With India and Pakistan poised on the edge of war, it is hard to focus on much other than preventing a nuclear holocaust in South Asia. But even if the rounds of shuttle diplomacy manage to ease the tension between the two countries, any respite promises to be temporary unless the major powers finally fulfill a pledge they made 34 years ago to abolish nuclear weapons.

We are reaping the wages of sin, the result of a string of broken promises by the U.S., Britain, and the former Soviet Union that have finally come due.

Back in 1968, some 180 nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement that bound the major nuclear powers, according to Article IV, to ” pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race and an early date to nuclear disarmament.” The pledge to disarm was central to the Treaty, because without it, there was no incentive for non-nuclear nations to forgo the development of their own nukes.

But instead of negotiations, the major powers went on a weapon-building binge, including the development of multiple war headed ICBMs, and missiles of such precise accuracy that one side or the other could seriously contemplate a first-strike nuclear attack.

Lost in this arms race were countries like India and Pakistan, bound to a one-sided agreement, and increasingly nervous about the possibility of blackmail, with either nuclear or overwhelming conventional forces. After watching the power of the U.S. and its NATO allies in the recent Yugoslav War, India’s Foreign Minister George Fernandes remarked that “Before one challenges the United States, one must first acquire nuclear weapons.”

Aside from ignoring the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the U.S. also began cheating on the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The purpose of the Test Ban was to prevent the development of new types of nuclear weapons, although there was the side benefit of making the nuclear powers uncertain about the reliability of their warheads. If you can’t test, you can’t be sure they will work. If you can’t be sure they will explode, you might be more careful about considering their use.

But the U.S. figured a way around the CTBT by creating the Stockpile Stewardship and Management program, and a vast array of computers called the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, allowing the U.S. to develop new weapons without resorting to testing. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations claimed the NIF is there solely to test the safety and reliability of warheads. But according to Joseph Cirincione, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “There is no scientific justification for testing for the safety of our arsenal. The only reason you would need new tests is to verify new designs, new types of weapons.”

Indeed, the program has already been used to alter the B-61 warhead from a standard nuclear weapon to an “earth penetrating” nuclear warhead designed to take out underground command posts and facilities. India and Pakistan specifically cited the NIF as a reason why they resumed nuclear tests in 1998.

The Bush administration’s recently leaked Nuclear Policy Position makes it clear that, rather than abolishing or even controlling nuclear weapons, the U.S. is planning to opt out of the Test Ban and ramp up a new generation of weapons. “The Bush administration,” says Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association,” seems to be slowly but steadily moving in the direction of removing the obstacles preventing a resumption of U.S. testing.”

Earlier this month, the Department of Energy detonated its 17th “sub-critical” blast at the Nevada Test Site. While the test does not violate the letter of the Test Ban Treaty, it certainly does the spirit.

The recent nuclear weapon treaty with Russia, which purports to reduce nuclear warheads from 6,000 to between 2,200 and 1,700, does nothing of the sort. Those warheads will be stored, not destroyed, and in any case there is nothing in the agreement that makes anybody do anything until 2012. And either party can withdraw with three months notice. It also doesn’t even mention thousands of dangerous and destabilizing tactical nuclear weapons. To say it is not worth the paper it is written on is an understatement.

This is not the first time that India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war. According to Bruce Riedel, a senior National Security Agency director during the Clinton administration, Pakistan deployed nuclear weapons during the 1999 Kargil border dispute with India. Given the explosive nature of Kashmir, it is only a matter of time before some atrocity escalates the already tense situation into a war and somebody panics.

As long as the U.S., China, Britain, France, Russia, and Israel have nuclear weapons, we will all live on the edge of the abyss. The major nuclear powers must fulfill their pledge: the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

As Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize winning author of The God of Small Things, writes from her home in New Delhi, “Why do we tolerate them? Why do we tolerate the men who use nuclear weapons to blackmail the entire human race?”

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