Identifying Principles for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World: The Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan as a Relevant Guide


Since its birth as a nation state in 1947, India has never wavered in its desire for a nuclear weapons-free world (NWFW). Over nearly six and a half long decades, the country has presented several proposals and introduced many resolutions – some spanning at least three decades uninterrupted – at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), as well as identifying steps to realise the abolition of nuclear weapons. The most comprehensive of these actions was the Action Plan for a Nuclear Weapon Free and Non-violent World Order, (loosely referred to as the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan, or the RGAP). Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi presented the RGAP to the Third Special Session on Disarmament of the UNGA in 1988. The document laid out an elaborate three-phase plan to progressively proceed toward nuclear abolition. Had this roadmap been followed, we would have already achieved a nuclear weapons-free world today. But, this was not to be. Within a world then steeped in the Cold War mindset, the idea proved to be ahead of its time and did not receive the attention it deserved.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, many other countries and non-governmental organisations have offered reports and road maps to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. In fact, in the three years immediately preceding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Confer-ence in May 2010, there was a near frenzy of writ-ings, commissions and seminars on the desirability and feasibility of a world free of nuclear weapons. As expected, much of the noise subsided after 2010 and only a few nuclear abolition loyalists continue to strive for universal nuclear disarmament – despite the fact that for all nuclear-armed States, it’s business as usual.

Indeed, a brief look into the present policy posi-tions of nuclear weapon-States reveals the steadfast influence of these weapons on national security strategies. The U.S. sets the tone of the discourse on nuclear issues. Despite President Obama’s unprecedented speech in April 2009 however – where he signalled a U.S. desire to make efforts at moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons, thereby rendering the idea of disarmament fashionable – nothing has really changed in the U.S. nuclear strategy, except operating at reduced numbers. President Obama may have received the Nobel Peace Prize for the mere expression of his desire for nuclear abolition during his first term in office, yet he could achieve little by way of pushing his administration, and especially the Pentagon to make any meaningful progress towards this end. Will he be able to do any better during his second term? It is too early to guess. Nothing in his officials statements provides any concrete indication of where he places nuclear disarmament amongst his priorities. But unless the U.S. somehow indicates a serious commitment to this objective, it is unlikely to succeed elsewhere.

Russia, meanwhile, harbours no enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament at the time being. Moscow is in fact quite vocal in its opposition to even considering further reductions in its nuclear arsenal, catalysed by a perceived comedown in conventional capability since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the growing ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability of the USA. Rather, in order to deal with a perceived degradation of its deterrent, the country is investing heavily in buttressing all legs of its nuclear delivery systems – from enhancing the mobility of land based missiles, to building new submarine launched missiles, and retaining the ability of its bombers.

A similar trend of strategic modernisation is also evident in China. It is focussed on enhancing its nuclear delivery capability, including the testing and development of Multiple Independently Re-targetable Vehicles (MIRVed) and Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicle (MARVed) missiles. Both of these would enable China to counter American missile defence. At the same time however, China does voice desire for disarmament, though it pres-ently maintains it is up to the U.S. and Russia to take the first steps. These States would be required to significantly reduce their nuclear warheads before China could be asked to join them. China’s true commitment to the realisation of a NWFW will only be tested once it is made to engage in a meaningful dialogue on the subject.

Amongst the other nuclear weapon-States (NWS), the U.K. has expressed a willingness to consider universal nuclear disarmament and has even examined the practical dimensions of verifying warhead dismantlement through a joint exercise with Norway. It does, at the same time, continue to retain its deterrent capability of nuclear capable submarines, although at a minimum level. In contrast, France has shown little support for the idea of the elimination of nuclear weapons. Its position constitutes a stumbling block, or at least a significant hurdle in the journey towards nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile, far greater difficulties are posed by Pakistan and North Korea, both of whom view their nuclear arsenal as having multi-role utility, providing them with a potent asymmetric advantage. Convincing these States to renounce their nuclear weapons will not be easy. For the moment such action can only be envisaged through collective international pressure based on a judicious mix of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’. In the case of Israel, an endorsement for a NWFW can only be expected within the context of a larger solution to the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) issue in the Middle East. Lastly, India has explicitly expressed strong support for universal nuclear disarmament, deeming its long-term security to be best served in a NWFW. Given the current situation however, it finds it necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent.

As is evident from this brief tour de horizon of the nine nuclear-armed States, each one appears to have a varying degree of desire and commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The predominant trend appears to be in favour of following a hedging strategy, in which retention of nuclear weapons is considered necessary to safeguard national security against some specific or even non-specific threats, while the aspiration for a NWFW remains a long-term, distant goal.

