The Scots are not the only people in the world with an aversion to weapons of mass destruction. The classic WMDs are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, two of which have actually been used in armed conflict. Radiological weapons have more recently been added to the list of horrors, but as far as is publicly known have never actually been manufactured. Not much is heard about the first two these days, probably because governments have realised that they are two-edged swords, that their use could trigger a cross-border holocaust that could hit the user as much as an enemy.

The 1975 United Nations Biological Weapons Convention (short title), which bans the possession and use of biological and toxin devices ('germ warfare'), has been signed and ratified by 173 states. An additional nine states have signed the BWC, but have not yet ratified. Its effectiveness has been limited by the fact that no special organisation to enforce its implementation has been set up, although support for this was virtually unanimous, because the United States under George Bush walked out of the negotiations, silently hailed by Iran and Pakistan. Adherence to the convention is presently supervised from United Nations HQ Geneva. Further related biological research, for instance at Porton Down in England, is now directed mainly towards methods of defence against the use of such weapons, perhaps by terrorists, and biological dangers in general.

The 1997 UN Chemical Weapons Convention that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors has been signed by 192 UN member states (Israel has still to ratify, while Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan have not signed). Here, by contrast, the UN has set up an independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that, from its headquarters in the Hague, is quietly supervising the destruction of all such weapons worldwide, with the cooperation of stockholders.

This is not an overnight task – dismantling these weapons and disposing of their lethal contents is a lengthy and extremely hazardous business, and has to be taken slowly. Nonetheless, the success of the United Nations when it is allowed to work without obstruction is demonstrated by the fact that, by October 2015, about 90% of all the declared stockpile of chemical weapons in the world had been destroyed under supervision by the OPCW, and work is continuing to get rid of the remainder.

Radiological weapons are the latest horror scenario, eminently practical even although they exist only in theory at the moment. The most basic such radiological dispersion device is the so-called 'dirty bomb' with a core of conventional explosive surrounded by a mantle of radioactive material. This would be distributed far and wide by the force of the explosion, which is itself of secondary importance, thereby poisoning a huge area and all life within it.

The Armageddon variant, known as a 'salted bomb', would use a nuclear core surrounded by a charge of material like cobalt (there are several other possibilities) that would be highly irradiated by the nuclear detonation. The radiation would be spread far more widely than by a dirty bomb, and could turn an entire country into an uninhabitable desert for all the foreseeable future, depending on the half-life of the fissile material used.

Radiological weapons are a spectre that is haunting defence and security authorities worldwide. The theory has been intensely studied, but no action has been taken to date towards outlawing such weapons. The moment any concrete plan to construct such a weapon has come to light the international community will react swiftly and decisively, but for the meantime there is still work to be done on ordinary nuclear weapons.

The worldwide unanimous condemnation of biological and chemical weapons has almost – but not quite – been repeated in the case of their straight atomic counterparts, whether of the fission or fusion (hydrogen bomb) variety. There is considerable strength of feeling amongst governments worldwide on the subject of nuclear weapons, and resentment towards the handful of states that stubbornly retain them. The entire rest of the world wants to see them abolished.

Unfortunately, there are politico-diplomatic factors in play here. The nukes are militarily useless, the former Cold War adversaries are now on the same side, and any regime that actually used them would be signing its own death warrant, even without a nuclear retaliation.

Who is going to incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in order to teach a lesson to a handful of members of an oppressive regime? To date, no terrorists have managed to get their hands on a nuclear warhead, and, if they did mount such an attack, who would deliver a nuclear response, where would it be aimed, and against whom?

It is not that such a danger does not exist, for instance in Pakistan, where Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have been steadily encroaching nearer to Pakistan’s nuclear test facilities, but here again the uselessness of threatening nuclear revenge is evident, not least when the perpetrators are more than willing to die for their cause.

That leads to the only remaining uses of nuclear weapons, as diplomatic bargaining counters and as status symbols. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the 'official' nuclear-armed states – China, France, the Russian Federation, the UK and US. All of them have an obligation under the 1970 UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including their own.

Another four states – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – have nuclear weapons technology (although test explosions are no proof of the existence of usable warheads let alone their ballistic delivery vehicles), and Iran had until recently been working towards such a status.

