Hawaiians woke up Jan. 13 to a text message warning them to take cover. It took 38 minutes for them to be informed it was a false alarm. After watching the panic that followed, Calgary researcher Saira Bano was motivated with an even stronger conviction that the world needs to protect all from nuclear weapons and eventually reach nuclear zero.
Bano, a policy studies professor at Mount Royal University, understands that as long as countries possess nuclear weapons, all lives are at stake because of the inability to control accidents or error.
“The chance of accidental use is always there. Human error can be there, technical error can be there, and if nuclear weapons will be used, we have seen in Nagasaki and Hiroshima how destructive they are,” said Bano, who specializes in military strategy and international relations.
One-size-fits-all nuclear policy doesn’t work
In 2015, Bano published a study on steps the international community should take in order to make nuclear materials safer, focusing on the United States’ agreement with India, which is one of four nuclear states that is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
“This is an extremely important issue,” Bano said. “President Obama, in 2009, declared that we need to make this world zero nuclear because this is the greatest threat to humanity, if these nuclear weapons are not kept safe.”
“We need some ideas to make these weapons safe from terrorists, from accidents and from natural disasters.”
In 1992, the United States signed an agreement with India, a country that possesses nuclear weapons but is not a member of the NPT and doesn’t fall under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The agreement removed all sanctions against India, making it the only non-NPT state allowed to trade nuclear materials within the international market.
Hoping to come up with policy recommendations to influence decision-makers in international organizations and the United States, Bano conducted her research to give direction on how to move forward with the four countries who possess nuclear weapons, but are not members of the the NPT.
Bano investigated whether it were possible for the non-NPT states to come under IAEA safeguards and if separate agreements, similar to the agreement with India, are the best way to accomplish this.
To determine the effects of the United States’ nuclear agreement with India, Bano interviewed 30 policymakers in Washington, who had a hand in the agreement. She also studied Indian press releases and government documents.
Bano concluded the remaining non-NPT states should not follow the template of India’s deal with America. Since North Korea, Israel and Pakistan are such unique cases, she said they need to be dealt with in a different way.
“We have to engage North Korea, Israel and Pakistan in a way that is least damaging for the regime. But at the same time we need to increase their stake in the regime, so that they have an incentive to make the regime safe and adopt all international norms regarding nuclear technology.”
Safety must trump politics
Bano hopes that the United States will be able to place more checks and balances on those who hold the authority over their nuclear weapons, as this will reduce the margin for human error.
“Extra care should be given to making threats or provoking your enemy,” Bano said. But she is concerned about President Donald Trump’s lack of predictability.
“I am always very nervous about President Trump. He has not been cautious in making nuclear threats and now he is the sole authority to use nuclear weapons and that makes me more nervous,” Bano said.
Bano’s next steps
Bano first became interested in the topic of nuclear warfare while living in Pakistan during the time the country became a nuclear weapon state. She discussed the celebrations in the country when Pakistan first tested its weapons in 1998.
“I was in high school when Pakistan conducted this nuclear test and we were super proud that we were a nuclear weapon state,” Bano said.
“But if you have nuclear weapons, it doesn’t mean you are going to be a great power in the world. There are other elements — you have to be economically strong, you have to be politically stable.”
At that time, the belief in Pakistan was that power came with nuclear weaponry. Bano soon noticed the negative impacts Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were causing the country.
“I realized that nuclear weapons do not work against terrorist threats. This nuclear weapon is not a source of security for us, but it’s a burden we have to justify to the world. Confirming our nuclear weapons are safe from terrorists, because there were concerns all around the world that if terrorists are going to get their hands on these nuclear weapons it’s going to be dangerous,” Bano said.
It was through all of this that Bano knew people needed to work at an international level to make nuclear weapons safe. She believes countries need to recognize security has changed and possessing nuclear weapons no longer leads to automatic safety but carries a burden the country must accept to keep the weapons secure.
Bano is working to publish her research in a book and also wrote a policy paper for a research organization, Stimson Center, in Washington on the steps needed to decrease the arms race between India and Pakistan.
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