A Reflection on History
“We must keep the horrors of Hiroshima in view at all times, recognizing there is only one solution to the nuclear threat: not to have nuclear weapons at all.” – Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Aug. 6, 2022
A Thought Experiment: New York City
Testament to the disastrous consequences of potential nuclear war, the Atomic Archive calculated that 583,260 people would lose their lives if just a single nuclear bomb was detonated over New York City. Using modelling technologies, the impact of 100 nuclear weapons in urban areas would spread radiation globally, cool the atmosphere, shorten growing seasons, and cause food shortages and global famine. Momentum is growing amongst civil society for nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapons-free world. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is now present in over one hundred countries. But in order to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world, there would need to be a departure from the Cold War philosophy of mutually assured destructing (MAD).
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)
In the words of former US President Ronald Reagan, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. There are nine nuclear-armed states: the US, Russia, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the UK. Those states altogether hold an estimated 13,100 nuclear weapons. By contrast, in January 2021, Cambodia became the 52nd state to ratify the TPNW, officially making the treaty international law. The TPNW not only bans nuclear weapons and all related activities, but it also outlines a process for the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons programmes. For states like Cambodia and the 51 others there might be a lower threshold to overcome in signing such treaty as they do not currently possess nuclear weapons in the first place. There remains little interest by existing nuclear powers to give up their arsenal and none of them have signed the TPNW as of today. Those diverging dynamics on nuclear proliferation set the scene for us to look closer at three states that once had nuclear weapons or active nuclear programmes and reversed course.
Three Brief Case Studies
Asking a state to give up the most powerful weapon in existence may seem like a mammoth, or even impossible, task. Yet denuclearisation is not unheard of. Ukraine, South Africa, and Libya have given up their nuclear weapons programmes. Let us take a historical look at those cases.
A not Very Reassuring Case
The story of Ukraine is poignant considering the recent invasion by Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left a significant number of 900 Soviet strategic nuclear warheads and between 2,650 and 4,200 Soviet tactical nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory. By 1996, Ukraine had transferred all of these weapons to Russia. This transfer was a result of the Budapest Memorandum. The Memorandum signed in 1994, committed its signatories (the United States, Russia, and Britain) to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country. It took these assurances to convince Kyiv to give up its nuclear arsenal. Not only has Russia violated the agreement by invading its western neighbour, but Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons in the current war is a further direct violation of the Budapest Agreement, which guaranteed “that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine”.
South Africa, The Poster Child
South Africa has been touted as the poster child of nuclear disarmament. It remains the only country in the world to develop and then dismantle its entire nuclear programme. The country’s first nuclear reactor was built in 1965 and South Africa did not sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1968 when it opened for signature. Yet 23 years later, in 1991, South Africa shut down its nuclear test site and closed its uranium enrichment facility for good.
Denuclearisation in South Africa
It has been speculated that the Apartheid government at the time feared the growing popularity of the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela. In this context, the Apartheid government feared that nuclear weapons could be transferred to organisations hostile to South Africa, such as Cuba, Libya, Iran, or the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). South Africa has used its status as a country that voluntarily dismantled its programme to advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons. In 1996, it signed the Pelindaba Treaty, declaring Africa a nuclear weapons-free zone. In 2017, it signed the TPNW, calling on the other UN Member States to follow suit.
Libya, A Recent Case
The most recent case of denuclearisation is Libya, which dismantled its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. It has been argued that Libya wanted to change its status as being considered a pariah state by the West and set to normalise relations with the US and Europe in order to ease economic sanctions. It worked out. US President George W. Bush rewarded Libya’s decision on denuclearisation by formally removing the US’s comprehensive trade embargo. Relations with European states, in particular the UK and France likewise markedly improved, leading to high-level visits by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. It has been suggested that Libya’s denuclearisation could provide a template for North Korea and the lifting of sanctions against it.
How Close is a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World?
In June of this year, ICAN hosted the Nuclear Ban Forum which brought together academic, civil society, and other experts to discuss the existential threat nuclear weapons pose. In January 2022, the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, all of which are nuclear states, signed a joint declaration affirming their “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons”.
Despite these intentions, geopolitical competition between nuclear powers is rising, and the risk that a regional military confrontation could escalate to a nuclear conflict remains real. China is increasing both the quantity and quality of its nuclear arsenal and is expected to have at over 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade, up from its current 350. The UK announced in 2021 that it would increase the ceiling of its nuclear warhead stockpile target from 180 to 260, constituting a 40 per cent increase. The biggest nuclear powers, US and Russia, both are also undergoing modernisation programmes of their current nuclear arsenal.