February 5, 2007

This week the world in the form of the United Nations has been striving to restrain the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear activity. On the farnarkling involved more below, but this geopolitical drama has highlighted one of the crucial issues facing the global culture in the twenty-first century.

Who has the right to have nuclear weapons? Or to put it technically by what legitimate process are states entitled to possess nuclear weapons.

Rights are bestowed by states which uphold and institutionalise them. Schappelle Corby, by example, was convicted of drug trafficking a crime in which the standard burden of proof is reversed. Contrary to conventional opinion the Indonesian justice system normally places the burden of proof on the state except in the event of drug trafficking in which the accused has to show on the balance of evidence that they hadn’t anything to do with the drugs placed about their person. This same reversal of proof with respect to drug trafficking exists in Australia. Rights are not immutable they are proscribed by statute and can vary. Corby’s rights if she’d been accused of murder would’ve been different.

The right to nukes is a pickle. Nukes are kept by states not within states (fingers crossed). Who or what bestows upon states the right to bear a nuclear arsenal? The strict answer is no-one and nothing. The United Nations is not a government in that sense although it bears many marks of one: it has a large bureaucracy for example, But it’s fundamental role is that of a voluntary association of nations formed at least partially because of the invention of atomic weaponry.

Ergo it can’t grant or withhold ‘rights’ to bear arms. That’s a matter that states decide for themselves. Hence, moral objections aside, every state has the ‘right’ to bear a nuclear arsenal no matter how irresponsible.

Of course there is international law and the United Nations does make noise about the issue. However due both to the Byzantine nature of the U.N.’s political farnarckling and the unwillingness of nations to surrender sovereignty there is no force that can compel a cease and desist with anything like a national justice system’s effectiveness.

The closest things the world has to an enforcement of limits to nuclear weaponry are the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NNPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency, set up in 1957, exists to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology; the treaty signed in 1968 furthers this aim by limiting the possession of nuclear weaponry to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the only states that had the bomb in ‘68. Since this time the number of nations thought to possess the bomb has grown to nine. India and Pakistan (who never signed) have both tested nuclear weapons. Israel (also a non-signer) is thought to have the bomb although this remains unconfirmed and earlier this year North Korea (who signed, then withdrew) tested a small nuclear device.

Thus despite international efforts to limit the spread of atomic weapons, they have spread. This is pretty much because there is nothing that compels nations to comply with international pressure. The use of sanctions notwithstanding one cannot lock a whole country up in prison. Therefore nuclear weapons can be developed if a nation has the resources and will to do so.

Currently the international community is attempting to head of what is perceived to be an attempt by the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The UNSC has, after extended negotiations in which the United States/Britain faced off against Russia/China, authorised sanctions to bring Iran to heel. Russia is in the nuke energy business with Iran and don’t want the possibility that its client is making the bomb to spoil the party. Thus Russia amended the resolution to spare Iran’s legal nuclear activity: that is the Russian financed heavy water plant at Busher. Dealmaking like this is the UNSC’s par.

Iran responded . It’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif declared, “A nation is being punished for exercising its inalienable rights.”. The republic’s foreign ministry “considers the new UN Security Council resolution … an extralegal act outside the frame of its responsibilities and against the UN Charter,”. Iran not only maintains that it’s rights to nuclear technology are inalienable but that the UN is exceeding its authority.

Iran therefore says effectively – the United Nations has no business telling us what to do: similar to North Korea who’ve likewise ignored international pressure to halt their bomb program. As much as we’d prefer it otherwise, this challenge to international authority in addition to the other states that have developed nuclear weaponry despite international criticism effectively demonstrates that the UNSC has no authority. Obedience to its dictates is voluntary.

That Iranians ignore it is understandable. If I was the enemy of the United States and they’d invaded my neighbour I’d want the bomb too. However, criticisms of the United States standing, do we really want a world in which dictatorships can obtain and use nuclear weapons?

If you answer no, sorry. We already have one.

The Soviet Union was of course a dictatorship. The transition to democracy still has a long way to travel for former Soviet States including and especially Russia. China’s still a one-party state. Pakistan’s stable only in the event of military dictatorship. India’s a democracy but with a history of assassinations and civil strife. Israel is a democracy with quite a political kaleidoscope, many changes of government all coalitions of various kinds and a hostile neighbourhood. The United States, France and Britain are the cradles of modern democracy but also with histories of civil strife and assassination.

