The Many Dangers Of A Worldwide Nuclear Weapons Ban

A protest Wednesday in favor of a nuclear ban in Berlin.
A protest Wednesday in favor of a nuclear ban in Berlin.
Peter D. Zimmerman

WASHINGTON — This month, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will open for signature at the United Nations. Signatories will promise never to "develop, test, produce, manufacture . . . possess or stockpile nuclear weapons'; never to transfer weapons to other parties nor to receive them; and never to "use or threaten to use nuclear weapons." The treaty's aims, if they could be universally effected, are noble.

After all, the prospect of nations — including, now, an international pariah like North Korea — facing off with their respective nuclear arsenals is horrific. Their renewed use in war would be catastrophic. But there is a risk in aiming for total nuclear disarmament, because deterring nuclear war isn't their only legitimate use. Nuclear weapons also deter conventional war.

In recent decades great powers have fought proxy wars, but since 1945 they have not come into direct armed conflict. Through the Cold War, nuclear weapons kept the peace in Western Europe. Only once, in the Cuban missile crisis, did deterrence come close to breaking, but President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the rest of the world learned well.

India and Pakistan have skirmished in recent decades, but the realization that a conflict could escalate to nuclear catastrophe has contributed to the rival nations eventually standing down. The probability that Israel has nuclear weapons is the ultimate guarantor of its existence.

The porcupine theory sticks

Since the Soviet Union's first atomic test in 1949, the existence of nuclear weapons in many hands has not only deterred the use of nuclear weapons, but also made nuclear possessors and their adversaries think carefully about the desirability of going to war at all. When conflict has broken out, the nuclear deterrent has limited war aims to those short of total destruction of adversary nations or regime change. That's why North Korea has sought nuclear capability so fervently.

This is the "porcupine theory," advanced by, among others, the late strategist Kenneth Waltz: After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many states wanted nuclear weapons, not for offensive purposes, but as a hedge against attack by other nations. If peace is desirable, and it is, this seems, at first, philosophically unappealing; nonproliferation and nuclear elimination sound so much safer. But with obvious limits, this hedge has served as a practical solution to an intractable problem.

It's a good thing, then, that the U.N."s nuclear treaty is probably going nowhere.

For starters, the nuclear powers aren't on board: When negotiations concluded on July 7, 122 nations voted for the treaty. But the Netherlands, the only NATO country to participate in negotiations, voted against it. As CBS News notes, none of the countries "known or believed to possess nuclear weapons' — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel - supports the treaty. Sweden was the only country with long-standing, close ties to NATO that voted for it. Most states voting for the treaty lack the capability, or significant interest, in acquiring nuclear weapons. If the proverbial mice decide to bell the cat, success will depend upon the cat's consent to wear a bell.

And the agreement was rushed: Other international arms-control agreements, such as the prohibitions on chemical and biological weapons, on nuclear testing, and on strategic arms reduction have taken years and even decades to negotiate. The nuclear ban was completed after only a few days of negotiation in March and a few weeks in June and July. The treaty's language is unhelpful. The preamble includes references to an assortment of humanitarian causes, bearing only the most tangential relationship to the topic at hand: "disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples," "disproportionate impact on women and girls," and the role of the "Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement."

Trust but verify

Though "trust but verify," as President Ronald Reagan often put it, remains the core of any international arms-control agreement, the U.N. treaty presents a nebulous mention that weapons states shall cooperate with a "competent international authority or authorities to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons programs." A "State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons . . . shall immediately remove them from operational status' and later "submit to the Secretary-General of the United Nations a declaration that it has fulfilled its obligations." The mechanics by which nuclear possessor states rid themselves of their weapons are undefined. For now, the agreement relies on the honor system, rather than enforceable penalties for noncompliance - critical details kicked down the road to a document that doesn't yet exist.

Even if the document had been perfectly drafted, and had the leaders of the effort gained a measure of buy-in from nuclear states about their interests, total nuclear abolition remains a bad idea. As Margaret Thatcher said, 30 years ago, in a speech delivered in Russia:

"Conventional weapons have never been enough to deter war. Two world wars showed us that. They also showed us how terrible a war fought even with conventional weapons can be, yet nuclear weapons have deterred not only nuclear war but conventional war in Europe as well. A world without nuclear weapons may be a dream but you cannot base a sure defense on dreams. Without far greater trust and confidence between East and West than exists at present, a world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us."

The planet would be safer with far fewer nuclear weapons but more dangerous with none; and would be a way to prove all such weapons have been eliminated.

Some hydrogen bombs are small enough to hide in a coat closet -- verification of their destruction, in the absence of a yet-to-be-determined mechanism, and in the absence of a strong international consensus, is impossible. And the loss of the barrier to conventional escalation would be ruinous. Nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented. If the treaty's proponents had their way, the world would eventually regret it.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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