International Law Will Not Save Us From Getting Nuked

By Patrick Hickey

Theoretically, international laws are designed to reign in the ugliness, scariness, and unruliness of the inherently anarchic world we live in. 

It is not surprising at all then that some of the issues that world leaders have tried to regulate are global climate change, wealth disparities, famine and international conflict. The latter is typically believed to be the heart and soul of international law. The United Nations, the most prominent intergovernmental organization, is at its core a global security organization. It is thus unsurprising the regulation of nuclear arms is one of the key issues that the United Nations has embraced.

View Global Nuclear Factsheet Visual Data

It is understood that nuclear weapons present a serious threat to everyone on the planet. Detonation of a nuclear weapon would cause massive loss of human life not only from the event its self but also after effects: radiation, retaliatory strikes or even radiation. It is not unreasonable, nor is it alarmist to note that at any point, and at any time, the detonation of nuclear weapons is a realistic possibility. A nuclear attack would mostly happen through two distinct avenues

The first avenue is a nuclear attack, where a non-state actor-say a terrorist group or a secessionist movement- would strike. How does the global society recognize this real threat? There are several reasons why international law does not work in the same capacity to regulate nuclear weapon deployments from non-state actors. The first is that international law, while affecting all kinds of people, usually limits its scope to what state actors can do. Secondly, any non-state organization that would deploy a nuclear weapon would most likely be an irrational organization and they would not consider itself subservient to international law. 

The second type would be an authorized nuclear attack, where a sovereign state would be the instigator. Consider this, the majority of people on this planet live in a country that has nuclear weapons, so most people in the world are subjected to the possibility of nuclear obliteration from both categories of purposeful nuclear detonation. The countries who have nuclear weapons, which there are most likely nine of, can have a great variety of types of nuclear weapon.

How many nuclear weapons do these countries have?

There are traditional aircraft dropped bombs, like the ones used in 1945 to end WWII in the Pacific, submarine launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, and missiles and rockets of varying sizes, ranges, and capacities. These more conventional nuclear weapons are called the nuclear triad. Two countries in the world are nuclear triad capable, Russia and the United States, who also happen to have the most atomic weapons by a long shot. The varying types and ever evolving technology that makes up these weapons mean that those pushing for nonproliferation need to constantly be on their game in preventing any possible issues.

With this in mind, it would make sense that not only international regulation of nuclear weapons would be incredibly involved and confusing but also would be a hodgepodge of different rules, protocols, and treaties. Not only do these treaties cross multiple jurisdictions and goals in international law, but the also are enforced by a variety of intergovernmental organizations IGOs and other supranational organizations.


Regional treaties, like the Treaty of Pelindaba and the Treaty of Tlatelolco, have combined to create what is known as Nuclear Weapons Free Zones. These have secured 111 states as state-sponsored nuclear weapons free, along with the moon, outer space and the floor of the ocean. The regional approach has been successful as much of the world, that is to say geographically, including the contents of Africa, South America, and Australia are now nuclear weapons free. On a more global level attempts have been made to use the platform of international law to limit the probability of there being a nuclear strike for a state actor. International laws regarding nuclear weapons often try to utilize a pragmatic approach. One shining example of this is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CNTBT).


This pact works not to ban the ownership of nuclear weapons but rather creates norms that would make states who seek nuclear arms capacities to be pariahs. (Apartheid South Africa and North Korea are case studies of pariah states with nuclear programs) The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was legislatively successful as well and also would seek to limit the possession or use of nuclear weapons. It does this by filling the gap between the legal aspects of the anti nuclear safeguards with the moral responsibility we have as people to not cause the destruction.

None of these laws, however, have been successful in ending the threat of nuclear war. International law fundamentally has very little enforceability. There are no jails for states who do not comply with laws that are set at the UN. Furthermore, states can choose which treaties they are signatories, and thus theoretically abide by. States can be sanctioned, they can be denounced but there is often little actual repercussions for states who misbehave. Recent events show this. Not only have we seen North Korea develop weapons over time, we have also seen then begin to use them to threaten other nations.


The United States, who is not a party to much of the active legislation on nuclear arms, has also responded with implied threats to nuclear action. Similarly, a standoff of nuclear proportions had been happening in interior Asia. China and India, in the context of a border dispute, have been having increasing tense skirmishes and issues that may lead to nuclear brinksmanship, or a state of a military standoff, similar to the conflict between India and Pakistan.


But international law isn’t the only way to regulate nuclear arms on the state level. One of the leading strategies is bilateral talks and agreements between two nuclear powers. The most famous example of this happening is between the United States and Russia/the Soviet Union. Some of these actions were just talks between the two powers like SALT I and II. Others, like START I-III, SORT, and NEW START are bilateral treaties that limit the number of warheads that both parties can have out for deployment. This helps to ease tensions of brinkmanship, which raises the probabilities of a nuclear strike. This approach has also been used to help find solutions in the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, in this case, a direct line.


It would appear that it is unlikely that international law will create any regulations on the ownership, development or testing of nuclear weapons that will improve the current climate. This is the case in much international law; in that when dealing with state actors it is hard to punish a rogue state. This, however, does not mean that the global community can not create change and make for a safer space for us all to live. With bilateral agreements and appeals to the humanity in all of us, we can work to build the world where we all can live without fear of being incinerated by a nuclear weapon.

Photo Illustration by Marist Business Visual Data 

Patrick HickeyComment