UN, building, United Nations

In the last week of October, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Disarmament and International Security Committee adopted resolution L.41, which initiates a formal process for outlawing nuclear weapons. It calls on member states to convene a multilateral UN Conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” This has been touted by nuclear abolitionists as a game-changer. It is widely argued that a treaty seeking a ban on nuclear weapons, if and when concluded, would not only help “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” but also create a new normative framework that would stigmatize nuclear weapons and consequently speed up the process of their elimination. A clear majority of 123 member states voted in favor of the resolution, while 38 opposed and 16 abstained.

Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), abstained. This vote begs several questions: why did Pakistan decide to abstain? How would Pakistan view a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons? Will Pakistan participate in the conference seeking a nuclear weapons ban? What role can it play in the negotiations?

Public discussion on these questions has been almost negligible. Barring a few media reports, discourse on Pakistan’s abstention or the implications of such a ban on Pakistan’s nuclear policy is completely absent. Given this absence, one must delve into conjectural reasoning in order to answer these important questions.

Pakistan’s abstention appears to be driven by one of two considerations: either it abstained because India did, or it opted to play it safe on the diplomatic front since abstention neither entails risk nor poses a burden of moral commitment.

Does the decision to abstain offer hope? I would argue that it does not. The silence in the mainstream media and on public forums is quite telling. There is no effort by Pakistan to change popular discourse on nuclear weapons from a utilitarian perspective to a normative one. Moreover, this lack of conversation reveals that Pakistan is not concerned about the recent progress made by the international campaign to outlaw nuclear weapons, signified by the adoption of resolution L.41. It implies that Pakistan either considers the treaty unfeasible or it does not see it as a potential challenge to its nuclear ambitions – at least not in the foreseeable future.

The feasibility question is not unique to Pakistan. Doubts about the efficacy of such a treaty loom large, given the fact that all nuclear-armed states except North Korea either opposed or abstained from supporting the resolution. Many argue that without the inclusion of nuclear-armed states, a treaty will not have any substantive value. Proponents of the treaty put a very high premium on the normative value of the treaty, yet it remains to be seen whether norms will pressure nuclear-armed states to revisit their nuclear policies.

In states like the United Kingdom, civil society groups have been arguing that continued possession of nuclear weapons might hurt the relationship between their own country and states that reject nuclear weapons. They also argue that the stigmatized weapon will reduce incentives for commercial entities to invest in nuclear weapons development projects. However, such arguments remain irrelevant in the peculiar context of Pakistan.

Public discourse on nuclear weapons in Pakistan does not take normative considerations into account. In fact, Pakistan approaches national security issues from a realist paradigm that envisions the world as a self-help system. Pakistan’s refusal to sign the Mine Ban Treaty – a pact that is often quoted as a standard by advocates of a nuclear weapons ban treaty – betrays any prospect of norms influencing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policy.

Ban Ki Moon, UN

While L.41 is the first resolution seeking a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, several other resolutions have also been passed at the UN General Assembly and Security Council (UNSC) seeking nuclear disarmament. Progress remains limited for most. UNGA Resolution L12/Rev1, dated October 23, 2014, merits particular attention. Provision 9 of the resolution

“Stresses the fundamental role of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in achieving nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, and calls upon all States parties to spare no effort to achieve the universality of the Treaty, and in this regard urges India, Israel and Pakistan to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon States promptly and without conditions, and to place all of their nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.”

163 states supported the provision while 4 opposed (India, Pakistan, Israel and the United States) and 3 abstained (Bhutan, France and United Kingdom), and like resolution L.41, it was adopted by a heavy majority. Resolutions containing such provisions put Pakistan in a more uncomfortable position than resolutions that put equal pressure on all nuclear-armed states. Yet it is important to note that such provisions have also failed to stir discussion on disarmament in Pakistan.

In this context, Pakistan’s decision as to whether it will participate in the conference seeking a nuclear weapons ban will be contingent upon the participation of India and other nuclear-armed states. But like most nuclear-armed states, Pakistan may only choose to participate for the purpose of derailing or slowing down the process.

Pakistan will likely maintain its traditional position on disarmament: considering disarmament conditional to various factors including but not limited to equal security for all states and resolution of outstanding political issues. Pakistan sees nuclear weapons as guarantors of its security and survival. With this mindset, Pakistan has managed to withstand international pressure and stall the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) for many years.

Admittedly, prospects for change in Pakistan’s nuclear policy remain highly unlikely. However, a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons based on humanitarian concerns may help create space for a more active role for civil society in Pakistan. A serious attempt by civil society to explore the impact of weaponization on socio-economic development may foster a dialogue on an alternative conception of security, rooted in the Sustainable Development Goals. Such a change would be gradual, but it has the potential to lead to the eventual stigmatization of nuclear weapons.

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a four-part “Banning the Bomb” series on what a nuclear ban treaty could mean for India and Pakistan. In “Pakistan’s Perspective,” Ahsan Chaudhary argued that Pakistan is taking a wait and see approach to the negotiations. In Parts 3 and 4, Pooja Bhatt and Hina Pandey explore India’s approach to the treaty negotiations, nuclear disarmament, and how it will position itself on this issue in the years ahead. Read the entire series here.  


Image 1: Flickr, UNAMA News

Image 2: Flickr, United Nations Photo

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