A cure, not a disease

By Rodrigo Álvarez Valdés, August 25, 2014

In Round Two, my colleague Bharat Karnad diagnosed Héctor Guerra and me as suffering from something called Tlatelolco-itis—"a tendency to overlook those features of the Tlatelolco Treaty that indicate it is not a practical basis for universal disarmament." He argued that only an overarching US security architecture had made the treaty's establishment possible, and observed that Latin American nations "still fall … within the protective ambit of the United States." This, he wrote, makes their status relative to nuclear weapons "in effect, no different from that of non-nuclear weapon states within NATO."

Karnad's argument has some validity, as far as it goes. But he fails to acknowledge a key fact: that the entire planet, due to the range and mobility of nuclear missile systems, falls within the "ambit" of nuclear weapon states. Sometimes this "ambit" takes the form of a nuclear umbrella and sometimes it simply takes the form of a threat. So Karnad's argument—though it does contain a narrow insight—cannot minimize the contributions that the Tlatelolco Treaty has made to nonproliferation and disarmament.

Karnad makes a further error when he fails to consider the political will that underlies the treaty. If the status of Latin American countries regarding nuclear weapons is no different from that of non-nuclear NATO states, why has Latin America been organized into a nuclear-weapon-free zone since 1969 whereas no zone has been established in Europe—even though the Cold War ended in 1989? Non-nuclear European nations could certainly have organized a zone by now if they had wanted to. After all, they fall within "an overarching security architecture maintained by the United States." That they have not done so indicates that they lack the political will. Likewise, lack of political will is the central factor behind the failure so far to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Where the political will to establish a zone does exist, nuclear weapons are banned. The proof is the treaties not only of Tlatelolco but also of Rarotonga, Bangkok, Pelindaba, and Semipalatinsk. Karnad examines the Tlatelolco Treaty and diagnoses a disease—Tlatelolco-itis. I examine the treaty and recognize a cure—global Tlatelolco-ism.

Cutting both ways. In my own Round Two essay, I wrote that Guerra sees disarmament as a process originating from below whereas "I tend to view nuclear issues both from above and below." On reflection, however, it seems to me that the humanitarian initiative toward nuclear disarmament, which Guerra has discussed at length, may offer the best available option for approaching disarmament from both directions simultaneously. By this I mean that the initiative, if it expanded into a movement seeking to declare nuclear weapons unconstitutional on a nation-by-nation basis, could leverage the power of countries' most powerful political tools—their constitutions—and do so in a way that involved both downward forces by political actors and upward forces by civil society. Indeed, the notion of transforming nuclear detonations and their humanitarian implications into a constitutional issue worldwide could well be worth discussion in Vienna this December, at the initiative's next scheduled conference.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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