or Pakistan, who perceive their nuclear weapons as ‘strategic equalizers’ as well as potent bargaining chips, to prescribe to the NFU. The DPRK has never been shy of brandishing its nuclear capability to drive a hard bargain with a country as powerful as the United States. Islamabad, meanwhile, has always rejected India’s offer of a bilateral NFU and maintains its nuclear deterrence by projecting a low nuclear threshold. In order to deter a conventional war with a superior Indian military, Pakistan has a first use nuclear doctrine akin to NATO’s stance vis-à-vis the Soviet military during the Cold War period. Acceptance of the NFU goes against the purpose of the national nuclear arsenal in the case of such countries.

However, a case for convincing/compelling states to accept a universal NFU may be made on three grounds: First, an international consensus on and acceptance of NFU will put pressure on such countries and a united approach could provide the necessary firmness to the international community to deal with holdouts. Given that it is a question of survivability of human lives, it is not an issue that can be taken lightly; second, it is a well known fact established on the basis of elaborate war gaming exercises that a weaker military power can never come out better after the first use of nuclear weapons against another nuclear state. Therefore, first use against a nuclear adversary that also happens to have superior conventional and substantive nuclear capability is nothing short of suicidal for the first user. The admittance of this reality would demonstrate the futility of retaining a first use posture; third, when the NFU is accompanied with comprehensive security assurances, a Convention that outlaws the use of nuclear weapons, and conventional arms control, it should address the threat perceptions of these nations.

4.4 Prohibiting the Use or Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons
A logical step that would flow out of the measures explained above would be to arrive at an international convention prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. This intention is encapsulated in the draft Resolution entitled “Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear Weapons” that India has annually tabled at the UNGA since 1982.24 The resolution aims at prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances, a step that can substantially reduce the prospect of nuclear use, and contribute towards the creation of a climate for a subsequent agreement on the prohibition of nuclear weapons in toto.

In case all NWS were to commit under a convention that nuclear weapons shall not be used and that any country using them or threatening to use them shall face commensurate retribution and a total boycott by all the countries of the world, it would make these WMD significantly impotent and useless. The value of nuclear weapons would fall instantly and further proliferation would voluntarily stop. None would want to acquire weapons that could not be used, not in war, and hence not as a deterrent either. Consequently, the unique status that nuclear weapons are deemed to provide would no longer seem worth aspiring for. Meanwhile, even ‘rogue’ states would no longer have any use for these weapons for fear of serious reprisals. Therefore, a total ban on the use of nuclear weapons would directly strike at the very root of their utility.

Interestingly, the UN General Assembly has periodically considered resolutions to this effect. Far back in 1961, it had adopted a declaration by a vote of 55 to 20 with 26 abstentions stating that the use of nuclear weapons was contrary to the “spirit, letter and aims of the UN”. The US and NATO then opposed it contending that in the event of aggression, the attacked nation should be free to take whatever action with whatever weapons not specifically banned by international law. India has long been proposing the resolution mentioned earlier for a multilateral, universal and binding agreement prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons through an international convention. Predictably, the P-5 have opposed the resolution and they propose instead a step-by-step process that embraces unilateral, bilateral and multilateral measures. 25 Ironically, Japan, for all its abhorrence of nuclear weapons, also abstains for reasons similar to those voiced by the US.

Meanwhile, the existing ‘advisory opinion’ delivered by the International Court of Justice in 1996 on the legality/illegality of use of nuclear weapons by a nation has not clearly removed the ambiguity over the issue. The Court did conclude unanimously that a threat or use of nuclear weapons that is contrary to Article 2, paragraph 4 of the UN Charter and that a failure to meet all the requirements of Article 51 on self-defence would be unlawful. However, it could not conclude definitively whether such an act would be generally contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict and particularly to the principles and rules of humanitarian law, and also whether the act would be legally justified in an extreme circumstance of self-defence when the survival of the state is at stake. NWS have taken advantage of this ambiguity in order to maintain nuclear arsenals for deterrence. However, the Court’s conclusion that there is no specific law prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons itself demands that the lacuna be removed through the enactment of a law or a convention.

A convention banning nuclear use, in fact, would send an important signal to all concerned constituencies – it would devalue the weapon substantially as a currency of power and status; it would reduce the likelihood of a nuclear exchange between NWS; it would reassure the NNWS and reduce their temptation to acquire these weapons for deterrence; it would reinforce the taboo against nuclear use and this would influence non- state actors too.


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