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Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Ultimate Insurance or Guarantee of Insecurity?

A GCSP Public Discussion

Current nuclear weapons modernization plans that span much of the century deserve wide international debate. Geneva offers an appropriate setting. 

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GCSP - Maison de la paix

A public discussion on “Nuclear Weapons Modernisation: Ultimate Insurance or Guarantee of Insecurity?” was organised by the GCSP and the NGO Committee on Disarmament on 2 March 2016.

After watching a video interview of the British Defence Secretary explaining the reasons, in his view, for renewing the UK Trident programme, the Moderator, Xavier Colin, asked the panelists about the rationale for modernising nuclear arsenals in the current context.

Ambassador Jorge Lomónaco, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations in Geneva, noted that the nuclear-armed states usually put the emphasis on quantitative reductions of nuclear weapons while refraining from addressing their qualitative improvement. The lack of transparency in this regard was an obstacle to a comparison between the nuclear-armed states. Furthermore, modernisation was designed to ensure credibility of nuclear deterrence, i.e. actual threat of use of nuclear weapons, thus there was no assurance that risk was inexistent for the vast majority of the world population.

Richard Lennane, from the Wildfire NGO, considered that modernising nuclear arsenals was a means of perpetuating their existence, in contradiction with commitments and legal obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states lost all credibility in opposing proliferation by states such as North Korea while justifying the modernisation of their arsenals by the need to protect their own security.

With a different approach based on acceptance of nuclear weapons as a reality, Bruno Tertrais, from the French Foundation for Strategic Research, stated that the concept of modernisation was misleading because it included different processes, such as replacement, upgrade, adaptation or downgrade, which did not necessarily create new capabilities or could even lead to reductions in firepower or usability of weapons. Quantitative and qualitative reductions were compatible with the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent so long as it existed.

In the ensuing discussion, some panelists considered that the only way of making the nuclear-armed states aware of the worldwide opposition to nuclear weapons was to fill the current legal gap and delegitimise nuclear deterrence by enshrining the prohibition of nuclear weapons in a new treaty. Others believed that only engagement and dialogue with the nuclear-armed states and states under nuclear umbrella, including their leadership and civil society, would be effective in allowing progress towards nuclear disarmament.


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