The maintenance of this status quo, however, is not devoid of dangers from the continued exist-ence of nuclear weapons, which will only grow in scope and dimension. In fact, while different countries naturally perceive different risks to their national security from nuclear weapons – based on whether or not they face nuclear-armed adver-saries, the nature of their adversarial relationships, the character of their adversaries, confidence in controls over nuclear materials etc. – there is no escaping the fact that the dangers provoked by nuclear proliferation and terrorism are near global in scope. It has been scientifically proven that any deliberate nuclear exchange, even with low kiloton yields of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki variety, will have repercussions that go beyond national and regional boundaries. During the height of the Cold War, an exchange between the U.S. and USSR was expected to cause a severe nuclear winter, the effects of which would have been felt across regions. With the reduction in numbers since then, this fear may have dissipated somewhat, but it has certainly not gone away. Rather, with the spread of nuclear weapons to more States, and the persistent risk of even more proliferation (which can only be expected as non-proliferation cannot be sustainable without disarmament), the dangers can only multiply.

As it is, today’s leaders are grappling with the challenge of establishing strategic stability in a multi-polar environment with multiple nuclear powers. This is not an easy proposition since multiple nuclear dyads pose many new problems for a system that has until now been used to bipolar deterrence. To complicate matters further, the parameters of rationality of all the nuclear players can hardly be equated. During the Cold War, a set of rules evolved between the two superpowers that brought a modicum of predictability, and hence stability to the nuclear game. Some of the post Cold War nuclear players, however, most notably Pakistan and North Korea, have displayed a propensity for maintaining instability as a means of establishing deterrence. Therefore, besides an increase in the number of nuclear players, there now exists a lack of understanding, or a lack of desire to play by the established rules of the game of nuclear deterrence. As more countries join in, the com-plexities can only increase. In a crowded nuclear street, one can only hope that each player has an equally effective control over its nuclear assets, so as to minimise existential risks of inadvertent or unauthorised use of the nuclear weapon.

Furthermore, the non-state actor threatens to gatecrash the nuclear ‘playpen’. Al Qaeda is of course the most well known case in its desire to acquire nuclear weapons. But there could be others. And if that were to happen, classical nuclear deterrence would not be able to avert the use of the nuclear weapon. In that unfortunate situation, the immediate physical damage that would result would be equally matched by a breach of psychological norms and taboos against nuclear use.

For all these reasons, amounting to a common risk to all countries, nuclear disarmament needs to be an urgent exercise. However, for it to have any chance of success, it is necessary that the ideal of a NWFW be premised on a set of widely accepted principles. This is especially pertinent since nuclear weapons, more than any other weapons that mankind has possessed or renounced, have the potential to change the nature of global power plays and inter-state dynamics. Hence, nuclear disarmament needs to be conceived as being equally beneficial to all, individually and collectively. Efforts at moving towards a nuclear weapons-free world must include measures to help build a positive overall atmosphere, substantively altering threat perceptions and creating a constructive framework, within which countries can find it easy to enter into meaningful engagements and negotiations.

How can all this be obtained? How can a frame-work be identified that could possibly be accepta-ble to all nations? This article seeks to answer these questions by using the RGAP as a guide to identify six principles that must undergird a nuclear weapons-free world.


In order to be viable, nuclear disarmament must necessarily be universal and equally applicable to all nations. Unilateral nuclear disarmament, whether voluntary or imposed, cannot be the answer for stopping further proliferation. Of course, there could be countries, as there have been, who no longer feel the need to possess nuclear weapons and who unilaterally decide to give them up. South Africa made this decision for itself. But this move did not lead other nuclear weapon-States considering abandonment of their arsenals. Nor did it stem proliferation. In order to be meaningful and sustainable, nuclear disarmament has to be universal and inclusive. Each country that has nuclear weapons, or the capability to build weapons, has to commit to eliminate its stockpile, whilst those that are non-nuclear need to commit themselves to remaining so. Every country will therefore be a part of the process of disarmament. Even if one nation chooses to retain its nuclear weapons, this would render a NWFW unachievable and unsustainable.


Uniformity of commitments is critical to the suc-cess of measures aimed at universal nuclear elimi-nation. The requirement of equal compliance to uniformly applicable verification procedures should be applicable to all states. This scenario would drastically differ from the NPT, which has created two classes of states, with varying levels of verification and compliance standards. In fact, by doing so, it has inadvertently created an adversarial relationship between non-proliferation and disarmament. For all countries to become subject to the same rigorous implementation standards of obligations uniformly committed to, it is necessary to premise disarmament on a singular standard of compliance, which is non-discriminatory.


