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Ban the Bomb!

Why didn’t the Nobel Peace Prize go to the Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

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Several months ago, even the most politically engaged Americans had probably never heard of either the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

That was no longer the case after August 21, when news broke of a chemical attack in Syria that led to the agonizing deaths of more than a thousand people. A U.S. military strike on the regime of Bashar al-Assad was only forestalled by Russian diplomacy, intense public resistance in more than one Western nation, and Syria’s agreement to join the CWC. Just a few weeks later, the  OPCW won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Chemical weapons have been banned all around the world since 1997 by the CWC. Biological weapons have been banned all around the world since 1975 by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

So why aren’t nuclear weapons banned by a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC)?

Obama’s Half-Promise

In April 2009 in Prague, President Obama told an adoring throng that he intended “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” His administration has undertaken some baby steps in that direction. Most notably there has been the New START Treaty with Russia, which placed ceilings on each side’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers (albeit placing no limits on either “tactical” nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear warheads sitting in a warehouse). There has also been an ongoing series of multilateral Nuclear Security Summits that focus on securing all things nuclear from aspiring terrorists.

But the president has rebuffed any kind of initiative inside his administration to define what an NWC might look like. He has not convened any kind of consultations with other states to explore how state parties might go about negotiating an NWC. And he has never even stated that an NWC is the eventual goal of American nuclear policy.

Yet a very elaborate and carefully constructed Model Nuclear Weapons Convention—the product of dozens of scientists, lawyers, nuclear experts, and former government officials, and based in large measure upon the CWC—has been floating around the nuclear policy arena since 1997. Every year since, always completely unnoticed in the United States but widely recognized elsewhere, the UN General Assembly has passed a quite explicit resolution on the matter. It doesn’t just vaguely announce support for nuclear weapons abolition. Nor does it consign that goal, as President Obama did in Prague, to a date “perhaps not in my lifetime.” Instead, it calls 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.”

But the U.S. government has refused even to recognize a new UN working group tasked with pursuing formal intergovernmental dialogues about the road to nuclear weapons abolition. Last month, at the UN’s first-ever “high-level meeting” on nuclear disarmament, a low-level British official—dispatched to speak to the assembled on behalf of the UK, the United States, and France—expressed the “regret” of all three countries over the initiation of the new working group, the convening of the high-level meeting itself, and “the push for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.”

The Chemical/Biological Precedent

The OPCW has been portrayed in recent weeks as primarily concerned with overseeing the destruction of chemical arsenals—today in Syria but previously in both the United States and Russia. But the fundamental raison d’etre of the OPCW, as envisioned in the CWC itself, is not just to authenticate the destruction of existing stockpiles of chemical weapons but also to verify, over the very long term, that they never again re-enter history.