There is a danger that the contemplation of security and sustainability in a nuclear weapons free world will imply to some readers that nuclear weapons have in some way provided security and even sustainability. It is not my intention to imply this. I believe that nuclear weapons have never at any time provided security for their possessors, and that they make no contribution to sustainability.

The world that we currently live in — a world divided between a small number of states possessing nuclear weapons and a large number of states that do not — is neither secure nor sustainable. If nuclear weapons in fact provided security, logic would suggest that an effort be made to spread these weapons to other states. In fact, the opposite viewpoint has prevailed. Most states, including those currently in possession of nuclear weapons, support policies of non-proliferation.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been in force since 1970, requires a trade-off from the nuclear weapons states. In exchange for the non-nuclear weapons states agreeing not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons states agreed in Article VI to negotiate in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament. When the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, the nuclear weapons states promised the determined pursuit of “systematic and progressive efforts” to achieve nuclear disarmament.

The failure of the nuclear weapons states to make significant progress toward nuclear disarmament may result in undermining the NPT, and in the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states beyond the five declared and three undeclared nuclear weapons states. Such proliferation would further bolster the insecurity and unsustainability of the current international system.


Security has two critical dimensions: protection from physical harm, and access to resources to meet basic needs. It also has a third dimension, an illusory psychological dimension, that operates at the level of belief systems. Nuclear arsenals do not provide security from physical harm. The only security they provide is in this psychological dimension, rooted in a belief in the efficacy of deterrence. The threat of retaliation with nuclear weapons is not physical protection; the protection provided is only psychological. An opponent’s fear of retaliation may or may not prevent that opponent from launching a nuclear attack based upon irrationality, faulty information, human error, or mechanical or computer malfunction.

A world without nuclear weapons would be one in which the threat of cataclysmic nuclear holocaust would be removed. Achieving such a world will require careful planning to assure that some states do not secretly retain nuclear weapons or clandestinely reassemble them. As states reduce their nuclear arsenals toward zero, an agreed upon plan will be required to assure transparency, accurate accounting of nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials, effective procedures for verification of dismantlement and the controlled and safeguarded immobilization of nuclear materials and the production facilities to create them. The process of reducing nuclear arsenals to zero will be challenging both technically and politically, but it is a challenge that can be accomplished with determination and political will.

The process of nuclear weapons abolition will demand the creation of stronger systems of international security. Thus, achieving abolition will, by the nature of the process, coincide with strengthened international security arrangements. In order to have a security system that assures maximum protection against physical harm and access to resources to meet basic needs, it will be necessary to go even further in system design than the elements required to maintain security in a world without nuclear weapons. The main components of this security system would be:

  • All states would be allowed to maintain only weapons for defence against territorial invasion, and no weapons with offensive capabilities.
  • Each state would be subject to regular and challenge inspections by international teams to assure that it is neither maintaining nor creating any offensive weapons systems, particularly weapons of mass destruction.
  • All states would be required to make periodic public reports of the types and numbers of weapons in their arsenals.
  • An International Criminal Court would be responsible for holding individual leaders responsible for the most serious crimes under international law (crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and international aggression), and for violations of the conditions specified in points 1 to 3 above.
  • A United Nations Inspection Force would be created to conduct inspections and monitor states for violations of points 1 to 3 above.
  • The United Nations Security Council would be responsible for enforcement of points 1 to 3 above, for apprehending serious violators of international law, and for assuring cooperation with the United Nations Inspection Force.
  • The United Nations system — including the General Assembly, the World Bank, the UN Development Programme and other specialized agencies, and a UN Disaster Relief Force — would be charged with assuring that all peoples of all states have access to the necessary resources to meet their basic needs.


Sustainability is the protection of the resources required to meet basic needs for present and future generations, and the upholding of the quality of these resources. Sustainability requires environmental protection to ensure the quality of the air, the water, and the earth. It is no longer possible to ensure sustainability in any state anywhere in the world if all states do not cooperate in protecting the Earth’s resources and the common heritage of the planet — the atmosphere, the oceans and the land. Clean air and water and unpolluted topsoil to grow healthy crops must be maintained if we are to have a sustainable future.

Over 1000 nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere and a roughly equal number of underground tests have already made a heavy assault upon the environment, as have thousands of tons of nuclear wastes, large quantities of which have already leaked into the earth, air and water. Sustainability will require not only a nuclear weapons free future, but a future in which nuclear wastes are also not generated by civilian nuclear reactors. Present and future generations are already burdened with enormous problems from the nuclear wastes created by both military and civilian nuclear reactors. Some of this waste will be a threat to life for tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years.

It is unfair to burden future generations with still more dangerous radioactive wastes. What has been produced to date has been the product of ignorance, arrogance, and blind faith, sadly, by some of the best minds of our time. Sustainability requires having an answer to the problem of dangerous wastes before they are produced rather than burdening future generations with these problems.

Beginning the Process

A world that is divided between nuclear “haves” and “have nots” is neither secure nor sustainable. Nuclear weapons pose a threat to humanity and to all forms of life. If they continue to be relied upon, at some point in the future they will again be used. It is a strong lesson of history that weapons once created will be used — as indeed nuclear weapons have already been used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The challenge of the highest magnitude before humanity today is to ban forever these weapons which constitute such a serious threat to humanity’s future. The opportunity is before us with the Cold War ended. The nuclear weapons states have promised to negotiate in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament. The International Court of Justice has stated its opinion that the nuclear weapons states are obligated to complete negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. In fulfilling this mandate, these states must consider the issues of security and sustainability in a nuclear weapons free world.

A secure and sustainable world order without nuclear weapons is achievable. It cannot occur, however, so long as the nuclear weapons states are wedded to their nuclear arsenals. The first step in breaking their addiction is to begin negotiations in good faith to achieve their elimination. If they are to complete the journey, they must first begin and thus far serious negotiations to eliminate nuclear arsenals have not begun.

An international consortium of lawyers, scientists and disarmament experts led by the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP) with technical assistance from the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP) has prepared a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention that has been introduced by Costa Rica to the United Nations General Assembly. This Convention — which draws upon previous international treaties including the Chemical Weapons Convention — provides indicators of the issues that the nuclear weapons states will have to resolve to achieve a treaty they can support. It provides a good starting point for the nuclear weapons states to begin the process of negotiations for abolishing their nuclear arsenals.

What is missing now is the political will to begin the process. Many actions of the nuclear weapons states suggest that they are more interested in “systematic and progressive efforts” to impede rather than achieve nuclear disarmament. There is only one way that this can change, and that is by the people making their voices heard. When the people of the world understand the extent to which their security and a sustainable future for their children and grandchildren is threatened by the continued reliance of the governments of the nuclear weapons states upon nuclear arsenals, they will demand that the promises of nuclear disarmament be kept. It is our job to bring about that understanding.