Is Peace possible in a world with nuclear weapons?


Is Peace possible in a world with nuclear weapons?

The movie “Oppenheimer” is still being screened in most cinemas around the world, captivating audiences with the gripping tale of the man responsible for creating the most devastating weapon in history. However, it becomes increasingly evident that the world urgently must divert attention to the most pressing question: how can we achieve a world free from nuclear weapons? If filmmaker Nolan caught the attention of millions of people, there are a lot fewer people who know about existing legal mechanisms to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.

Following this, I want to share my reflections on attending a meeting at the United Nations (UN) on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation happening at this very moment while we commemorate 78 years since the first and so far only use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For me personally, the existence of nuclear weapons is far from being something abstract because I was born 100 kms from the former Soviet nuclear test site. I know from my personal but also professional experience, the scale of the devastating impact of nuclear weapons use and testing on human health and environment.

Disarmament should be the end goal.

During the Cold War era, nuclear war was closer than ever with the Soviet Union and the US tangled up in a nuclear arms race, most specifically during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. To stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and prevent more states from possessing them, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT or Non-Proliferation Treaty) was adopted in 1968, entering into force in 1970.

There are three pillars of Non-Proliferation Treaty:

  1. The non-proliferation pillar (Article I, II) which aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
  2. The disarmament pillar (Article VI) which encourages states to reduce their nuclear arsenal and eventually achieve total disarmament.
  3. The peaceful use of nuclear energy pillar (Article IV) which establishes the right of state parties to NPT to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

NPT is the treaty which divides nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear weapons states. NPT ‘allows’ the 5 UN Security Council Permanent Member States (P5) states – the  United States, the Soviet Union and now Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom – to legally possess nuclear weapons. Four states, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, expressing opposition to this double standard, developed their own nuclear weapons over the past 50 years, and ultimately have neither signed nor ratified the NPT. 

For a long time, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was the only international tool legally controlling nuclear weapons and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Since 1970, every five years, States gather at the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) to assess the Treaty’s progress. In the three years preceding each RevCon, they also hold annual meetings at the NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom). These two-week-long PrepComs aim to promote the implementation of the Treaty and make recommendations for the upcoming RevCon.

This year, from July 31st to August 11th, state delegations, civil society organisations (including CFFP, represented by me), and disarmament activists gathered in Vienna to initiate the NPT PrepCom leading to the 2026 Review Conference.

More than 50 years have passed since the adoption of the NPT, and as I witnessed during the first week at the PrepCom, nuclear-armed states are neither interested in nor are they working towards banning and finally eliminating nuclear weapons once and for all. 

Disarmament is not being implemented, and this has been already criticised by many non-nuclear weapons states and civil society. Considering the continuous nuclear threats from Russia since the beginning of its full-scale invasion in Ukraine in February 2022, achieving the disarmament pillar of the NPT appears distant.

Nuclear weapons don't make peace.

Nuclear weapons are sold to us as something that is supposed to ‘maintain peace’ and keep us safe. This argument has been reinforced by “nuclear deterrence theory” and the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD).

Unfortunately, this argument is used to merely justify the possession of nukes.

To me, the notion that the most destructive weapons can somehow “maintain peace” is the weakest argument I would never be able to comprehend.

As experts fairly point out, the argument used by nuclear arms advocates that nuclear deterrence is a key instrument in preventing possible conflict and war or worsening the existing conflicts proves to be far from reality when looking back at the full picture of historical events. Keeping the peace and avoiding the Third World War is more complex than relying only on nuclear weapons as deterrents and ‘agents of peace’. I agree with Ward Wilson’s argument in his book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons:

“The history of nuclear deterrence has been distorted; certain episodes that might indicate failures of nuclear deterrence have been allowed to fade quietly into the background, while other episodes have been claimed as successes and given a prominence they may not deserve”.

Aigerim Seitenova, a member of the CFFP (Center for Future Foreign Policy) team, sits on a panel at the NPT PrepCom (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee). She is joined by three other panelists. From the left, there is a blond woman, followed by a man named "Zhangeldy Syrymbet" whose name sign is placed in front of him. Aigerim is seated next to Zhangeldy, and next to her is a man named "Benedick Kabua Maddison". Aigerim's expression appears frustrated or angered.

During the week I spent at PrepCom, I did not see any commitments from nuclear-armed states to achieve disarmament. Over a little enjoyable coffee at the UN building, I asked a colleague a question: if not NOW, then when?!

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is oftentimes characterised as “the cornerstone of global security” and the main tool to avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Here, in my feminist brain, I cannot avoid the question: “Security for Who? And from Whom?”. While 5 out of 9 nuclear-armed states party to NPT justify their possession of nuclear weapons for the sake of security, I do not feel a tiny bit close to feeling safe in a world with almost 13.000 nukes much more powerful than those dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

A sombre reality in fact: this justification looms as a formidable barrier on the path to a truly safer world. Relying on nuclear deterrence to maintain peace is something nuclear-armed states need to stop doing because clearly nuclear weapons do not stop conflict and war. Also, we never know when the existence of nuclear weapons lead to the full-scale (accidental) use of them dooming us to a nuclear annihilation with devastating humanitarian and ecological consequences

Our only choice is to eliminate nuclear weapons which are already banned under international law, namely under the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Ban Treaty or TPNW) – different from the Non-Proliferation Treaty which I’ve been mentioning until now. The Nuclear Ban Treaty follows and compliments Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on disarmament. But unlike the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Nuclear Ban Treaty provides better and more effective measures to achieve nuclear disarmament by prohibiting nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, nuclear-armed states or allied states have not signed or ratified the Nuclear Ban Treaty; By doing so, they continue to legitimise the possession of nuclear weapons instead of prohibiting them.