And of course there’s North Korea. The nuclear family is not a happy one.

By what right have these nations developed nuclear weapons? By none bestowed in a legal sense. Ancient convention stipulates that nations have a right to defend themselves. Historically they haven’t an inalienable right to sovereignty. If a stronger power conquered you that was life.

Nuclear weapons in many ways guarantee sovereignty to the nation that possesses them. If Australia has a nuke we wouldn’t need America, militarily. No matter the war fever amongst generals in Indonesia, Malaysia or elsewhere in the neighbourhood, nukes are the great leveller. This is the reason India and Pakistan have acquired them. It is the reason Iran seeks to.

The United Nations was set up to put a halt to the nation poaching which characterises much of history. After Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy made efforts to grab themselves a slice of the imperial pie the world seemed to reach a consensus and the moral tide went against empire building. Gradually the old European empires either self-dismantled (ie Britain) or were forced to do so by local independence movements (France) or both. The UN was also set up to civilize world relations in the face of the massive destructive power suggested by atomic weaponry.

The only trouble is it doesn’t work. Unlike the relationships between states and individuals a supra state body cannot impose loss of liberty or life as punishment for law breaking. International conventions therefore have exactly the force of verbal contracts made in a stateless territory. They have substance if the parties involved decide to honour them. If they don’t too bad.

That the UN is too mired in bureaucracy and special interest to adequately police the world is apparent. Partially the problem is the existence of 5 permanent members of the UNSC. As indicated above in its efforts to deal with Iran concessions had to be made to Russia who wish to guarantee their interests in the region. It doesn’t matter if the watering down of sanctions might provide a loophole through which Iran can continue to develop atomic weaponry. The UNSC is stuck. Each permanent UNSC member can veto whatever resolution is proposed and will do so if it runs contrary to its interests. This is certainly anti-democratic. It is also a fatal encumbrance on an institution which is the closest thing the world has to a global lawmaker.

If the United States want to go gallivanting about like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Libert Valance all well and good. Trouble is they don’t have the resources to topple every nasty regime in the world and building nice new democracies out of smoking rubble is still beyond their skill-set range. More to the point if they only go to war for democracy in places with suspiciously large quantities of resources vital to the US economy they will lose credibility more than somewhat.

The fact of the matter is that the US does not have the resources or will to go around imposing democracy on other places. Even in the event they were able to do so to conquer a place and force a new system of government on people there is impractical and fundamentally anti-democratic. One cannot talk about rights if one isn’t willing to honour those rights oneself. And by what right does America impose order on the world?

This is not to demonise America. Oil aside the neo-conservative agenda in Iraq has been partially motivated by the desire to spread democracy globally. One should respect the intention if deploring the tactics. The world would undoubtedly be better if governments were universally answerable to their people.

What the world needs now is some way of imposing order on the various nations that make up its membership. This will require a universal agreement on basic values. How this can be done is a good question because currently unanswerable. When?

Quite a while I’d say.


6 Responses to “THE RIGHT TO NUKE.”

  1. […] post by ADRIENSWORDS and software by Elliott Back Share and Enjoy:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where […]

  2. […] In relations to the rights of nations I considered this issue at my place in an article entitled The Right To Nuke which considered whether or no Iran has a ‘right’ to nuclear […]

  3. Interesting post Adrien. The right of a nation to defend itself could, arguably validate attempts to prevent potentially volatile nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. At some point, although the knee jerk reaction is to afford all states the same onus of responsibility it seems likely to me that common sense has to prevail where a state plainly refuses to adhere to commonly accepted standards.

    While states like Iran are entitled to make the argument that they have the same rights to military expansion as, say the US, the US and others aren’t beholden to accept that right when by doing so they may be placing their own capacity for defence at risk. The nuclear deterrent has an important part to play in US defence policy and the more non friendly states that control nuclear weapons the less effective the deterrent.

    Removing a states ability to wield that deterrent can be viewed as a threat. Putin’s response to the, ‘Son of Star Wars’ project, as effectively an attack on Russia’s nuclear deterrent is a good example. And I doubt that the US would think much differently to Putin if the shoe were on the other foot.

