Published in International Law and Editorial

Nuclear weapons were the greatest threat to humanity’s future before 9/11, and remain the greatest threat after 9/11. They are the only weapons capable of destroying major cities and even ending human life on Earth. Given the dangers that these instruments of genocide pose to humanity, it is baffling why we’re not doing more to end this threat.

I attribute the lack of action primarily to the myopic leadership in the United States, where the short-sightedness of U.S. political leadership on this issue is bipartisan. During its eight-year tenure, the Clinton administration made little progress to make good on the formal U.S. commitment in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to undertake good-faith efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament.

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the nuclear-weapons states clarified their treaty commitments by pledging to pursue the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Promises also were made for “[t]he early entry into force and full implementation of START II and the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons.”

Instead of fulfilling these promises, however, the newly installed Bush dministration announced its opposition to the ABM Treaty, and later withdrew from it. It then foisted a fraudulent Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) on the Russians, a treaty so problematic that it accomplishes little more than mislead the public into thinking that some progress is being made toward nuclear disarmament.

SORT will lead only to the reduction of the number of actively deployed strategic (long-range) nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 by year 2012, with no timetable other than the endpoint and no procedures for verification. And the U.S. has announced that it will not be destroying most of the weapons taken off active deployment: It plans merely to place them on a shelf for retrieval in case they are deemed to be needed again in the future. The treaty has no effect on tactical (shorter-range) nuclear weapons.

When this fraudulent treaty, which the U.S. Senate still must ratify, is combined with the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review presented to Congress earlier this year, the clear indication is that the U.S. is committed to keeping its nuclear arsenal, and to lowering the political and military thresholds of its possible use.

The portions of the secret Nuclear Posture Review that were leaked to the press indicate that the U.S. is developing new, more usable nuclear weapons, as well as plans for their use against at least seven countries (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Russia and China). This is hardly the stance of a country seeking to provide leadership toward fulfilling its NPT obligations to eliminate its nuclear weapons.

Terrorism is the threat to injure or kill innocent people for political ends. The terrorist acts that targeted the United States on September 11 last year were despicable, and condemnable as crimes against humanity. But isn’t planning to use nuclear weapons, which would kill not 3,000 people but hundreds of thousands (in a small-scale use) to millions of people (in a larger scale use), terrorism too?

It is past time for the United States and the other nuclear-weapons states to recognize their own terrorist threats against humanity. These states have existing obligations under international law to achieve the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, including under the NPT and the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the nternational Court of Justice, which ruled that the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons would violate international law under nearly all conceivable circumstances.

Fulfilling their international law obligations with respect to nuclear disarmament is also in the self-interest of these states. By eliminating nuclear weapons and strengthening non-proliferation regimes, these states would diminish the risk that such weapons would fall into the hands of terrorist groups, like those that targeted the United States last September.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Published in International Law and Editorial, September 15, 2002.