The Challenge of Nuclear Disarmament: Dis-invent the Bomb or Re-invent the UN?

I.  The Challenge and Objective of ‘Zero Nuclear Weapons’

The calamity of nuclear bombs and their destructive power was illustrated in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks that caused 200,000 deaths on impact and several hundred thousands of radiation related illnesses and cancers over the years. In the post cold war era, an intentional nuclear war between the USA and Russia seems remote. However, a regional nuclear war and the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and the use of a bomb in a suitcase are increasingly possible. Per expert reports, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, can cause one billion deaths as a direct result of the conflict and its associated environmental damage to food chain and human and animal habitats which are not only limited to the region in question, but cover a much wider geographical area.

Economically, even with no wars, the costs of preparing for war are costing every one of us and particularly the needy of the world, wastage of necessities and loss of opportunities.  Per a SIPRI annual report, the 2007 global military expenditures stood at $1.3 trillion, equivalent to almost $200 per person per year.


Elimination of nuclear weapons has been expressed as a wish in every public statement ever since the first UN General Assembly resolution, in 1946. Then why is it that after 65 years, these lethal bombs are still in the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) arsenals – awaiting their clamant use? Why the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) after 40 years has not achieved its Article VI goal of “nuclear disarmament”.

II. The Path to Nuclear Disarmament through the NPT

The nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, both pillars of the NPT Treaty are two sides of the same coin. One cannot be achieved without the other. In the 1995 NPT Review Conference, the year NPT was due to expire after 25 years, The Non Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS), agreed to extend the NPT treaty indefinitely, in the ‘grand bargain’ with the Nuclear Weapons States. The latter re-affirmed their commitment to ‘nuclear disarmament’. However, fifteen years down the line, the promised Conference on Disarmament (CD) has not been convened, and the NPT ‘grand bargain’ does not seem to be holding any water:

NPT in the eyes of the Permanent Five (P-5) and the Non Member NWS, is not a disarmament treaty, but an arms control regime, primarily to stop or, at least, minimize proliferation.

The last Five Year NPT Review Conference in 2010 produced no serious breakthrough in terms of concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament. Peter David, commentator of The Economist magazine, in a 2009 editorial points to the hypocrisy of the NPT, by stating: “… the nuclear haves pretend to believe in abolition and the have-nots pretend to believe them.” This state of “pretending”NPT is a disarmament treaty seems to have characterized all the previous review conferences since 1995.


        III. Is Nuclear Disarmament Possible Without Comprehensive Disarmament?

With the exception of the USA and China, which even without nuclear weapons, in terms of conventional armed forces will be the top two military powers of the world, all the rest of the nuclear weapons states will lose their world power status if they shed their nuclear arsenals. In the case of Russia, the United Kingdom and France, they will loose their great power status compared with existing economic powers such as Japan and Germany, or the new emerging power houses such as India, and Brazil. Further, in the case of the remaining Nuclear Weapons States of Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, based on their geopolitical situation or numerical disadvantage, these states even presume their countries survivability vitally dependent on their nuclear weapons. Therefore, in the absence of a global security apparatus or guarantees, in the form of a structure providing rule of law and a general disarmament, nuclear disarmament does not seem to be practical or possible. In the eyes of the nuclear haves nuclear disarmament is just a wish and rhetoric, not to be taken seriously.

The current bilateral and multilateral nuclear weapons treaties seem to be mostly concerned with arms reductions and not their total elimination. Even the largest and most globally participated of these treaties, the NPT, which has clear reference to nuclear disarmament in its Article VI, in the past forty years of its existence has been mostly concerned with non proliferation of nuclear weapons and not their elimination – thus preserving the status quo of NWS.

The challenges to nuclear disarmament are enormous. Most experts believe reducing thousands of nuclear weapons to hundreds is relatively easy, but reducing below 100, will be very difficult to technically and practically manage, monitor, and verify. Thus subject to cheating that most countries will be reluctant to go below the 100 threshold of nuclear warheads.

Besides, even with “global zero” nuclear weapons achieved, in light of civilian fissile materials availability, needed by nuclear energy, electric power generation, and nuclear medicine, under sovereign nation system, how can one prevent their diversion into nuclear weapons? Furthermore, what is to be done with the knowledge of bomb making? Can you “dis-invent the bomb”?  With nine countries already possessing nuclear weapons and a dozen more with the know-how such as Japan, Brazil, South Africa and Iran, wiping out “the knowledge of bomb making” from engineers and scientists mind, and the memories of laptop computers does not seem to be practical.