Here the purpose of nukes as status symbols is very evident – at least on the part of politicians and the military, because one cannot imagine the ordinary people of Iran, let alone North Korea, clamouring for such devices. The element of fear of attack is still evident in Israel, and to a diminishing extent elsewhere.

To the North Korean regime, nuclear capacity is also a negotiating factor for other purposes, and that was probably also true for Iran before its recent agreement on nuclear research. With the UK and France it is a prestige matter, and a diplomatic lever for retaining their permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which have long since been overtaken by global developments.

The United Nations is still beavering away at the permanent Conference on Disarmament at UN Geneva. Progress is already evident, especially in the ongoing reduction of the massive Russian and US overkill stockpiles of warheads (dismantling is once again a slow business, this time mainly for political reasons), while massive pressure is being placed on Iran and others to call a halt to any further proliferation. These operations are policed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, based at United Nations HQ Vienna.

That is one side of United Nations policy. The other main effort at the moment is being directed towards stopping nuclear test explosions once and for all. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have stressed during the UN General Assembly in New York that the UN Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is of crucial importance, because a ban on test explosions on the surface, underground, in the air or in space effectively puts an end to the further development of nuclear weapons, which is a gigantic step towards their ultimate abolition. It also eliminates further nuclear pollution of the earth’s atmosphere.

The UN member governments enthusiastically share this view. There is no more
popular organisation within the United Nations family than the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO). The CTBTO is the organisation that is being set up to police adherence to the treaty. It is one of a small number of international organisations that have fewer financial difficulties than most, such is the massive level of support it enjoys worldwide.

The treaty has currently been signed by 183 states and ratified by 164. However, its demanding entry-into-force provision specifically requires it to be ratified by 44 named 'nuclear technology holder' states. The UK, France and Russia have ratified, but another eight 'listed state' ratifications (by China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States) are still needed before the treaty can finally enter into force. However, only India, Pakistan and North Korea have so far broken the otherwise universally observed de facto moratorium on test explosions.

The US signed the CTBT, but later, under the Bush administration, declined to ratify it. However, the US remains a major financier of the CTBTO PrepComm, based at UN Vienna under its executive secretary, the eminently qualified scientist Lassina Zerbo. President Obama still has an uphill battle here to overcome the obstructive legacy of the Bush era, because he has to obtain US ratification by a Republican-dominated Senate that has consistently dragged its feet over the matter. Meantime, a number of states like China are waiting on US ratification before making their own moves.

Meantime, the United Nations has gone ahead with developing its nuclear detection system in advance of final ratification. The CTBTO, even at its preliminary stage of a preparatory commission, is installing 337 sensor stations all round the world to ensure that no nuclear explosion can go undetected. These detectors fall into four main categories: primary and auxiliary seismic; infrasonic; hydro acoustic (sonar); and radionuclide, some with noble gas detection, and with a number of radionuclide laboratories.

One seismic station is located in Scotland, at Eskdalemuir in the Borders. This network, more than 90% of which is already in place and functioning, alerts the CTBTO at UN Vienna within seconds of a nuclear event occurring anywhere between the North and South Poles and all round the equator (one station is situated right at the South Pole itself). The Security Council can then decide on sanctions or other measures against the offending state.

The mind-blowing high-tech monitoring system, using the world’s most advanced technologies, also has a number of secondary functions, like tsunami early warning and others. Scientists all round the world, who receive the results automatically in real time, are unanimously enthusiastic about having such a holistic view of the state of the planet that is available from no other source.

The status of the UK within this general scenario should be obvious. It has a treaty obligation to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including its own, and not to update them. It is the politico-diplomatic consequences of abandoning nuclear weapons that are uppermost in government minds in London, because from the military standpoint they are utterly useless and a waste of resources. As former Russian President Michael Gorbachev pointed out, they are deterring nobody, because they can never be used.

The United Nations continues to consolidate the advances that have been achieved to date by ensuring that there is no retreat from the progress that has already been made towards the final and irreversible extirpation of all these abominations. We are still some way off from complete abolition of CBRN weapons of mass destruction, but the ring is slowly closing around the fanatics.

James Wilkie is an author and former diplomat

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