Nuclear norms

Efforts should be made to strengthen the existing nuclear norms and to avoid making country-specific concessions

Sitara Noor April 25, 2016
The writer is a Research Fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Vienna. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation

The Hiroshima Declaration at the end of a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers of the G7 states earlier this month committed to seek “a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability". The statement used many euphemisms to justify states’ security compulsions and, as expected, fell short of guaranteeing a world without nuclear weapons. This, once again, highlights the incessant struggle between the normative approach to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and the politics of national security. This is largely because norms, as a form of behaviour, fall into an idealistic paradigm, while national security is based on realpolitik considerations, thus creating a dichotomy for the decision-maker. This contradiction is even more visible in the domain of nuclear norms, both existing and developing ones.

The non-use of nuclear weapons, or the so-called ‘nuclear taboo’, has emerged as a longstanding nuclear norm over the years. The horrific impact of nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities, killing thousands of people in an instant, was indeed sufficient reason to initiate a counter thought. It is, however, interesting to note that the non-use of nuclear weapons emerged as a norm only after the Soviet Union had equalised the balance of power and the potential use of nuclear weapons lost its policy value due to the threat of massive retaliation. This established norm managed to give rise to a universal abhorrence towards the idea of nuclear use, but it has not been strong enough to compel any concrete measure towards complete nuclear disarmament, primarily because it has not served the national interests of the weapons-possessing states. It, however, gave rise to subsidiary arrangements, such as non-proliferation, which was later codified into a formal Treaty of Nuclear Non-Proliferation, which included an article with a categorical commitment to nuclear disarmament. Despite the failure of nuclear disarmament to develop as a practiced norm due to the possessing states’ national security concerns, non-proliferation has emerged as a new normative approach. The norm of non-proliferation achieved momentum and successfully managed to constrain the number of weapons-possessing states and reach near universality. Nevertheless, one major challenge to non-proliferation is the selective approach taken by leading states to incorporate so-called ‘outlier states’, without a criteria in the non-proliferation regime. It is, therefore, imperative that efforts should be made to strengthen existing nuclear norms and to avoid making country-specific concessions with detrimental effects on the non-proliferation regime.

With the commencement of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process in 2010, nuclear security had the potential to emerge as a new norm. Notwithstanding the criticism on its exclusive nature, the NSS process has created the opportunity for the adoption of a normative approach towards nuclear security. Nuclear security challenges pose a threat to global security, but this is an area where states are reluctant to enter into legally binding commitments. But the NSS process has laid the groundwork for recognition of the threat and has encouraged states to take voluntary action that, in turn, will ensure global security. As a direct result of commitments made at the last three sessions of the NSS, 12 countries have eliminated high enriched uranium (HEU), or separated plutonium from their territories. Twenty-seven states have removed approximately 3,000 kilogrammes of HEU and separated plutonium. Fourteen countries have opted for using low-enriched uranium in 24 reactors. While many may argue that the NSS process outcomes did not match the hype created around it, it remains a fact that the successful legacy of the NSS process has been the recognition of the challenge and adoption of nuclear security as a desired form of behaviour by the states. This is also manifested in the entry into force of the amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Facilities.

In the nuclear domain, one major challenge remains: emerging threats are outpacing the counter measures adopted by the states. While it takes longer to establish and agree on legally binding commitments to control nuclear behaviour, the establishment of new nuclear norms and consolidating existing ones may serve as a temporary substitute to deal with the emerging challenges.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2016.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.