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It will soon be 77 years since one country nuked a city in another. We have lived in the shadow of a mushroom cloud’s malevolence after that for so long that it is easy not to notice its existence. Yet, enough nuclear bombs exist to kill all life on earth many times over. Even the accidental launch of a missile tipped with a fissile warhead could make a carbon clean-up look like an easier challenge. Ever since the attacks of ‘9/11’ suffered by the US in 2001, the risk of terrorists armed with nuclear, chemical or biological devices—or even aircraft filled with jet fuel—has had greater salience. While it was anxiety over weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that led the US to invade Iraq soon after, though none was found there, the Pentagon’s hunt for Al Qaeda leaders has lasted longer, with Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri struck dead in Kabul by US forces only recently, over the weekend. Global efforts to minimize terror threats include stopping money from being sneaked into the development of weapons that can kill at scale. On Monday, India aligned its policy with advice of the Financial Action Task Force by amending its 2005 ban on making WMDs to outlaw the funding of such activity as well.

Piloted by India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, the Weapons of Mass Destruction and their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Amendment Bill, 2022, not only bars the financing of WMDs and their delivery vehicles, it empowers the government to freeze and seize the financial assets and resources of those engaged in this illicit activity. The new provisions cover all holdings that are either owned or controlled—wholly or jointly, directly or indirectly—by offenders and also anything held by others on their behalf. The tweaks also clarify that the Centre can take action via any authority that it has assigned this task to. Our WMD law may seem unlikely to be invoked, given the scant evidence available of such endeavours in India, but it is important all the same for our judiciary to ensure it doesn’t get misapplied. In a global context, however, a pre-emptive move of this kind makes sense. It would be disastrous if a workshop hidden away somewhere were to develop a deadly weapon that could be delivered by, say, a humble drone disguised for a peaceful purpose. Clearly, the world must rally to deter such a possibility.

While a global alert on terror inflicted by non-state actors is easily justified, we must not lower our guard against the use of WMDs by nation-states armed with them. During the Soviet-US Cold War, the ‘MAD’ logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was held up by war-gamers as an assurance of peace. Yet, nuke rattling has persisted. Earlier this year, Russia warned the Nato alliance of horrific consequences if the latter chose to intervene in its invasion of Ukraine. Our own subcontinent has been kept on edge by a nexus between authorized guarantors of security and Islamist incubators of terror in the northwest region. To help secure the world, we should propose a global treaty that commits every state to ‘no first use’ of WMDs, in line with New Delhi’s nuclear doctrine. The biggest hitch will probably be the resistance of countries that view ‘deterrent’ arsenals as a way to overcome other defence deficiencies. Think of Russia’s stance. Or Pakistan’s, as reiterated in 2019. Even so, the initiation of worldwide talks on such a safety pledge would enhance its popular appeal across the globe and put some pressure on opponents of the idea. Over time, it could make the world safer for everyone.

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