       IV. ‘Global Governance’ — Re-invent the UN: The Only Alternative

Concluding that nuclear disarmament is not possible without general disarmament; and neither one being possible under the existing sovereign state system where each country is sovereign in its foreign policy and military posture and not accountable to a supra government or a world federal government, can the United Nations be transformed into a world parliament with sufficient authority and enforcement to provide for rule of law and national securities at the global level? Does the UN Charter have the mechanisms to be ‘re-invented’?

The existing UN Charter is said to be the Charter of the World War II Victors. It was primarily framed in the years of 1942-1945, by the USA, the UK and the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent by France and China, which at the time were either totally or partially under occupation.    The UN Charter drafted then was not designed as a democratic world parliament and through the introduction of the Security Council and its veto privileged Permanent Five, it is inherently undemocratic and unbalanced. In terms of international conflict resolution, the UN has been incapable of preventing hundreds of small and large armed conflicts which have claimed tens of millions of lives since World War II.  Further, the United Nations has been unable to provide the mechanisms, the structure, and the rule of law; that is the necessary enforcement to provide for nuclear disarmament, which was indeed General Assembly’s very first resolution in 1946.

The UN mechanisms for reform and improvement are stipulated in its Article 108, the Charter Amendment procedures, and Article 109 covering the Charter Review Conference, also known as a General Conference.  Charter amendments, through Article 108 are almost impossible, because the P5 can veto any changes proposed. In fact, in the past sixty-five years only three amendments have been approved: two related to ECOSOC, and only one with relatively low impact related to the Security Council in 1963 increasing its membership from eleven to fifteen, with no changes to the membership of the Permanent Members or the P5’s veto privilege.

The only viable means of reforming the UN seems to be through its Article 109 Charter Review or ‘General Conference’. Although, the result of such a review conference still needs the concurrence of all the P5 members, the convening of such a conference cannot be vetoed by the P5 and in fact it was promised to happen automatically ten years after the formation of the UN in 1955. The San Francisco Promise at the time of the signing of the UN Charter in 1945, was a bargain that the veto privileged states made to the many ordinary member-states which were against the veto powers of the P5, (such as Australia, and Argentina). By introducing Article 109 Section (3) – where a Charter Review Conference would enter the Agenda of the UN General Assembly for 1955. In other words the promise was to completely review and possibly revise the UN Charter and its Security Council veto mechanism in ten years time. In 1955, Article 109 Section (3) was invoked and the convening of the UN Review Conference was put in the Agenda of the General Assembly. This was backed by a UN General Assembly resolution and subsequent concurrence of the Security Council that same year.  However, the Preparatory Committee charged with the task of ‘fixing the time and place’ for the Review Conference, did not come up with the ‘time and place’. Its decision was postponed to the following year. This postponement officially continued for twelve consecutive years. In 1967 the task of invoking the Review Conference mysteriously disappeared from the General Assembly Agenda, never to be brought up again; Thus the General Assembly not only failed to deliver on the San Francisco Promise, but the UN Charter Article 109 Section (3) was also violated.

With the above important caveat in mind as well as the validity of Article 109 Section (3) regarding the necessity of the Charter Review Conference, the convening of such a Conference is the only hope for major changes that would transform the UN into an institution with true and effective global governance capabilities. Only a type of world parliament through a transformed and democratic United Nations, with the necessary structures for judiciary and enforcement, will be able to provide the type of security guarantees that the sovereign states need in order to give up their conventional armaments and abolish nuclear weapons once and for all.

Transformation and re-invention of the UN into a ‘world parliament’, and a federal world government, is not a utopian idealism, it is profound existential realism. Albert Einstein, the acclaimed scientist most quoted on nuclear energy and its tremendous powers for construction or destruction, heralded on the year of UN establishment (New York Times, 1945):

As long as sovereign states continue to have armaments and armament secrets, new world wars will be inevitable … The only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of world government.


* Mr Sharei is Vice Chairman of the Democratic World Federalists (DWF). The above paper was presented at the International Security Forum International Day Conference on The Future Architecture of European and Global Security, held at Palm Beach Hotel, Larnaka, 29 May 2010.




