Statement by Joseph Rotblat on nuclear tests in South Asia

New Dangers to World Security (Published in the Pugwash Newsletter, V. 25, No. 2, October 1998)

Joseph Rotblat

THE recent nuclear test explosions by India and Pakistan have caused shock and alarm but should not have come as a surprise.

There are genuine reasons for alarm. Two neighboring countries, which have been at loggerheads from the moment they gained independence and have fought several wars, including two over a disputed territory, have demonstrated their capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons. Should there occur another military confrontation between them, there is a real danger that nuclear weapons would be used. In such an event, the other nuclear powers in Asia might become involved, perhaps even leading to World War II.

Another cause for alarm is the danger that other nations may decide to follow the example of India and Pakistan. A likely candidate is North Korea, which intimated such an ambition a few years ago when it gave notice of withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Such a step might provoke neighboring countries to reconsider their non-nuclear policies.

A hot spot of long standing is the Middle East, where the asymmetry created by the possession of a nuclear arsenal by Israel is a constant source of irritation to the Arab states, some of which will keep trying to acquire nuclear weapons by hook or by crook. All of a sudden we have got a critical situation on our hands.

Actually the events were predictable; they were predicted by those who have studied the problem. The Canberra Commission, a group of 17 independent, highly knowledgeable personalities, summed up the situation succinctly:

Nuclear weapons are held by a handful of states which insist that these weapons provide unique security benefits, and yet reserve uniquely to themselves the right to own them. This situation is highly discriminatory and thus unstable; it cannot be sustained. The possession of nuclear weapons by any state is a constant stimulus to other states to acquire them

India has now yielded to this stimulus, and Pakistan has followed suit. In carrying out the tests they have not violated any treaty, and there are no legal grounds for sanctions. All the same, they stand condemned for provoking a world crisis.

It is particularly tragic that India, the country of Gandhi and Nehru, the first to call for a ban on nuclear tests, way back in 1954; which has been throughout the years at the forefront of the efforts for a nuclear-weapon-free world, should have abandoned its nuclear policy and changed it to a policy based on the belief that only the possession of nuclear weapons would give India the status of a first-class nation. It is terribly sad to note that the vast majority of people in India (as in Pakistan) has endorsed the new policy. For me, personally, it is acutely painful that in the list of Indian scientists who have protested against this policy I do not see the names of my friends and colleagues from Pugwash.

Having said this about India, I have to point an accusing finger at the main culprits, the nuclear weapon states, who pursue a policy characterized by hypocrisy and double standards.

From the very beginning nuclear weapons were viewed with abhorrence by all decent people, and ways were sought to eliminate them. One such way was the Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968. The Treaty divides its signatories into two categories: the non-nuclear states (of which there are now 182) that undertook not to acquire nuclear weapons; and the five nuclear states, USA, Russia, UK, France and China, that undertook to get rid of theirs. The division was intended to be a temporary measure, as is clear from the Preamble and Article VI of the Treaty. In 1995, when the Treaty was extended indefinitely, the five nuclear powers solemnly reaffirmed their commitment to nuclear disarmament.

But these solemn commitments turned out to be a sham. The actual policies are based on the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons. The discriminatory element of the NPT is becoming permanent, and it is this that India has always strongly resented.

True, nuclear warheads are being dismantled in accordance with agreements between the United States and Russia, although the START process has presently come to a halt, mainly due to the enlargement of NATO, to which Russia intensely objects. But even after full implementation there would be enough nuclear weapons left in the arsenals to inflict unacceptable damage, should they ever be used in combat. And there is no indication of going further down the nuclear disarmament path.

That the United States has no intention of getting rid of its nuclear arsenals is clear from the recently leaked Presidential Decision Directive (PDD), a secret document which outlines President Clinton’s military nuclear strategy. This strategy requires the retention of nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future, as the basis for the general security of the USA. And, if the United States, the mightiest country militarily, declares that it needs nuclear weapons for its security, how can one deny such security to states that have real cause to feel insecure?

The PDD affirms the policy of nuclear deterrence; deterrence not just against a nuclear attack but against an attack with any weapon, chemical, biological or even conventional; an attack which the United States would be capable of defeating with its powerful conventional forces.

The recent studies by Pugwash, the Canberra Commission, the National Academy of Sciences (US), etc. have shown that the only possible rationale for nuclear weapons, while they exist, is to deter a nuclear attack, and this role would disappear if nobody had nuclear weapons. If so, why are the nuclear powers not pursuing the objective of the elimination of nuclear weapons, consistent with their commitment under the NPT?

The advocates of the retention of nuclear arsenals say that it cannot be done; because nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. This is true, but is no reason why they should not be banned. Chemical and biological weapons too cannot be disinvented and yet we have agreed to ban them. Landmines cannot be disinvented and yet an agreement on a convention to ban them has been agreed.

Nuclear weapons may present special problems, but a solution will never be found unless the problems are tackled. Yet, the nuclear powers obstinately refuse even to put the issue on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament. At the Pugwash Conference in Lillehammer in 1997, the Pugwash Council urged

all countries to make an immediate and unequivocal commitment to the negotiation and conclusion of a Convention on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Negotiations should be carried on in the multilateral forum of the Conference on Disarmament, with parallel negotiations among the five declared nuclear-weapon states

The recent events have proved the urgency of this call, which we should have repeated loudly and clearly.

Although elimination of all wars in our long-term objective, the elimination of the nuclear threat is still our top priority. In the Goals for Pugwash for the current Quinquennium, approved in Lillehammer, we said:

But the nuclear peril, while somewhat abated, nonetheless persists — in the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still deployed, in the archaic doctrines still calling for nuclear-weapons use even against non-nuclear attacks, in the continuing absence of firm commitments by any of the nuclear-weapon powers to give up these weapons on a specified time scale, in the risk of theft of nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapon materials from the widely dispersed and sometimes inadequately guarded stockpiles of these, and in the threat that all these circumstances pose to the global nonproliferation regime.

It is deeply regrettable that the voice of Pugwash was not heard during the recent crisis.