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The Nuclear Weapons Convention

The Transformation to a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World
Jürgen Scheffran

In 1997, non-governmental organizations published a model Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), which was revised and updated in 2007. The document proposes the complete elimination and ban of nuclear weapons by international law, an approach that is generally supported by the majority of the international community.

For the past decade, the international security landscape has been dominated by elements that have kept comprehensive nuclear disarmament in the distant future. With the end of the Bush Administration approaching, discussion of nuclear risks and disarmament alternatives once again are visible in the mainstream, and support for a nuclear-weapon-free world again is on the rise.

Nuclear Risks

The nuclear threat did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. On the contrary, while the nuclear weapon states have reduced their nuclear arsenals, they never abandoned the nuclear arms race. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still exist, with thousands still actively deployed. With nuclear deterrence still in place, the risks of nuclear war remain imminent. Hundreds of tons of nuclear-weapons usable materials remain as well, and with the projected increase of nuclear energy the precursors for nuclear weapons development also are proliferating. The possibility that nuclear weapons or sensitive nuclear materials could fall into the hands of terrorists cannot be ruled out.

The 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognized the USA, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China as acknowledged nuclear weapon states. Since then, four more states have acquired nuclear weapons: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The nuclear potential of Iraq was destroyed in 1991 by military force. The mere possibility that Iran also could develop nuclear weapons is driving the arms race, and is used by the US government to build a case for possible military intervention and for the installation of missile defenses in Eastern Europe. The harsh reactions from Russia are reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric, and demonstrate that horizontal proliferation can drive vertical proliferation between the major powers. The nuclear weapons states have not made serious efforts to fulfill their disarmament promises given in Article VI of the NPT; their failure to do so can be used by nuclear newcomers as an excuse to discredit the non-proliferation regime.

In his last speech, former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan made a strong case for nuclear disarmament, emphasizing that nuclear weapons “pose a unique threat to humanity as a whole.”1 Half-hearted measures to manage the current crisis cannot prevent its intensification, rather, they worsen the problems. The NPT, which was partially successful in containing the spread of nuclear weapons, will be at a crossroads in the coming years. Either the nuclear disarmament obligation is implemented, or the whole non-proliferation regime is at risk. The long-term threat of nuclear war can only be avoided by a comprehensive and universal norm for banning nuclear weapons. A Nuclear Weapons Convention would be a logical way to complete the ban on all weapons of mass destruction, together with the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions. It would also fulfill the first UN General Assembly Resolution, which called unanimously for the “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”2

From a Lost Decade to the Decade of Nuclear Disarmament?

In the mid-1990’s, the political conditions for a world without nuclear weapons appeared to be quite favorable. The Cold War was over, the giant nuclear arsenals were obsolete, and the hopes for military conversion and a peace dividend loomed large. The call for a nuclear-weapon-free world increasingly shaped the international debate. A major high point was the NPT Review and Extension Conference held in New York in April/May 1995. A Study Group of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP) presented a report in New York which emphasized the need for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC).3 The founding statement of the new global network Abolition 2000 called for negotiations on a NWC as a central point. Several significant disarmament developments followed in the year and a half after the 1995 NPT extension. In its July 1996 Advisory Opinion, the International Court of Justice affirmed that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”4 Shortly thereafter, the Canberra Commission presented a comprehensive report making a strong case for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Former heads of state , admirals, and generals spoke out for nuclear abolition.5 Under public pressure, all of the NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states halted their nuclear testing programs. In 1996 the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded, although it still has not entered into force because some countries whose ratification is required by the Treaty have not done so.

