Outlawing Nuclear Weapons

By Fred C. Unterleitner, PhD


The government of the United States (and many other governments) routinely violates treaties that it has signed and ratified. This seems to me to be a major problem.


Our national governments, which actually have the power to take action, consider themselves “sovereign” in some legal carry-forward from the feudal system. This means that national governments can ignore treaty obligations when a treaty is inconvenient to the present government. At this time, there is no international body that can enforce the treaty obligations of a “powerful” nation. This has not been a serious problem for those of us who are citizens of the United States of European descent, since the violations of treaties with “native Americans” merely meant moving recalcitrant tribes to some new reservation by using the superior military force of the U.S. Army. Fatalities encountered in the course of these activities were mainly among the native “savages,” so the treaty violations did not upset the immigrant population. In fact, they just reinforced the right to expansion by our “manifest destiny.”

We U.S. residents of all origins are now living in a different, new and unprecedented situation, which has never before occurred in history. A relatively small group of us humans around the world have advanced scientific, engineering and manufacturing capabilities to the point where we are now capable of creating either unimaginable planetary destruction, or an equally unimaginable sustainable planetary home for ourselves and our fellow living creatures. But we carry with us the bad habits of governance from the previous ages. We need to recognize that we must give up a historical, but obsolete, practice of conflict resolution: threatening, and even carrying out, war against other nations.

In the post-World War II shock of at least 60 million dead and hundreds of millions of other lives devastated, along with much life-supporting infrastructure, a bit of wisdom crept into international relations. The United Nations Organization was started, and all nations have now joined it. The charter of this organization, which is part of international law, states (among other things) that

The Purposes of the United Nations are: 1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end:  to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace. . . All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

This charter was signed by both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in San Francisco in 1945. The Russian Federation is now the legal, veto-holding member, replacing the U.S.S.R.

Later, in 1970, after the continued development of nuclear weapons, including the enhancement of their explosive force by nuclear fusion in the “hydrogen bomb,” many nations, including the two major culprits in these weapons developments, signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed the treaty, hoping to avoid “loose cannons,” other countries possessing such weapons, setting off an unintended conflagration. However, they also accepted Article VI of the NPT, and under Article VI, “all Parties undertake to pursue good faith negotiations on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race, to nuclear disarmament, and to general and complete disarmament.”

For many decades, good faith has been in short supply, even when the government of Russia changed from the U.S.S.R. to the Russian Federation. The non-nuclear states are getting understandably annoyed by the foot dragging, in bad faith, of the nuclear-weapons states. They are considering putting a resolution through the General Assembly of the United Nations, declaring that possession of nuclear weapons is a crime, which it is — and a much worse one than gas warfare weapons, whose possession already is an international crime.

To a rational outside observer it would seem that there are now no disputes between the U.S. and Russia which would justify the mass murder of a minimum of tens of millions of each other’s citizens in a nuclear war. This puts a premium on eliminating those weapons ASAP, before someone makes a mistaken judgment. History proves that mistaken judgments by military powers are to be expected, but we humans simply cannot tolerate that possibility in the case of nuclear war!

I believe that a primary reason why this nuclear disarmament process is not happening is that operating, maintaining, and improving these sophisticated weapons systems puts at least $200 billion dollars into the economy of the U.S. each year through profitable defense contracts and the salaries and promotions of related military personnel. A small fraction of the $200 billion is enough to support the propaganda needed to keep the money flowing, because it “keeps America the strongest military power in the world.” That is supposed to make us U.S. citizens happy and unconcerned about the devastation it may bring. So far, most of us seem to be happy victims of this propaganda, and are sleepwalking toward an unimaginable disaster.

In May, 2015 another session of the NPT Review happened at the U.N. in New York. Every five years such a conference has been held to review compliance with the treaty. Only a few nations have refused to sign the treaty: India, Pakistan and Israel. North Korea has withdrawn from the treaty.

At previous meetings, the “nuclear powers” promised to make trivial reductions in the number of warheads they keep in readiness, but not to make any serious, good-faith effort toward enforceable, verifiable disarmament. This time, there was no agreement at all. However, more than 100 nations have signed on to the Austrian “Humanitarian Pledge,” which states:

We call on all nuclear weapons possessor states to take concrete interim measures to reduce the risk of nuclear weapon detonations, including reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons and moving nuclear weapons away from deployment into storage, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines and rapid reductions of all types of nuclear weapons.

We pledge to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, states, international organizations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks. 

Thus, in the near future it may be possible for the non-nuclear governments to get together in the General Assembly of the U.N. to declare the possession of nuclear weapons a criminal activity against international law.  We hostages of the nuclear weapons militarists should encourage such a move, and work to decriminalize our own governments. The technical feasibility of fissionable material control is described in the book Unmaking the Bomb by Frank von Hippel et al., but nothing will happen unless we citizens of the “nuclear powers” demand that our governments act in good faith to proceed with such a process, and abandon this most criminal of possible criminal activities.

For reliable technical information on nuclear weapons issues, go to the Federation of American Scientists at fas.org.

For links to the many non-governmental organizations working for the elimination of nuclear weapons, I find the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation helpful, at www.wagingpeace.org.

A good summary of the 2015 NPT Review Conference can be found at www.reachingcriticalwill.org.

Another useful source: Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation, Harold A. Feiveson, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, and Frank N. von Hippel, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2014.

Unterleitner_photo_3.jpg Fred Unterleitner came to the U.S. from Germany with his family as a refugee from the Nazis in 1939. He earned a PhD. in physics from Pennsylvania State University and has worked in research and development in several industries, including solid state and optical physics, medical instrumentation, and fiber-optics devices. He is treasurer of the El Dorado County Juvenile Service Council, a long-time member of the Palo Alto Friends Meeting, and a former treasurer of theMid-peninsula Sanctuary (for El Salvador refugees) among other community service activities.

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