During the first week at PrepCom, I attended plenary sessions with states party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and side events organised either by civil society or state delegations or in cooperation with both. Those times I sat in a big plenary room, I could not help but notice the double standard when it comes not only to the possession of nukes but also to nuclear sharing. The US keeps some of its nuclear warheads in NATO states such as Italy, Belgium, Turkey, Netherlands, and Germany. These 5 NATO states are non-nuclear weapons states under Non-Proliferation Treaty but nevertheless have US nukes on their territories. All the while, during PrepCom, nuclear-armed states and their allies continuously criticised the deployment of Russia’s nuclear weapons to Belarus, a non-nuclear weapons state and a State Party to the NPT. Whilst this must be avoided at all costs as such deployment would increasingly threaten the security of countless people, hearing this felt somewhat hypocritical since the US has stationed nukes beyond its territory as well. Both civil society and non-nuclear weapons states criticise nuclear sharing since it is not in compliance with neither the Non-Proliferation Treaty nor  Nuclear Ban Treaty, and do not make us closer to a nuclear weapons-free world. 

NATO non-nuclear weapons states, such as Italy, Belgium, Turkey, Netherlands, and Germany (which, like the Netherlands, is committed to Feminist Foreign Policy), need to refrain from legitimising nuclear weapons and hosting them on their territories. 

The power of civil society to push for nuclear disarmament.

I left for Vienna without expecting much from the conference because it is based on a Western-oriented, cis-hetero and gender-exclusive treaty. The whole time I was at the UN building, there were many moments when I could roll my eyes, and sigh in disappointment, but there were also many moments of much-needed hope despite destabilising times we are facing now.

There were moments of interaction with delegates from countries which are against nuclear weapons, where understanding and respect prevailed over any justification for nuclear weapons. One unforgettable moment was the exchange of replies at the plenary between Russia and Ukraine. It was my first big UN conference since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression and I felt goosebumps by witnessing the strength of a delegate from Ukraine responding to statements of the delegate from Russia. I applauded the Ukraine delegate’s resilience since it is clear that ‘debating’ during an ongoing war with the aggressor country which threatens to use nuclear weapons is everything but an easy task.

I wholeheartedly applaud the unwavering dedication of civil society organisations, like-minded states, and individuals who do not give up on this crucial fight.

I draw my inspiration and motivation from civil society. Witnessing much-needed solidarity during PrepCom is something that gives me an enormous amount of strength and inspiration to keep going. As a relatively new expert to this field and an Asian woman affected by the nuclear testing, I oftentimes feel excluded from the field which glorifies male dominance. But seeing so many like-minded people at the forefront of the common battle against nukes is refreshing and quite hopeful. 

On the first day of NPT PrepCom, I spoke about the nexus between nuclear justice and climate justice from a feminist perspective at an event organised by ICAN Germany, Kazakhstan and Marshallese Educational Initiative. In my speech, I made sure to highlight that there is no nuclear justice without climate and gender justice. It is very disheartening to see how nuclear justice remains oftentimes side-lined at the NPT. However, communities affected by nuclear testing made sure to be heard at the side events and country statements emphasising the role of the Nuclear Ban Treaty (TPNW) in victims’ assistance and environmental remediation. 

Germany, a nuclear-sharing state, for example, in its Feminist Foreign Policy guidelines, committed to ‘supporting efforts to recognise and compensate the victims of nuclear tests’ while not being a party to the Nuclear Ban Treaty (TPNW). I am convinced that these commitments must be implemented by nuclear-armed and allied states to achieve nuclear justice for people disproportionately affected by nuclear testing programs.

We must not forget that the existence of nuclear weapons reproduces power inequalities. As a feminist, I am hoping to see the world free from nuclear weapons, not a world with weapons that strongly reinforce patriarchy and unjust global order.

Attending NPT PrepCom has cemented both hopes for peace and the despair of the current reality we live in, with almost 13,000 nuclear warheads scattered in different places around the world we are meant to love and cherish.

Let’s not forget the price which has already been paid.

On my way to Vienna early in the morning on the 31st of July, a quote from Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, raced through my sleep-deprived mind.  When Setsuko was seeking a way out from the school destroyed by the US atomic bomb in 1945, a man trying to help her said:

“Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.”

The struggle for a world free from nuclear weapons feels like crawling towards a light that, at times, seems unreachable. This light has been dimmed by the mere creation of the atomic bomb, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and hundreds of nuclear tests.

As a third-generation survivor of the Soviet Nuclear testing in my hometown in Kazakhstan, I cannot help but wonder how we all define peace in a world with nuclear weapons. Sitting in a room with hundreds of diplomats speaking about nuclear weapons made me reflect on how we, as human beings, are responsible for maintaining peace in this world.

In these reflections, there is no place for nuclear weapons. I stand firm on this.

This article was written by:

Aigerim Seitenova is Project Manager for our Peace and Security Programme.

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