In order to address the current lack of trust among nations and to foster this trust for the future, it is necessary that as provided for in RGAP, measures towards nuclear disarmament are “underpinned by treaties and institutions, which insure against nu-clear delinquency.”1 Gandhi, Rajiv. “Address by his Excellency Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of the Republic or India.” Third Special Session on Disarmament, June 9, 1988, in Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88, p 196. New Delhi, August 20, 2011 (hereafter “Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88”). [For the “1988 Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear Weapons Free and Non-Violent World Order” see pp. 186 – 191.] This will require the estab-lishment of an integrated multilateral verification system, perhaps under the aegis of the UN or an-other newly created body tasked specifically with this responsibility. It is true that the scope of veri-fication measures may need to differ across possessors and non-possessors of nuclear weapons, yet intrusiveness and stringency must be equal in principle and practice. Only if disarmament is premised on such values, can we foster sufficient transparency, and thus confidence amongst States to stick to their commitments in the long term.

Accompanied by Simultaneous Collateral Measures

Various nations perceive nuclear weapons contrib-ute to their security needs. Thus as nuclear dis-armament proceeds, a natural tendency to mitigate perceived security deficits via other types of mili-tary ‘crutches’ could arise – whether through con-ventional, space-based weaponry, new offensive technologies etc. Such a move would not only be counterproductive but also further complicate steps towards disarmament. A requirement there-fore exists to adopt a multi-pronged strategy, in order to achieve a disarmament, which simultane-ously addresses wider security perceptions and builds confidence in areas such as; reducing con-ventional military capabilities to minimum levels required for defensive purposes; prohibition of the weaponisation of outer space; or precluding the development of new weapon systems based on emerging technologies etc. The RGAP especially recognised this requirement. In his address to the UN, Rajiv Gandhi said, “While nuclear disarma-ment constitutes the centrepiece of each stage of the plan, this is buttressed by collateral and other measures to further the process of disarmament.”2 Ibid.

This, of course, does not look easy in the contem-porary context. However, the answer may lie in the nature of collateral measures taken alongside the move to nuclear elimination. For example, if nuclear disarmament is either the result of, or results in more cooperative and secure inter-state relations, then countries will not feel the need to move towards build up of conventional capabilities. For instance, if the U.S. and Russia converge in their views on a cooperative approach to ballistic missile defence, a joint vision on universal nuclear disarmament could most likely arise from this. In such a scenario, the nature of inter-state security automatically changes. Therefore, one cannot help but emphasise the importance of a broadly and consensually agreed upon process of disarmament that includes a multitude of simultaneous steps. Collectively, these would generate greater confidence and have a benign effect on the international security climate.

Acceptance and tolerance

The Action Plan presented by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 was prescient in stating:

“The root causes of global insecurity reach far below the calculus of military parity. They are related to the instability spawned by widespread poverty, squalor, hunger, disease and illiteracy [.…] The effort to promote security for all must be underpinned by the effort to promote opportunity for all and equitable access to achievement. Comprehensive global security must rest on a new, more just, more honourable world order.”3 Ibid.

Indeed, a culture of non-violence within which the military dimension of international relations is de-emphasised, must be accepted as the principle for conduct within international relations if we are to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. The new world order will have to be based on “respect for various ideologies, on the right to pursue different socio-economic systems, and the celebration of diversity.” 4Ibid., p. 200 It is the threat of regime change or non-acceptance of a particular political or economic system that raises insecurities. With the end of the ideological rivalry of the Cold War, there does appear to be greater tolerance for different national approaches. As long as basic humanitarian values are respected, the new world order must show greater respect for the principles of coexistence, non-use of force, non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, and the right of every state to pursue its own path of development, all of which are enshrined in the UN Charter.

India’s first Prime Minister used to emphasise the goal of peace over security. The reason behind this is well explained by India’s foremost strategic analyst Jasjit Singh:

“An environment of peace would naturally provide security, whereas mere security may or may not bring peace. For example, security in Europe during the Cold War was ensured for 45 years by something like 60,000 nuclear weapons, 94,000 combat airplanes, about 110,000 tanks and massive quantities of other weapons and military systems.”5Singh, Jasjit. “Introductory Remarks to the New Delhi Conference.”, in Towards a Nuclear Weapon Free World, edited by Manpreet Sethi, xvi. New Delhi: Knowledge World, 2009.

Despite all security measures in place, peace proved to be elusive. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, whether through national possession or extended deterrence, brought security but not peace. Therefore, as Singh points out, “Peace has to be given a chance in shaping future paradigms”. 6Ibid.