Since then, there has been no further progress at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, despite the original promises and continued talk about a cutoff for fissile nuclear weapons material production. From 1998 on, conditions for disarmament deteriorated. With nuclear testing in India and Pakistan, the conservative turn in the USA, and the election of George W. Bush, the revival of missile defense, space weapons, and preemptive nuclear strategies, the terror attacks of 2001 and the declared “war on terror,” international relations entered a new ice age. Existing disarmament negotiation fora (START III) and arms control agreements (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) were abandoned, and further control regimes were endangered (the Biological Weapons Convention and the Outer Space Treaty). The years from 1998 to 2007 became a lost decade for nuclear disarmament, and the 2002 Moscow Treaty (Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty) signed by Bush and Putin did nothing to change that. The agreement requires reductions to 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic nuclear weapons by end of 2012, but specifies neither the process before nor the obligations after that date, and provides no mechanism for verification.

The urgent need for the abolition of nuclear weapons has not declined in recent years, and the public support for their elimination has not diminished. According to a 1997 poll of US citizens, 87% agreed that “the US should negotiate an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.”6 In a recent poll in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, and Great Britain, 69% said that they want to see Europe free of nuclear weapons.7 The efforts of the international movements against nuclear weapons have continued as well:

  • Several resolutions have been introduced into the US House of Representatives supporting a Nuclear Weapons Convention (submitted by Congress members Lynn Woolsey, Dennis Kucinich and Eleanor Holmes Norton).8
  • On October 3, 2000, 70 prominent US citizens released a statement in the New York Times calling upon the US government “to commit itself unequivocally to negotiate the worldwide reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons, in a series of well-defined stages accompanied by increasing verification and control.”9
  • The 2001 US Conference of Mayors, the 2006 World Council of Churches and the 2006 meeting of Nobel Prize winners each adopted resolutions for the elimination of nuclear weapons.10
  • More than 2,000 mayors have joined the Mayors for Peace initiative. In their 2020 Vision campaign, they call for the conclusion of negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention by 2010, with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons by 2020.


In October 2005, the Middle Powers Initiative launched the Article VI Forum, which aims to bring together like-minded middle power states to “identify the legal, political and technical requirements for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” and to explore “ways to start negotiations on disarmament steps leading to a nuclear weapons convention or a framework of instruments for the abolition of nuclear weapons.”11 About 40 governments already have attended the conferences of the Article VI Forum (in New York, The Hague, Ottawa and Vienna, followed by Dublin in March 2008), in preparation for the NPT Review Conference in 2010.

Another major initiative is the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, under the leadership of Hans Blix. Its 2006 report Weapons of Terror dispels “the perception that outlawing nuclear weapons is a utopian goal. A nuclear disarmament treaty is achievable and can be reached through careful, sensible and practical measures.” The Commission calls for states to “accept the principle that nuclear weapons should be outlawed, as are biological and chemical weapons (i.e. by a comprehensive abolition treaty), and explore the political, legal, technical and procedural options for achieving this within a reasonable time. Benchmarks should be set; definitions agreed; timetables drawn up and agreed upon; and transparency requirements agreed. Disarmament work should be set in motion.”Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, Final Report, Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, Stockholm, June 1, 2006, p. 109, www.wmdcommission.org.

The Debate in the USA

Part of the US establishment seems to recognize that the continued existence of nuclear weapons undermines the security of the United States. The more proliferation progresses, the less existing nuclear overkill capacities are seen as a security guarantee for the major nuclear weapon states. In the past decade, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former President Jimmy Carter, former Commander of US Strategic Command General Lee Butler, and others came to the conclusion that the abolition of nuclear weapons is the best strategy to end the risk of a nuclear disaster.

This view has found support from former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, as well as former U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn. Based on their experience with nuclear weapons policy and strategy, they see the continued reliance on nuclear weapons as “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” They predict that without a major change in policy the US soon will enter a “new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.”12 Recalling the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between former Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, they support the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world and activities to reach that goal. In their view, leadership by the United States would be essential to diminish dependence on nuclear weapons and to prevent nuclear proliferation: “Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”

Along these lines, the former British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett at the end of her term made a speech at the annual non-proliferation conference of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in June 2007. She made clear that, as with the abolition of slavery, the ultimate goal would not be regulation or reductions, but the elimination of nuclear weapons. Referring to her US colleagues she said: “What we need is both vision – a scenario for a world free of nuclear weapons. And action – progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy. These two strands are separate but they are mutually reinforcing. Both are necessary, both at the moment too weak.”13

Non-Proliferation vs. Disarmament: No Contradiction

While there is general agreement about the ultimate goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world, there are different views about the best path towards that goal. Kofi Annan criticized the polarization between those who place a priority on non-proliferation, seeking first to deny others access to nuclear weapons, and those disarmament proponents who make non-proliferation dependent on progress in nuclear disarmament. According to Annan, work on non-proliferation and disarmament have to proceed together.