    Since the UN does lack the claws to prevent states acquiring nuclear capabilities this isn’t simply because of, ‘bureaucracy and special interest’. It’s helped, at least in part by the same problems raised in your post, it is unable to reach a happy consensus on exactly what the limitations of a states rights are. Even when the application of those rights might impact on the rights of other states.

    The UN’s sad history of failures to prevent human rights abuses, including genocide, stem from an even more controversial and unresolved issue of the legitimacy of cultural traditions and the western-democratic notion of inalienable human rights.

    All of this helps to establish a scenario where western-democratic states are left to protect their own sovereignty against enemy states. Regardless of whether the UN is able to arrive at a consensus on whether the perceived threat is actually illegal or not. It is reasonable to accept that as far as the US and others are concerned no enemy state has a right to nuclear weapons, it is terribly difficult to imagine a scenario where the UN could ever arrive at any sort of decision.

    As the US is a pivotal partner with Australia, and we share many cultural and political traditions it is equally reasonable that Australian governments should feel the same way. While it might be interesting to ponder whether such a stance is entirely ethical, and even to give weight to the consideration that other states may well feel the same way, since we are talking about a world that is still divided into foe and friend the question has to remain academic.

    The UN spends far too much time pondering this very question, it is one of the reasons it fails routinely to come up with a consensus on important matters, including the nuclear issue. Until it can overcome this problem we are left with the notions of statehood as western-democratic states see it, unless we choose to back the enemy, and currently such states are firmly in the, ‘nobody has a right to own nuclear weapons except um.. us’ camp.

  4. Thanks <a href=””Xavier, welcome.

    You write: While states like Iran are entitled to make the argument that they have the same rights to military expansion as, say the US…

    I’d make the point that neither the US nor anyone else has the right to expansion. Wars of conquest are one of those things that the UN was constructed to help put behind us. Of course there are well-established problems with trying to change the world via government decree especially when it’s actually not really a government. And for the same reason that Iran has the right to nukes everyone has the right to expansion. International law will only be enforcable if the expansion threatens to interests of dominant states.

    it seems likely to me that common sense has to prevail where a state plainly refuses to adhere to commonly accepted standards.

    And that is at the heart of the ineffectiveness of the UN far more than any other question. The truth is there are no commonly accepted standards globally speaking. There are a number of mainly linguisitc spheres of influence: the Anglosphere, the Wogosphere, the Islamasphere (in which Persia is despised minority), the Slavisphere etc. These simplistic nomenclatures nevertheless identify certain truisms about shared values etc. Of course there is infinite division even with these large and morphous unties.

    I digress. The UN has problems because it must integrate things that are incompatable: democracy and dictatorship; egalitarian association and imperial domination; tradition and modernity. The result is a haze of feel-good declaration, routine realipolitik and the accomodation of the same old games of manouvre, deciept, disrespect and cruelty. Under the system Kim Jong-il has the same voting rights as 21 million Australians who have the same voting rights as 250 million Americans.

    This is obviously a gerrymander but to arrange for an acceptable voting system would be politically impossible. Just imagine the Indonesian resistance, for example, of giving it’s various disgruntled islands independent voices in the General Assembly? Or having the Balkans elect one person to represent all of them?

    On the other hand you have the five permanent members of the UNSC as set by the end of the second World War. Any action contrary to their interests is vetoed thereby maintaining the international status quo.

    The point of my article is not to support Iran’s attempt to manufacture nuclear weapons. I don’t support anyone’s attempts to manufacture nuclear weapons. I merely question the rhetoric that deprives them of their rights to do so. I argue from a legal positivist persepective that rights are bestowed by states they don’t exist a priori.

    Iran feels threatened by the US (it isn’t actually an expansionist state, or not recently) so it acquires a deterrant. This is a threat to the US insofar as it threatens its interests, its influence, its allies and possibly the lives of its citizens.

    That is the game of statecraft as its been played. I’m not an irrational critic of the Anglosphere but I do resist what I understand to be imperial tactics from a nation whose founders rejected such. That said eventually either democracy or otherwise will prevail. I support democracy. I do however have my doubts that democracy will effectively bring the world’s states to order. Politically that has only effectively been done via authoritarian means which is why organizations like the UN are strenuously resisted by libertarians.

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