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A Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

May 22, 2008

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, Ph.DAlthough few people are aware of it, there has been considerable progress over the past decade toward a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons.

For many years, there had been a substantial gap between the pledges to eliminate nuclear weapons made by the signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 and the reality of their behaviour.

To remedy this situation, in 1996 the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy – the U.S. affiliate of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms – began to coordinate the drafting of a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention. Formulated along the lines of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, this model nuclear convention was designed to serve as an international treaty that prohibits and eliminates nuclear weapons.

Although the late 1990s proved a difficult time for nuclear arms control and disarmament measures, the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, joined by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the International Network of Engineers Against Proliferation, continued its efforts. Consequently, in 2007, these organizations released a new model treaty, revised to reflect changes in world conditions, as well as an explanatory book, Securing Our Survival.

In 1997, like its predecessor, this updated convention for nuclear abolition was circulated within the United Nations, this time at the request of Costa Rica and Malaysia. In addition, it was presented at a number of international conclaves, including a March 2008 meeting of non-nuclear governments in Dublin, sponsored by the Middle Powers Initiative and by the government of Ireland.

Although the Western nuclear weapons states and Russia have opposed a nuclear abolition treaty, the idea has begun to gain traction. The Wall Street Journal op-eds by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn have once again placed nuclear abolition on the political agenda. Speaking in February 2008, the U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Sergio Duarte, condemned the great powers’ “refusal to negotiate or discuss even the outlines of a nuclear-weapons convention” as “contrary to the cause of disarmament. ” Opinion surveys have reported widespread popular support for nuclear abolition in numerous nations-including the United States, where about 70 percent of respondents back the signing of an international treaty to reduce and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Of course, it’s only fair to ask if there really exists the political will to bring such a treaty to fruition. Although Barack Obama has endorsed the goal of nuclear abolition, neither of his current opponents for the U.S. presidency has followed his example or seems likely to do so. John McCain is a thoroughgoing hawk, while Hillary Clinton-though publicly supporting some degree of nuclear weapons reduction-has recently issued the kind of “massive retaliation” threats unheard of since the days of John Foster Dulles.

Furthermore, the American public is remarkably ignorant of nuclear realities. Writing in the Foreword to a recent book, Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security, published by the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, the Western States Legal Foundation, and the Reaching Critical Will project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (, Zia Mian, a Princeton physicist, points to a number of disturbing facts about contemporary U.S. public opinion. For example, more Americans (55%) mistakenly believe that Iran has nuclear weapons than know that Britain (52%), India (51%), Israel (48%), and France (38%) actually have these weapons.

Although the United States possesses over 5,700 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, more than half of U.S. respondents to an opinion survey thought that the number was 200 weapons or fewer. Thus, even though most Americans have displayed a healthy distaste for nuclear weapons and nuclear war, their ability to separate fact from fiction might well be questioned when it comes to nuclear issues.

Fortunately, there are many organisations working to better educate the public on nuclear dangers. In addition to the groups already mentioned, these include Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Federation of American Scientists, Faithful Security, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. And important knowledge can also be gleaned from that venerable source of nuclear expertise, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

But there remains a considerable distance to go before a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons becomes international law.

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Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, co-edited with Glen H. Stassen, is Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm Publishers).

  1. August 2, 2008 6:10 am

    Think Gunnar is quite right in his assesment of the US (and even many western european countries) problem of the past 2-3 (or maybe more) decades.

    What many of us are now hoping for is success with Web 2.0 + to act as real check and balance of the comercial and state influenced media. The ease of getting a vast variety of “ordinary citizen” comments, videos etc via our among other tools, our blog world should aid us greatly in finding the truth and establishing our own positions on virtually all issues of concern.

  2. June 9, 2008 1:31 am

    Maybe the problem is less that the public opinion in the US is not informed, more that it is wrongly informed. How come the US public believes what the gov’t says, what the news channels broadcast, when all the times since the Vietnam war we know that they are lying? Many Americans believed there were nuclear weapons in Iraq, altough that was so clearly a lie. Does noone remember the Tonkin Gulf incident? All the lies from the gov’t to justify interventions in Latin America?

    This is a problem in democracies. We believe the “Free Press” is by nature and by definition reliable, credible, independent, while in many cases the journalists are as “Embedded” in the gov’t as they are in the US Forces in Iraq.

    It is an interesting paradox that the Public Media in e.g. Canada and Britain are more independent of the gov’t , more critical, better informed, than the privately owned media in the US.

  3. Lawrence Wittner permalink
    May 29, 2008 2:23 pm

    I agree with the writers that Americans need to be educated to the fact that their nation is not always “in the right” and that consumerism interferes with that education, as well as with clear thinking. Nevertheless, it is striking that, despite these impediments, so many Americans have turned against nuclear weapons and have joined organizations promoting nuclear disarmament. Indeed, polls have shown repeatedly that overwhelming majorities of Americans favor the creation of a nuclear-free world. This might well account for the fact that John McCain, although a longtime hawk and opponent of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, has suddenly (now that he is campaigning for President) started to call for cuts in nuclear arsenals and reconsideration of that treaty.

  4. ippnweupdate permalink
    May 28, 2008 11:07 pm

    Good Comment Robert!

    Harks back to the early work of Robert Lifton, Jerome Frank and J. Bryan Hehir. Ever read “The Long Darkness”?

  5. Jack permalink
    May 28, 2008 10:45 pm

    How can any education campaign (especially one about nuclear abolition) compete with the trappings of consumerism in today’s world? Nobody is scared about nuclear annihilation. Nobody cares about global health. How can we expect them to look our way for even a second when their vision is endlessly blurred by useless consumer messages.

  6. Robert Shorin permalink
    May 28, 2008 8:25 am

    Unfortunately, the American people think of themselves and their (our) country as unassailable, and always “in the right.” To preserve and perpetuate that illusion, the power of atomic weaponry and military might are necessary ingredients upon which we have come to depend. In that psychological environment, negotiation and diplomacy are considered signs of weakness, to be avoided at all cost. To put down our arms is considered suicidal. It is the accepted philosophical appeal of the Bush era, our legacy from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    To counteract this falsehood, the public must be educated — about the atrocities of war, about the deceptions foisted upon us by the military-industrial complex — so that our voices can be heard in the formulation of government policies that dare to wage peace instead of war.

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