Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  19 October, 2023

Nuclear Disarmament and UN Reforms

Image: Nexus 7/

This is a summary of Policy Brief 139 which is available with full references on the Toda Peace Institute’s website.

In January 2021, a global treaty came into force outlawing the bomb. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW or Ban Treaty) is the most significant multilateral development in nuclear arms control since the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) entry into force in 1970. It establishes a new normative settling point on the ethics, legality and legitimacy of the bomb.

The possession of nuclear weapons by nine countries did not suddenly became illegal with the treaty’s entry into force in January 2021. However, it would be false to claim that a UN-negotiated treaty, following a UN-authorised process and conference, has no implications for the legality and legitimacy of nuclear-weapon possession and practices.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has profoundly shaped the global discourse on nuclear weapons over the utility and limits of nuclear weapons as a deterrent and as tools of coercive diplomacy, the wisdom of having given them up, the incentives to either acquire them or shelter under others’ nuclear umbrella and, above all, the cataclysmic risks of an all-out nuclear war that no one wants, but everyone dreads.

By now we can more clearly see the near complete lack of utility of nuclear weapons. The presence of nearly 6,000 bombs in Russia’s arsenal as a back-up for the biggest ground war in Europe since 1945, and none in Ukraine’s, failed to intimidate Ukraine into surrendering. Kyiv has fiercely defended its territory, confident that, having failed as a tool of coercive diplomacy, nuclear weapons are not militarily useable. Their global political costs would exceed any battlefield gains.

Having already suffered severe damage from the illegal invasion, Russia’s reputation would tank completely were it to use the bomb. Nor could Russia protect its own troops, the Russian-speaking enclaves of Ukraine and even parts of Russia proper from the radioactive fallout. Thus, the bomb exercises a self-deterrent function.

It’s true that President Vladimir Putin has pointedly and repeatedly reminded NATO of his formidable nuclear arsenal, publicly placed them on ‘special alert’ and warned of ‘unpredictable consequences’ if outsiders dared to intervene. None of this has stopped NATO from providing increasingly lethal and highly effective arms to Ukraine that have taken a deadly toll on Russia’s military.

NATO has refrained from introducing its own ground troops or jets over Ukraine. Yet, it is debatable how much of this caution rests in consciousness of Russia’s nuclear capability and how much arises from internalised memories of the failure of NATO military operations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Moreover, NATO’s stakes in Ukraine are simply not high enough to risk a major ground war with Russia which would then be fighting grimly for its very existence.

Yet, the Ukraine crisis is likely to damage the already enfeebled efforts to promote nuclear arms control and disarmament. Russia’s actions will not reassure the 184 non-nuclear weapon states on their security concerns. But President Putin has said absolutely nothing to indicate any insane desire to widen the geographical theatre of the conflict to a NATO country directly. He has enough problems trying to subdue and digest the Donbass region of Ukraine and to hold on to Crimea.

With the adoption of the Ban Treaty in 2017, for the first time in UN history, the General Assembly asserted its normative primacy over the united opposition of the P5 geopolitical heavyweights – a reminder that rebalancing the Security Council-General Assembly relationship is critical for restoring the legitimacy, and therefore the effectiveness, of the UN.

In the broad and extensive agenda of UN reforms, the most critical and pressing is that of the Security Council. The ossified Security Council remains trapped in the power equations of 1945 and is therefore out of sync even with its core defining logic. Russia is not the only P5 member to have contributed to the growth of the widespread perception that powerful countries can break the rules of the Charter regime with impunity.

During the UN’s 77-year history, African and Asian states have increased from one-fifth to over half the total UN membership. The Western group has shrunk from one-fourth to one-sixth. Yet the global North retains its dominance in the Security Council, with 40 percent of its total and 60 percent of the permanent membership. Non-Western countries make up 85 percent of the world’s population but only 53 percent of the total and 20 percent of the permanent membership of the Security Council. Because of the Security Council’s crucial role in selecting the Secretary-General, the North’s dominance infects the choice of senior personnel throughout the UN system, including heads of departments, funds, agencies, and SRSGs and special envoys.

This erodes the representative legitimacy of the Security Council as the UN’s most critical organ and weakens its ability to make decisions guided by a full understanding of the development, security, human rights, and environmental dynamics in areas where peace is most threatened. It diminishes the UN’s capacity for effective implementation of all four normative mandates: peace and security, human rights, development, and environment. This is why structural reform of the Security Council’s composition, particularly permanent membership, is critical. But because it is highly improbable in the foreseeable future, the most likely trajectory is for the UN’s legitimacy, effectiveness, and authority to continue to erode, and the organisation, in turn, to become increasingly marginalised and irrelevant.

Amongst UN officials and UN supporters the world over, the flame of UN optimism is flickering, but in both senses: it is under assault on multiple fronts; and yet it burns determinedly. The Ban Treaty represents that flickering flame of hope and optimism.

The Ukraine crisis currently and a China-US clash prospectively add to global fears of a nuclear Armageddon, if not by design, then inadvertently by accident (system error) or miscalculation (human error). The Ban Treaty equips us with the normative framework within which the agenda of nuclear risk reduction measures, on the long pathway to eliminating nuclear threats by abolishing the weapons, remains critically important.

Some steps that we can actively promote to/through our government include:

  • Reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by possessor and umbrella states;
  • Take concrete steps towards fulfilling the NPT article 6 obligation to nuclear disarmament;
  • Acknowledge the normative step forward of the Ban Treaty;
  • Holdout US allies should engage with instead of distancing from the Ban Treaty. Germany’s statement to the inaugural June 2022 conference was especially constructive in urging TPNW supporters and critics to work together in the shared goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons;
  • Resume and revitalise nuclear arms control negotiations; and
  • Universalise no first use of nuclear weapons, including by China and the US in the context of Taiwan.

Related articles:

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Realising the UN's vision: Steps toward a new architecture for peace (3-minute read)

Reinvigorating peace: A critical look at the UN's new Agenda for Peace (15-minute read)


Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.