Towards Nuclear Disarmament in South Asia: What Can Civil Society Do?

On July 7, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted on the text of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty prohibits the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons by signatory nations and bans developing, testing, producing, manufacturing or stockpiling nuclear weapons. It also bans the transfer and receiving of nuclear weapons and prohibits states from stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in their territory or at any place under their jurisdiction or control (Article 1).While most South Asian countries voted in favor of this ban, two populous, nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan, abstained from the vote. These abstentions indicate that greater public awareness of the goals of disarmament is required in both countries. However, this may prove to be a challenge given that nuclear weapons in Pakistan and India are still seen as symbols of national pride.

South Asia and the Prohibition Treaty

From South Asia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh voted in support of the treaty text. At three crucial stages, most states from the region maintained consistency in their stance on the issue (refer table below). Both India and Pakistan abstained from the process, claiming the treaty does not inspire confidence due to the lack of verification mechanisms and the absence of considerations of national security. Both countries refused to consider the Treaty to be a furtherance of the development of customary international law constraining the use of their nuclear weapons.

In 2013, India’s former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran denied assertions that India’s nuclear weapons program was driven by “notions of prestige or global standing rather than considerations of national security.” Even if Saran is correct and India’s national security considerations drove the development of its nuclear weapons program, the public has come to consider nuclear weapons as primarily a prestigious achievement, essential for India’s global reputation as an emerging power, rather than only a national security tool. According to a Lowy Institute poll from 2013, 79 percent of Indians believe that nuclear weapons are important for achieving India’s foreign policy goals. Similarly, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons also serve as a symbol of prestige apart from pure nuclear deterrence utility.

Nuclear Weapons as Symbols of Prestige

This deification of nuclear weapons legitimizes their existence by intimately linking them with national pride. In such an environment, any opposition to the proliferation or development of nuclear weapons is deemed unpatriotic and against national interests. This narrow-minded rhetoric further weakens citizen participation in debates regarding nuclear weapons. Ultimately, this prevents the democratization of the debate and concentrates power further in the upper echelons of the state.

As such, the global discourse must change so that nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as a pillar of national prestige. The conflation of nuclear weapons with global power likely has its origins in the composition of the United Nations Security Council, in which all five permanent members are nuclear weapons states. As chains of nuclear insecurity bind every nuclear weapon state to each other, unilateral nuclear disarmament remains a remote possibility. This is precisely where civil society and elected representatives can play a significant role in creating a favorable global discourse in an incremental manner.

Role of Civil Society

It is essential to create citizen platforms with broad-based participation to discuss issues of nuclear disarmament. Apart from sporadic movements against the acquisition of land for nuclear power plants, the public generally lacks awareness of the goals of global nuclear disarmament. For instance, South Asians Against Nukes, a platform for Indian and Pakistani citizens to keep abreast of nuclear dangers, was last updated in 2012, which speaks to the sorry state of cross-border dialogue on this issue. If citizens realized the consequences of a potential nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, they might participate more vocally in a movement against nuclear weapons. There is a need to revitalize citizen participation in building a movement against nuclear weapons that counters each country’s security-oriented outlook.

Two workable proposals appear to be plausible. First, civil society must push for a collaborative campaign at UNESCO to ensure school syllabi globally incorporate the disastrous consequences of nuclear weapons on the ecosystem, food security, and human security. Second, nuclear weapon states should be persuaded to bind themselves in a lowest-common-denominator treaty preventing the offensive use of nuclear weapons. Meaningful UN reforms, the delinking of nuclear weapons as a source of great national pride and international status, along with citizen pressure on states to engage in disarmament talks may be the way forward for a nuclear weapon free world.


Image 1: David Hills via Getty Images

Image 2: Indranil Mukherjee via Getty Images

Posted in , Arms Control, Complete Nuclear Ban, Disarmament, Foreign Policy, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nonproliferation, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Peace, Policy, Security

Ankit Rana

Ankit Rana received a master's degree in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. His interests include issues of geopolitics, nuclear deterrence, nuclear disarmament, cyber warfare, diplomacy, network-centric warfare and military automation. He has been awarded the UGC JRF fellowship in International Relations. He tweets at @CensureMotion

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4 thoughts on “Towards Nuclear Disarmament in South Asia: What Can Civil Society Do?

  1. In the near term, prospects for South Asian nuclear disarmament appear dim. Assuming that nuclear weapons won’t soon be eliminated from the subcontinent, what measures are available to India, Pakistan, outside nations, and international organizations that might reduce the risk of a South Asian nuclear exchange? But the recent defense modernization plan of India with the help of USA is making it more impossible where favoring one for their own interest will inflict grave damages to South Asia.

  2. In order to make UN reforms and treaties effective there need to be cooperation and understanding in between the treaties signatories and the very nuclear weapon states. Nuclear disarmament in south Asia is difficult or impossible or not depends on the current security trends emerging in the region, the attitude and behaviors the two nuclear rivals holding towards each other and the very role of external actors. There is a fine line between the disarmament proponents and the nuclear weapons proponents. And considering the India’s military developments and strategic trends its seems quite impossible to have nuclear free South Asia in the near time.

  3. The US, as a major global power, should carry on its efforts for nuclear disarmament rather than explicating justifications on its erroneous policies towards nonproliferation by such fact sheets. There is a necessity to address the subject on why the NPT was powerless to thwart India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and what the insurances are that the NPT will not fail again. The major problem for the NPT is the regions that are prone to conflicts i.e. South Asia and the Middle East, as the state will proliferate (horizontally/vertically) when their existence is threatened. Nowadays, the NPT is facing numerous challenges and the only option is to redesign it.

  4. Ankit:
    Well argued.
    Civil society has helped reduce nuclear dangers by opposing nuclear tests, first in the atmosphere, and then underground.
    Civil society has also insisted that the use of nuclear weapons in battle is unacceptable.
    These are the core norms for nuclear sanity.
    Both are at risk now in the US-North Korean standoff.

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