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Art. 109 not the only Option for Transforming the UN
written by Rob Wheeler, July 24, 2010 

Dear Shahriar Sharei, associates, and friends,

I have participated actively in UN proceedings representing a number of NGOs for almost 15 years. Your article, analysis, and explanations are brilliant, insightful, and much needed. The situation you describe in response to nuclear weapons exists in many other issue areas at the UN as well. Though the governments have agreed repeatedly to do what must be done to create a better world for all of humanity; little of it (as compared to what is needed) has been done. Though we can be grateful that the UN exists, for it has set much needed human norms, has triggered an awareness of what needs to be done, and has resulted in significant (if not adequate) progress.

I agree with everything that you have said except for one of your final conclusions. You say, “the convening of a Charter Review Conference is the only hope for major changes that would transform the UN into an institution with true and effective global governance capabilities.” I don’t believe that this is true. In fact SG Kofi Annan tried to accomplish exactly this in 2000 without such a charter review conference and through his calling for a UN Millennium Assembly instead. Unfortunately, however, a number of governments opposed the inclusion of the topic of significant UN reform in the Millennium Assembly or even to include a Commission on UN Reform in the process. It was political opposition that thus killed these efforts in 2000 as well as again in 2005.

But the same political opposition would likely exist within a Charter Review Conference and process as well. You know Shahriar that I support the idea of holding such a Conference and think that it could really move humanity forward towards creating a more effective system of global governance. But I also think that it may be rather difficult to get the governments to agree to hold this and that if they do the agenda is likely to be rather proscribed and limited.

What I think is thus more likely is if civil society can get the UN to agree to make substantial improvements, even without holding such a conference, or in addition to holding such a conference. This could fairly easily be done through General Assembly resolutions. However, the most important decision to be made would first be to first agree that decisions on UN reform could and would be made either by invoking Article 18 of the Charter which says that all important decisions are to be made using a 2/3rds vote, and not with a consensus process (which is what makes it so difficult for the UN to accomplish almost anything), or by some type of a Binding Triad decision making process.

Once the UN agrees to do this, it can then make all of the other decisions that need to be made; but it will probably face particular resistance to doing so. Thus the rest of the UN Member States ought to point repeatedly to the failures of the UN to uphold its Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and almost every other international agreement, treaty, convention, and commitment that it has ever made. Which thus requires it to make such changes as are needed so that it may finally, after 65 years, do so.

Another possibility is that civil society, in conjunction with as many supportive UN Member States as possible, could organize its own Charter Review Conference. Indeed plans are already under way through WATUN to organize such conferences ourselves, in order to point out the weaknesses of the UN as it presently stands and what needs to be done to make it a much more democratic and effective body and organization. If enough people begin to support them, it will be much more difficult for the UN to ignore the much needed reforms.

In any case, thank you for your important article Shahriar. It is imperative that all of humanity insist that the UN be strengthened and democratized, in one way or another, so that it is up to the urgent and significant challenges that humanity faces.

thanks again,

Rob Wheeler
Chair, WATUN
UN Representative, Association of World Citizens, Global Ecovillage Network, etc
Core Team Member, World Transforming Initiatives
[email protected]



Challenge of Nuclear Disarmament:Dis-invent the Bomb or Re-invent the UN
written by Shahriar Mahmoud Sharei, July 25, 2010 

Thank you Rob Wheeler, for your further analysis of the article and proposing plausible alternative solutions to democratize and strengthen the United Nations. Mind you that Article 18 related to two thirds majority decision making at the UN is under Chapter IV and related to the General Assembly only. Further, General Assembly decisions, in international law, are considered “soft laws” and are not necessarily binding. The importance of a UN Charter Review Conference — which will be held for the first time, is that despite its legal limitations, it will put forces and dynamics in motion, that the P5 will not be able to stop or control. The result of such a global Conference it is hoped will be a 3G UN, more democratic and more powerful, and in the lines of a world parliament. With those foreseeable dynamics, even with the one or two Permanent Five that might adamantly oppose such a UN, will not dare to veto the outcome of such a Review Conference, since their veto will probably cause creation of a NEW United Nations, without them. Perhaps, the Model Charter Review Conference project that mentioned in your writing, can serve as a prototype and will simulate interesting results for us.
Sincere thanks for your contribution and Best of Luck.
Shahriar Sharei