In 1944, famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr sent a letter to US President Franklin D Roosevelt, warning him about the urgent need to control fissile materials by reaching an understanding at the international level. A year later, in July 1945, the US carried out the first-ever nuclear test, ushering the world into the nuclear age. After the Soviet Union conducted nuclear tests in 1949, Bohr sent another letter to the United Nations, emphasising the need to bring greater nuclear transparency as a means to build mutual trust among nuclear powers. Today, 70 years after Bohr’s first warning, regulation of the use of fissile material remains a distant dream. As of December 2013, the global stockpile of fissile material is estimated to be above 2,000 metric tonnes, which is enough to make tens of thousands of new nuclear weapons. There are an estimated 17,000 nuclear weapons globally, with the US and Russia together holding more than 16,000 of these weapons.
The lack of precise information regarding the exact number of nuclear weapons, their delivery systems and quantity of fissile material remains a major issue. Due to nuclear secrecy in most nuclear weapon states, much uncertainty surrounds the estimated figures. Over the past decade, the issue regarding the level of nuclear secrecy has become a serious subject matter in deliberations by the General Assembly’s First Committee at the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conferences (RevCon) and the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) sessions. Some ‘recognised nuclear-weapon states’ voluntarily submit reports on their nuclear activities but there is absolutely no transparency in the non-NPT states. During the Cold War era, nuclear secrecy was considered necessary for security. However, in the emerging era of nuclear terrorism, the lack of transparency has become a danger.
After 1998, these concerns led the NPT review process to enhance the transparency of the nuclear disarmament process. In 2000, the NPT RevCon agreed upon ‘13 fundamental disarmament steps’, calling upon all member states to increase transparency and submit regular reports on nuclear disarmament commitments. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon included nuclear transparency as the most important agenda item in his nuclear disarmament proposal in 2008. He urged all nuclear weapons states to report information about their fissile material stocks and nuclear arsenal to the UN Secretariat. However, his proposal was not heeded. In 2010, the NPT RevCon also took up the need to ensure nuclear transparency. In the 2012 and 2013 sessions of the NPT Preparatory Committee, two coalitions of states presented ‘working papers’ on transparency. This initiative once again caused global attention focus on the need to improve transparency regarding exact quantities of fissile materials and their production history.
The utmost secrecy surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear programme has become a matter of serious concern for the international community, particularly since 2003. Nuclear experts criticise Pakistan’s nuclear security establishment for lack of transparency on its nuclear policies and practices that only fuel uncertainty and more fear. On the other hand, Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD), the secretariat of the Nuclear Command Authority, has always criticised the western media for slanted coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear activities. In the Pakistani media, information is generally shared only with ‘friendly’ analysts and journalists. Such lack of transparency may allow terrorist organisations to exploit weak links in the security of our nuclear arsenal but many Pakistani strategic thinkers remain in a state of denial regarding this threat. More or less the same culture of secrecy prevails in India and North Korea.
Earlier, I have argued on these pages that a fine balance between global responsibility in the nuclear security area and national sovereignty must be created to counter the emerging threat of nuclear terrorism. There are examples where countries have shared highly sensitive information with one another, including, under the Open Skies Treaty, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme and the agreement on conventional forces in Europe. The main goal of greater transparency is to restore public confidence by ensuring international accountability. Many Pakistani analysts, unduly opposing this goal, need to realise that transparency does not entail disclosure of sensitive information about design and engineering of warheads. Pakistan’s nuclear security managers must not feel uncomfortable while sharing official and reliable information about the exact number of nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles so that measurable progress can be made toward nuclear disarmament.
In the post-Cold War era, the search for hegemony through buildups of nuclear arsenals should have given way to the need for acquiring collective security and the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Many international forums, including the international Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Commission, the Tokyo Forum, the International Panel on Fissile Materials and the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament have stressed the dangers of huge nuclear arsenals and fissile material stocks being shrouded in secrecy. Five NPT weapon states — the US, the UK, France, Russia and China — met in London (2009), Paris (2011), Washington DC (2012) and Geneva (2013) to discuss issues of increasing nuclear transparency and taking confidence-building measures in this regard. Some unilateral progress in improving nuclear transparency has been witnessed over the past few years but universal support is necessary to pressurise all nuclear countries to share information about their arsenals.
As a first step, all nuclear weapon states should officially declare the total number of weapons in their nuclear arsenals in the 2015 NPT RevCon, along with the commitment to release subsequent annual updates. Civil society activists and media in all nuclear weapon states must fearlessly pressurise their respective governments to take this first step. Ensuring nuclear transparency is a global responsibility and Pakistan must not shy away from playing its part in fulfilling that responsibility.
The writer is a research scholar and a former visiting fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org