The United Nations and Nuclear Orders is a new volume of essays edited by Jane Boulden, Ramesh Thakur, and Thomas G. Weiss.

In his Foreword to this volume, Jayantha Dhanapala, whose extraordinary diplomatic career included his widely acclaimed service as UN Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs, attributes the current return of nuclear weapons to the place of prominence  they held in international relations during the Cold War to four factors:

  • the emergence of global terrorism (as distinct from national terrorism);
  • the nuclear “renaissance”, or growing interest in nuclear energy;
  • instances of attempted weapons proliferation by states within the NPT and actual proliferation outside the Treaty; and
  • the adoption by some nuclear weapon states of doctrines for the actual and pre-emptive use of  nuclear weapons, including against non-nuclear weapon states (pp. xiii-xiv). 

The joint opening and context setting chapter by the editors points out that “although the United Nations may not be the central forum for negotiations and discussions concerning nuclear weapons, and it may not be living up to its full potential, it would be wrong to count the United Nations out of the nuclear weapons picture” (p. 4). They go on to set out the three core questions that focus the essays in this volume:

  • “What is the nature of the current environment in which the United Nations is operating on these issues?
  • Who and what are the actors and tools the United Nations has available to it with respect to questions about nuclear weapons?
  • What do the answers to those two questions tell us about whether and how the organization could, or should, play a role in these issues, as well as the kind of role that it might assume?” 

The book is in three sections, on the actors, the actual and potential tools, and looming threats and new challenges.

I contributed the chapter on the Security Council in the section on actors, and the following is taken from the introduction:

“It was never part of a formal plan that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the P-5) should also be the five nuclear weapon states (NWS), later to be recognized and accepted as such under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). By now, however, these two distinct attributes have been so fully fused in the multilateral consciousness that it seems as if nature intended it that way. Indeed, permanent membership in the Council could only have added to the drive by the United Kingdom, France, and China to follow the United States and the then Soviet Union to acquire credible nuclear arsenals. Possession of nuclear weapons was seen as a desirable if not essential accoutrement of the global gravitas attaching to any States assuming the mantle of ultimate custodians of international peace and security. And though this commingling of the P-5 with the nuclear five (N5) now seems normal, it is an arrangement that has bedeviled the Council’s performance in one key part of its assigned job of keeping the peace and enforcing global norms.

“The focus of this chapter is the Security Council’s attention to vertical non-proliferation, that is, nuclear disarmament, rather than horizontal non-proliferation. It begins by laying out the framework provided by the UN Charter before discussing the multilaterally defined disarmament agenda – the principles, objectives, and practical steps toward disarmament – that the P-5/N-5 have fully endorsed in forums or contexts outside the Council. The chapter then discusses the importance of disarmament efforts to curb horizontal proliferation. Next, two specific Council engagements – on negative security assurances and the response to Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons developments – are addressed. They provide valuable insights into considering ongoing impediments to the P-5/N-5 giving attention to the imperative of nuclear disarmament within the practical and more demanding business of the Security Council. The chapter concludes by exploring what the Council might realistically do to advance the agreed nuclear disarmament agenda” (pp. 31-32).

Other authors include the editors, David Cortright of the Joan B. Krock Institute (at Notre Dame), Randy Rydell of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, Nicole Evans of Canada’s DFAIT, Rita Grossman-Vermas of the US Department of the Treasury, Ian Johnstone of Tufts University, and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu.

The United Nations and nuclear orders, Boulden, Thakur and Weiss (eds), United Nations University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-92-808-1167-4.

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