There are differences as well regarding whether only single steps are to be negotiated, or whether the overall goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world should be more clearly envisioned from the outset. In an incremental approach, only the next step is on the agenda, without a consistent strategy towards zero. An example is the 1995 NPT Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, which were further elaborated by a set of 13 practical steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Conference.14 Few of these steps have been implemented; even the CTBT, completed in 1996, has not received sufficient ratifications to enter into force. The fissile materials cut-off negotiations have been blocked for a decade. Instead of further progress, we have seen many setbacks. If the whole disarmament process depends on the next incremental step, it can easily be stalemated. Particular steps may encounter resistance from those states who feel that it has placed them at a disadvantage, where their interests have not been considered and balanced in a wider context.

The opposite strategy is to define a given time-bound framework for the elimination of all nuclear weapons before the individual steps and their combined implementation are negotiated — an approach that has been supported by G77 states. Fixing a time-bound framework for the disarmament process as a precondition for negotiations may be problematic, since the timing would be subject to negotiations. It would be better to handle goals and actions in a joint framework.

Why a Nuclear Weapons Convention?

A Nuclear Weapons Convention would include measures for both nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, and thus would overcome the division between the camps that Annan criticized. The NWC would specify the comprehensive goal for a world without nuclear weapons and the means of its achievement by concrete measures and steps. It defines a legal framework for a ban and elimination of all nuclear weapons, the control of the nuclear complex and fissile materials, and associated verification measures as well as the rights and duties of both States and individuals.

In 1995, the NWC working group of Abolition 2000 set a goal of drafting a model treaty for nuclear disarmament. In collaboration with IALANA, IPPNW, and INESAP,15 the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy established a committee in 1996 which produced a draft document at meetings in New York und Darmstadt, Germany. The model Nuclear Weapons Convention (mNWC) was presented to the public at the NPT Prepatory Committee meeting (PrepCom) in April 1997, and in the same year was submitted by Costa Rica to the United Nations as an official document.16 The full text is included in the 1999 book Security and Survival,17 which explains the arguments for the NWC and discusses critical questions on various crucial topics (verification, enforcement, international security, alternatives to nuclear deterrence, terrorism, health and environmental problems, nuclear power, nuclear knowledge, irreversibility, conversion, research and development).18 At the NPT PrepCom in May 2007 and as part of the launch of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an extended and updated version of the mNWC and the book Securing Our Survival were presented by IALANA, IPPNW and INESAP.19 The final document of the NPT conference referred to the NWC,20 and Costa Rica and Malaysia submitted the revised mNWC as a UN document at the end of the year.21

The model NWC has been received positively by many governments and non-governmental organizations. The majority of States are ready to start negotiations on the NWC. In December 2006 at the UN General Assembly, 125 States, including the nuclear-weapon states China, India, and Pakistan, called for “commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination.”22 Further support comes from the Australian Senate, New Zealand’s Parliament, and the European Parliament, which adopted several resolutions for the elimination of nuclear weapons and in support of the NWC. Recent initiatives were undertaken in the British House of Commons and in the US Congress.23

A main purpose of the model NWC is to show that the abolition of nuclear weapons is possible and practically feasible. The successful ban on anti-personnel land mines in 1997 could be a possible model for nuclear weapons. A complete ban has more public appeal than the limitation of certain forms of weapons or their use, which would have to be distinguished and verified. The model NWC is intended to promote a comprehensive solution to the nuclear risks of our times and to encourage public debate. The revised version addresses changing political conditions, e.g. by assessing the problem of nuclear terrorism and the renaissance of nuclear power. Different views should not be reason not to start the negotiation process; rather, that process offers the opportunity and a forum to express and talk about differences. Although the security landscape is not encouraging today, the NWC can serve as a catalyst to facilitate the transformation to a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Can a NWC be Verified?

