Photo: Protest in Bonn, West Germany against the nuclear arms race between the U.S./NATO and the then Soviet Union. Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Protest in Bonn, West Germany against the nuclear arms race between the U.S./NATO and the then Soviet Union. Wikimedia Commons.

By Ramesh Jaura

BERLIN | PRAGUE (IDN) — On January 24, 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus its very first resolution Resolution 1 (I), which established a commission of the UN Security Council to ensure "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction". JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE

The Resolution is entitled "Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy". Recalling the anniversary of the General Assembly identifying nuclear disarmament as a leading goal of the United Nations, a global network of organizations and eminent persons from around the world have in an Open Letter urged nuclear weapons states to adopt no-first-use and other policies to ensure a nuclear war is never fought.

The letter, so far endorsed by over 1000 signatories from 69 countries, was delivered on January 24 to leaders of the "nuclear five" and to heads of governments of the other 185 countries which are States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The "nuclear five" are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—also known as the P5 because they are permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The Open Letter, entitled "Fulfil the NPT: From nuclear threats to human security," was organized by NoFirstUse Global, a global network of organizations, academics, policy makers and civil society advocates.

They include former government ministers, ambassadors, and parliamentarians, two former presidents of the UN General Assembly, former military commanders, Nobel laureates, leading scientists, religious leaders, business leaders, and leading representatives of civil society organizations from around the world.

The Open Letter calls on nuclear weapon states to end the nuclear arms race by stopping nuclear weapons production, to phase out the role of nuclear weapons in security policies starting by adopting no-first-use policies, to commit to eliminating their nuclear weapons no later than 2045, the 75th anniversary of the NPT, and to shift budgets and public investments from the nuclear weapons industry to supporting public health, climate stabilization, and sustainable development.

It reminds the States Parties to the NPT that they have a legal and moral obligation to prevent nuclear war and to work in good faith to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world, and also that they currently have opportunities to do so.

"First-use options are literally playing with fire in very combustible situations and have nearly led to a nuclear war being initiated by mistake or miscalculation," the Open Letter states.

"Unilateral no-first-use declarations, bilateral no-first-use agreements and/or a multilateral no-first-use agreement can reduce these risks.…These can be followed by nuclear force restructuring and operational controls to implement no-first-use policies, and to build credibility and confidence in the policies to further reduce nuclear risks. And most importantly, the adoption of no-first-use or sole purpose policies could open the door to the nuclear armed states and their allies joining negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons."

The Open Letter is prompted by growing tensions between nuclear weapons states, with their nuclear weapons in a state of high readiness, and a renewed nuclear arms race in which all of the P5 countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. These conditions have elevated the risk of nuclear war breaking out, whether by malice (intentional escalation), miscalculation, misinformation, malfeasance (unauthorised use), or malfunction (accidental use).

Precisely against this backdrop, a joint statement by US organizations on January 12 called for eliminating ICBMs. It argued: "Intercontinental ballistic missiles are uniquely dangerous, greatly increasing the chances that a false alarm or miscalculation will result in nuclear war. There is no more important step the United States could take to reduce the chances of a global nuclear holocaust than to eliminate its ICBMs.

The statement refers to former Defence Secretary William Perry who explained, "If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them; once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. The president would have less than 30 minutes to make that terrible decision".

Perry further wrote: "First and foremost, the United States can safely phase out its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, a key facet of Cold War nuclear policy. Retiring the ICBMs would save considerable costs, but it isn't only budgets that would benefit. These missiles are some of the most dangerous weapons in the world. They could even trigger an accidental nuclear war."

Besides, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has announced that its Doomsday Clock would remain set at 100 seconds to midnight for the third year in a row—closer to midnight than ever in its history—attesting to a continued high level of risk from today’s nuclear arsenals and nuclear policies.

The endorsers of the Open Letter recall that on January 3, the P5 countries released a joint statement in preparation for the 2022 Review Conference of the NPT (meanwhile postponed until August 2022 due to Covid-19) in which they affirmed that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought". But the P5 also re-affirmed the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies.

