Ethics is central to the vision and pursuit of the good international life in a globalized and highly interdependent system. Underlying the struggle for power are ethical contestations over norms and values that define who nation states are.

The balance of power on its own cannot provide a stable global order; it has to be backed by a common set of values, and international practices appropriate to the values. The shared vision of a good international society, and the ethical principles underpinning them, find their most authoritative and eloquent articulation as the purposes and principles enunciated in the U.N. Charter.

Power and principles intersect at the United Nations and also on nuclear politics. Most countries have chosen nuclear abstinence because people overwhelmingly abhor the bomb. Their very destructiveness robs them of political and military utility and renders them immoral.

There are at least seven distinct ethical components to the nuclear debate.

First, nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane ever invented. Their lethal destructiveness constitutes an existential threat to all human beings, not just to the leaders, soldiers and citizens of the country that is the target, nor even just the countries fighting a nuclear war. Indeed a full-blown nuclear war would destroy the Earth. It is hard to see how any human being can claim and exercise the moral right to play God in making such a decision.

On the only occasions in which they were used as weapons of war in 1945, no one really knew the game-changing nature of these weapons and the historical evidence suggests that the Truman administration viewed them as an incrementally improved weapon of war.

The Catholic bishops of America in the 1980s and the ayatollahs of Iran today are united in the belief that nuclear weapons are morally proscribed by their respective religions. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest the ayatollahs’ pronouncements on this subject, branding the bomb as fundamentally un-Islamic, are any less genuine and authentic than those of the Catholic Church.

The second, related ethical concern is that nuclear weapons obliterate the distinction between combatants and civilians that is central to just about every moral code in all cultures and civilizations. Civilians have always been attacked amid armed conflicts and their rights and dignity violated in numerous ways, for example mass rape. But the ethical code, including warrior’s honor, has never held this to be permissible. It is hard to see how nuclear weapons can be just war-compliant with regard to the proportionality and civilian-combatant distinction requirements.

Third, following from this deterrence as a doctrine, even short of use, proves problematical. For the limited utility of deterrence (only the romantics and dreamers believe in its absolute utility) rests on the threat of inflicting mass killings on civilians.

On this point, in 1983 the Catholic bishops had granted “a strictly conditional moral acceptance of deterrence” in order to protect the independence and freedom of nations and peoples. In December 2014 the Holy See updated the religious prohibition and erased the possession-use distinction to place nuclear deterrence outside morally permissible limits.

Fourth, by fostering nuclear apartheid, the existing nuclear regime fails the test of inter-state equity. Possession of nuclear weapons is NPT-compliant for a tiny minority of five countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States: the N5) and for everyone else it is NPT-illicit.

In actual practice, however, Israel has never been subjected to normative sanction by the Western powers — the dominant international powers since 1945. Gradually over the past decade many countries have come round to accepting India and Pakistan (but not yet North Korea) also as de facto nuclear-armed states.

Fifth, countries lack individual or collective capacity to cope with the humanitarian impacts of a nuclear war. From this it follows that for the sake of humanity’s survival, nuclear weapons must never be used again under any circumstances. And the only guarantee of non-use is total elimination.

The initiative thus picks up on and updates the old World Court project in challenging the compliance of nuclear weapons use with international humanitarian law. Moreover, the leaders of the nuclear-armed states have an ethical obligation to inform and educate their citizens about the reality of incapacity to cope with the devastation of a nuclear war.

Sixth, if the consequences of a nuclear war are systemic then decisions on arsenals, doctrines and use cannot be solely a matter of sovereign privilege.

The same is true with regards to the safety and security aspects of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Because a bad accident in one country can have horrific effects in neighboring countries, they have the moral right to have their voices heard in the decision to build and operate nuclear plants to global safety standards: no incineration without representation.

Seventh, from inception the normative bargain in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has always been that those without nuclear weapons would not pursue that option; all States Parties would cooperate in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to anyone else; and the five with the bomb would enter into negotiations to get rid of their own weapons.

The first part in this three-way equation has been honored by all countries bar one (North Korea); the second part has been successful except for Israel, India and Pakistan; and the most glaring failure has been with respect to the third legal obligation (as per the World Court’s advisory opinion in 1996) to nuclear disarmament by the N5.

When the NPT entered into force in 1970, there were more than 38,000 nuclear warheads in the world, with just over 26,000 in the U.S. arsenal and under 12,000 in the Soviet stockpile. Sixteen years later, these numbers had climbed to over 64,000 (global), 24,000 (U.S.) and 40,000 (Soviet Union).

Spokesmen from the N5 countries perform Olympic-quality verbal gymnastics in explaining how this was in conformity with their disarmament obligation under Article VI of the NPT. And of course not a single one of them has disarmed even now.

The latest NTP review conference, held every five years to review and renew progress, collapsed in failure last May. This is further evidence that the NPT has exhausted its normative potential in containing and eliminating the nuclear threat. All countries that have them betray — through stockpiles, expanding numbers, modernization and upgrades already underway or planned, doctrines, force postures and deployment practices — the intention to retain them indefinitely as an anchor of national security.

This then raises the final moral dilemma. Tom Doyle of Texas State University asks: At which point do non-nuclear weapon states conclude that defection from the NPT regime is likely to be politically effective, is morally permissible and may in fact be the ethically responsible course of action?

An analogous situation is with membership of a club that discriminates on grounds of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. One can remain a member or even join in order to try and change the membership rules from the inside. But if efforts fail over many repeated attempts, at some point the decision has to be made to resign or become morally compromised with respect to one’s own ethical code.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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