The NWC would have the goals of permanently eliminating the world’s existing nuclear arsenals, of preventing the production of new nuclear weapons, and of establishing high barriers to the diversion of nuclear weapons materials. The illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons is to be prevented or at least detected with sufficient reliability. A wide variety of objects and activities is to be monitored, from research, development, and testing of single components to the removal and elimination of complete nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and materials. Some of the activities are easily detectable (such as nuclear explosions), others require considerable verification efforts (such as the search for hidden warheads). The risks of uncertainties increase with declining warhead numbers, because then clandestine nuclear weapons activities have a higher significance. On the other hand, in a nuclear-weapon-free world the acquisition of nuclear weapons would be easier to detect because there is no existing infrastructure that can be used to hide these activities.

The abolition of nuclear weapons can succeed if the disarmament process is transparent and strengthens the trust between the parties. Efficient verification measures are important to detect clandestine activities related to nuclear weapons with sufficient reliability. A variety of measures and methods of verification can be used: remote sensing in the visible, infrared, and radar part of the electromagnetic spectrum; seismic, radiological, hydroacoustic, and infrasound detectors; onsite sensors; and cooperative verification, including information exchange, inspections, preventive controls, and joint overflights.24

The development, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons is a tremendous effort that leaves many detectable traces in the environment. The production of nuclear weapons materials requires large facilities, such as reactors and enrichment facilities, which are difficult to hide. Even if they release only tiny amounts of decay products, these are potentially detectable with sensitive sensors and provide hints about their source. So-called nuclear archeology helps to reconstruct a sufficiently accurate picture of previous nuclear activities. Social verification, confidence-building measures and institutional mechanisms (such as international agencies, consultations, and conflict resolution procedures) aim at strengthening the societal context of verification.

The model NWC would put all nuclear weapon materials under comprehensive preventive controls, which would not only monitor diversion of significant amounts of materials but also would reduce or block the access to these materials. To achieve this goal, it is essential to go beyond the existing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), safeguards measures, which are designed to improve the accounting, containment and surveillance of nuclear materials. An international registry and surveillance system could include non-destructive methods of onsite detection and sensors for detecting radionuclides in the environment (e.g. krypton-85). While baseline inspections provide information about the basic inventory, challenge inspections would provide access to critical facilities at any location and any time. Special techniques such as tagging have been developed to uniquely identify treaty-limited items. Some of these methods are already available, others require additional research and development, and may be available when a Nuclear Weapons Convention enters into force.25

This is a translation of an article published in German for Wissenschaft und Frieden.


Jürgen Scheffran is Senior Research Scientist with the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He is teaching on energy and international security as an Adjunct Associate Professor in political science and atmospheric sciences. Currently, he coordinates a project on renewable energy; scheffra [at] uiuc [dot] edu.