This is how some of the eminent endorsers of the Open Letter have commented on the current state of affairs as follows:

Maria Fernanda Espinosa, former Foreign Minister of Ecuador and President of the 73rd UN General Assembly says: "Nuclear weapons threaten current and future generations. They cannot resolve the conflicts between countries, and they are counter-productive to the human security issues of today and tomorrow—the COVID pandemic, climate crisis, food security, cybersecurity, and achievement of the sustainable development goals. It's time to fulfil the NPT and the goal established by the UN in 1946 to eliminate nuclear weapons globally."

Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., Chair of the Global Security Institute Nonpartisan Security Group and Head of the United States Delegation to the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, has warned: "Tensions generated by the Iran situation, the North Korean issue, rapidly increasing temperatures from climate change and other critical issues have made the possibility of nuclear war more likely today than 10-15 years ago."

He adds: "One significant way to address this is if the United States were to formally declare that it will never use nuclear weapons first, and ask other nuclear weapon States to join such a pledge."

Lord David Hannay, Co-chair of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-proliferation and former UK Ambassador to the United Nations and the European Union opines: "It’s high time the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council sat down and had a serious discussion of how to reduce the risks of nuclear war, including such concepts as No First Use and Sole Purpose. After all it is only days since they collectively re-affirmed the Reagan / Gorbachev view that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought."

Gareth Evans, Founder of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network a former foreign minister of Australia, considers "embracing 'no first use' is the litmus test". Without that the P5 declaration that 'a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought', as overdue and welcome as it is, is just empty rhetoric, he adds.

Professor Giorgio Parisi, the 2021 Nobel Laureate in Physics, notes: "The Non-Proliferation Treaty has been respected by the non-nuclear-countries, but the nuclear-countries have not respected their obligations. As a citizen of a non-nuclear-country I am particularly offended by their refusal to start the negotiations for achieving the global elimination of nuclear weapons."

Frank von Hippel, Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Former Assistant Director for National Security in the White House explains: "Our growing understanding of the many mutual vulnerabilities of modern societies is a new deterrent to all-out wars. That understanding should make it easier to commit to no first nuclear use as a first step toward nuclear disarmament."

Former military commanders and veterans who endorsed the Open Letter believe that current policies which leave open the option of first use of nuclear weapons increase the risk of a nuclear catastrophe and put military commanders in impossible positions, especially if they are ordered to launch their nuclear weapons.

For example, Commander Robert Forsyth, UK Royal Navy (retired), said: "Submerged on patrol, commanding officers of strategic submarines have no way of knowing why they have been ordered to fire, what the target is, or the consequences on civil population of doing so. As such, I was not prepared to launch a first strike with Polaris missiles from my submarine in the 1970’s and remain strongly opposed to First Use of any nuclear weapons."

"War is not the answer to the problems we face in the 21st century," said Adrienne Kinne, outgoing President of Veterans for Peace. "This is also true of nuclear weapons and equipment which have already had dire impacts on people and our environment and will for generations to come. It is past time to divert our money, resources, and intelligence into finding solutions that meet the needs of the world today."

Signatories to the Open Letter also affirmed that adopting no-first-use policies could transform current gridlock in nuclear arms control and disarmament negotiations, opening the door to significant steps toward a nuclear weapon free world.

For example, Vladimir P. Kozin, Member of the Russian Academies of Military Sciences and Natural Sciences, said, "Nuclear weapons states are increasing the accuracy of their missiles and bombs, proliferating dual-capable air-based delivery systems, and moving to new types of nuclear weapons such as forward-based assets outside their national territory.

"All this adds up to more justifications for using strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in their national nuclear strategies. These are dramatic and dangerous developments, made worse by the fact that so far nuclear weapons states have never conducted official negotiations on downsizing or banning use of their tactical nuclear arsenals and delivery systems.

"On the other hand, if a pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons were accepted by all nuclear weapons states, it could produce a revolutionary turn initially leading to the erosion of nuclear weapons and finally to the complete elimination of such weapons of mass destruction from our planet, for the benefits of all its inhabitants and international security at large."

">Military and political feasibility and advisability of nuclear armed states adopting no-first-use policies is assessed in the working paper, No-First Use of Nuclear Weapons: An Exploration of Unilateral, Bilateral and Plurilateral Approaches and their Security, Risk-reduction and Disarmament Implications. The paper was sent to the NPT States Parties along with the Open Letter. [IDN-InDepthNews — 26 January 2021]

Photo: Protest in Bonn, West Germany against the nuclear arms race between the U.S./NATO and the then Soviet Union. Wikimedia Commons.