Indeed, cooperative security, in place of current ‘competitive security’, is what we need to not only meet the requirements of nuclear disarmament but also face the many challenges of the 21st century. An indication of this understanding can be found in the UN Security Council Resolution 1887, adopted on 24 September 2009 under the chair-manship of President Obama. It established a linkage between nuclear disarmament and the promotion of international stability, peace and security premised on, “the principle of increased and undiminished security for all.”7United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1887, September 24, 2009. Can nations bring themselves to rise above existing paradigms of security to envision a different world order premised on cooperation and the objective of peace rather than security? Can we at least begin to talk, write and debate the contours of a post-nuclear world, so that its appeal and advantages can begin to pervade wider spaces – geographical, and of the mind? And as mindsets change, so will the reality of the day. This is a fact proven by history, and the abolition of well-entrenched systems such as slavery and apartheid bear testimony to this.

Time bound but Flexible

The RGAP recommended a three-stage, time bound plan to get to zero. The first and second phases were to last 6 years each, while the final phase was to last a decade. However, over the years, many countries, such as France and Russia, have opposed the creation of ‘artificial time lines’. While it is certainly necessary that flexibility be allowed on an issue as complex as elimination of nuclear weapons, the problem with not committing to any fixed schedule is that the fight could remain open-ended, without creating tangible benchmarks for progress. It would be far more helpful if some consensually agreed upon phases for implementation of these steps could be developed. The time line would have to be negotiable in order to arrive at a broad consensus, but to have no deadlines for necessary actions, is akin to having no real plan of action.


In 1988 Rajiv Gandhi said:

“Humanity is at a crossroads. One road will take us like lemmings to our suicide. That is the path indicated by doctrines of nuclear deterrence, deriving from traditional concepts of the balance of power. The other road will give us another chance. That is the path signposted by the doctrine of peaceful coexistence, deriving from the imperative values of non-violence, tolerance and compassion.”8Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88, p. 193.

Humanity is still poised at the same juncture today. This is both a fortunate and an unfortunate reality. It is fortunate because mankind has not yet blown itself up in a nuclear holocaust and the numbers of nuclear weapons have progressively reduced. At the same time, it is also unfortunate that humanity has not progressed down the road to a nuclear weapons-free world. While numbers may have been reduced, the dangers from nuclear weapons remain and have in fact grown in dimension to become even more sinister.

Today we inhabit a world where many more states posses nuclear weapons; where even more could be tempted to cross the threshold, thereby leaving a large tear in the non-proliferation fabric; where non-state actors are powerful enough to pose threats to state security; where the possibility of non-state actors acquiring nuclear material or weapons for terrorism, either with or without state complicity, have multiplied; where inter-state rela-tions are mired in mutual mistrust; and where the possibility of a nuclear incident – terrorist triggered or state sponsored – occurring somewhere in the world, poses a risk. President Obama stated at the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010, “It is an irony that while the risks of a nuclear confrontation have come down, the risks of a nuclear attack have increased.” 9Obama, Barack. “Speech at the Nuclear Security Summit.” Washington D.C., United States. April 13, 2010.

With an increase in nuclear danger, there must be simultaneous progression in our understanding that the only sustainable route to mitigating these dangers, is through creating a nuclear weapons-free world. Such a world must be built on the pillars of all the aforementioned principles, thus promising equal cooperative security to all.



  • DR. MANPREET SETHI is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India and heads its Nuclear Security project. She is also Fellow, International Relations, Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. On the research faculty of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, from 1997 to 2001, she focussed on nuclear energy proliferation, export controls, and disarmament. She com-pleted her Ph.D. from School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi in 1997.

References   [ + ]

1. Gandhi, Rajiv. “Address by his Excellency Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of the Republic or India.” Third Special Session on Disarmament, June 9, 1988, in Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88, p 196. New Delhi, August 20, 2011 (hereafter “Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88”). [For the “1988 Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear Weapons Free and Non-Violent World Order” see pp. 186 – 191.]
2, 3, 6. Ibid.
4. Ibid., p. 200
5. Singh, Jasjit. “Introductory Remarks to the New Delhi Conference.”, in Towards a Nuclear Weapon Free World, edited by Manpreet Sethi, xvi. New Delhi: Knowledge World, 2009.
7. United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1887, September 24, 2009.
8. Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88, p. 193.
9. Obama, Barack. “Speech at the Nuclear Security Summit.” Washington D.C., United States. April 13, 2010.
Manpreet Sethi

About Manpreet Sethi

Manpreet Sethi is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India and heads its Nuclear Security project. She is also Fellow, International Relations, Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. On the research faculty of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, from 1997 to 2001, she focussed on nuclear energy proliferation, export controls, and disarmament. She completed her Ph.D. from School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi in 1997.