  1. 1. Kofi Annan, Lecture at Princeton University, November 28, 2006; see UN website, Role of disarmament, non-proliferation examined in Princeton lecture; www.un.org/News/ossg/sg/stories/statments_full.asp?statID=6.
  2. 2. UN General Assembly Resolution 1(1),Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Nuclear Energy, adopted 24 January 1946.
  3. 3. International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP), Beyond the NPT – A Nuclear-Weapon-Free World, Study Group Report, New York/Darmstadt, 1995.
  4. 4. International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, July 8; 1996; www.lcnp.org/wcourt/opinion.htm.
  5. 5. See the INESAP Information Bulletin issues published during this period, and the overview of activities in: Jürgen Scheffran, Wolfgang Liebert, and Martin B. Kalinowski, Beyond the NPT: The Nuclear-Weapons-Free World, INESAP Information Bulletin No. 25, April 2005.
  6. 6. Celinda Lake, Alysia Snell, and Alan Wolf, Findings on Nuclear Weapons, 1997; http://prop1.org/2000/970401.htm.
  7. 7. The Simons Foundation, Global Public Opinion on Nuclear
    , Vancouver, Canada, September 2007; www.angusreidstrategies.com/uploads/pages/pdfs/Simons%20Report.pdf.
  8. 8. H.Res 479, 105th Congress, 2d Session, June 18, 1998; H.Res.82, 106th Congress, 1st Session, February 24, 1999 (Woolsey); Resolution to the 109th Congress calling for nuclear abolition (Kucinich) www.gsinstitute.org/pnnd/docs/US_Kucinich_abolition_bill.pdf; H. R. 2545 Nuclear Disarmament and Economic Conversion Act of 1999 (Norton).
  9. 9. An Appeal to End the Nuclear Threat: Concerned Americans Speak Out, New York Times advertisement, 3 October 2000; www.gsinstitute.org/gsi/pubs/rsp_ad.pdf.
  10. 10. U.S. Mayors Ask Bush to Commit to Eliminating Nuclear Weapons, 25 June 2001. www.gsinstitute.org/archives/000061.shtml#000061; World Council of Churches 9th Assembly, Minute on the Elimination of Nuclear Arms, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 14-23 Feb 2006. The Rome Declaration of Nobel Peace Laureates, 19 November 2006; www.pugwash.org/reports/nw/Nobelrome_
  11. 11. 28 States Participate: Inaugural Article VI Forum, United Nations, New York, October 3, 2005; www.middlepowers.org/mpi/pubs/ArticleVI_Report.pdf.
  12. 12. G.P. Shultz, H.A. Kissinger, W.J. Perry, S. Nunn, A world free of nuclear weapons, Wall Street Journal, 4 Jan 2007, p. A15.
  13. 13. M. Beckett, Keynote Address: 8, Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, Washington, June 25, 2007.
  14. 14. Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, NPT/CONF.1995/L.5, 9 May 1995; Advancing the NPT 13 Practical Steps, Middle Powers Initiative, Briefing Paper, April 2003; www.gsinstitute.org/mpi/pubs/13steps_0403.pdf.
  15. 15. IALANA: International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms; IPPNW: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
  16. 16. UN Document A/C.1/52/7.
  17. 17. M. Datan, A. Ware, M. Kalinowski, J. Scheffran, V. Sidel, J. Burroughs, Security and Survival. The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, IPPNW, IALANA, INESAP, Cambridge, 1999.
  18. 18. For further discussion see: M. Datan, A. Ware, J. Scheffran, Nuclear Weapons Convention on Track, INESAP Information Bulletin, No. 11, Dec. 1996, pp. 4-6.
  19. 19. M. Datan, F. Hill, J. Scheffran, A. Ware, Securing Our Survival – The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, IPPNW, IALANA, INESAP, Cambridge 2007; www.inesap.org/books/securing_our_survival.htm.
  20. 20. www.icanw.org/news#NWC%20in%20global%20meeting.
  21. 21. NPT/CONF.2010/PC.I/WP.17; www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/prepcom07/workingpapers/17.pdf. See also the official NPT website at www.un.org/NPT2010/documents.html.
  22. 22. General Assembly vote on 6 December 2006, Follow-up to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, A/RES/61/83; http://daccess-ods.un.org/access.nsf/Get?Open&DS=A/RES/61/83&Lang=E.
  23. 23. Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Update 18, July-August 2007; www.pnnd.org.
  24. 24. See further: Chapter 4, Verification, in: Datan et.al., 2007, op.cit. and the references given there. Also see M.B. Kalinowski, W. Liebert, and J. Scheffran, Beyond technical verification. Transparency, verification, and preventive control for the Nuclear Weapons Convention, in: M.B. Kalinowski, Global Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Baden-Baden 2000: Nomos, pp. 61-68.
  25. 25. Several of these techniques are described in INESAP Information Bulletin Nr. 27, December 2006.