In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nuclear Non-Proliferation

  • Introduction
  • Monographs
  • Periodicals
  • Historical Background
  • Other Control and Verification Mechanisms

International Law Nuclear Non-Proliferation
María José Cervell Hortal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0108


The concept of nuclear nonproliferation was coined in a formal way at the beginning of the 1960s, though the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed in 1968, would be the text that would consolidate it. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, humanity was conscious of the danger of these weapons, and nuclear proliferation turned into one of the main problems of the Cold War period; their control and the implementation of strategies to limit them have become a priority since then. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons and deterrence policy were crucial elements in the peaceful coexistence of the two power blocs, and the initiatives to control them grew, as both countries were conscious of the danger that this accumulation could cause. The NPT created two categories of states: the “officially” nuclear ones, which could maintain their weapons (China, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States) and the nonnuclear ones, which were not allowed to acquire or develop them. Two more concepts emerged: vertical proliferation (that of the five official nuclear states) and horizontal proliferation (that of the states that had nuclear weapons but rejected to be a NPT party). Other treaties—multilateral, regional, and bilateral—which also sought to control the nuclear proliferation (see Treaties and Agreements Preventing Nuclear Weapons Proliferation) were subsequently added. The end of the Cold War did not eliminate the danger. In fact, the Security Council considered in 1992 (Document S/23500, 31 January) that the proliferation of nuclear weapons “constitutes a threat for the international peace and security” (p. 4) that permitted it to activate, if necessary, chapter VII of the United Nations (UN) Charter and all the consequences derived from it. With the new millennium, the United Nations Secretary-General described mass destruction arms (nuclear included) as one of the threats to peace and security in the 21st century (see United Nations General Assembly 2005, cited under Security Council, General Assembly, and Secretary-General, para. 78). Nowadays, the nuclear question is still of great relevance. The nuclear problems in the 21st century’s international society are wide and varied and include states that withdrew the NPT (North Korea), states that fail to comply with it (Iran), states that have not yet ratified it (Israel, India, Pakistan), and non-state actors (such as terrorist groups), which are more and more interested in the wide destructive power of nuclear weapons. The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons of 7 July 2017 was a significant step, but the low number of state accessions shows that nuclear weapons are still a relevant threat.


There is legal literature on nuclear nonproliferation that includes both general and specific approaches. Some works, such as Njølstad 2011 and Pant 2012, are not specifically legal but deal with international relations or strategic studies and must be included, because they are essential to contextualize a topic that has political, historical, and sociological implications. Only a few international law textbooks deal with the nuclear question, but they relate to specific areas or sectorial problems (e.g., legality of nuclear weapons, international humanitarian law, disarmament law) and devote few pages to the subject, so we have not included them here. The literature on nuclear proliferation usually shares a common structure: a historical perspective (nuclear weapons origin, evolution, role in Cold War period); treaties that regulate them, with special mention of the NPT (signature, rights and obligations, institutional system and conference reviews); and analysis of the situation at the time (problems with states, new initiatives on nuclear proliferation, latest crisis). Although most recent monographs are vital to an understanding of the current nonproliferation reality, those published during the Cold War and the immediate post–Cold War period may be interesting for those who are looking for a global perspective. This literature presents the evolution of the main problems, and, although nuclear weapons have always been a source of concern, problems tend to be different depending on the historical context. Good starting points are Goldblat 1985, Singh and McWhinney 1989, and Furet 1973, which could be read along with subsequent publications such as Fischer 1993 or, more recently, Joyner 2009; Njølstad 2011; and Nystuen, et al. 2014. Collective books are very common too, and although they present different opinions on various nuclear weapons problems, they are more suitable for scholars who pursue a more concise study of the evolution of nuclear proliferation and the most recent problems (Joyner 2012).

  • Fischer, David. Towards 1995: The Prospects for Ending the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 1993.

    Interesting description of nuclear nonproliferation but above all of the NPT and its influence on the arms race. Special emphasis on peaceful uses of nuclear energy and disarmament, including proposals and reflections for the 1995 NPT Review Conference.

  • Furet, Marie Françoise. Le désarmement nucléaire. Paris: Pedone, 1973.

    Study that describes the first steps of the nonproliferation regime in the first decades of the Cold War, including an analysis of the treaties and agreements, the political circumstances, US–Soviet Union relations, the negotiations in the United Nations, and other states’ positions. It includes an annex with some legal texts.

  • Goldblat, Jozef, ed. Non-proliferation: The Why and the Wherefore. London: Taylor & Francis, 1985.

    Because the current circumstances are different, this is a good book to read for an understanding of state stances on nuclear weapons in the past, which allows a comparison with those arising in the early 21st century. It includes proposals from different authors who try to attract those who reject the NPT and gives concrete information about fifteen states.

  • Joyner, Daniel H. International Law and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199204908.001.0001

    Study on nonproliferation that avoids the traditional structure and opts for treating the most current problems such as weapons of mass destruction control, UN implications, and the last challenges in counterproliferation.

  • Joyner, Daniel H., ed. Arms Control Law. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

    Complete description of weapons of mass destruction proliferation problems in general, even though many of the essays included refer to the nuclear proliferation question, offering a good and wide perspective. Topics covered include the NPT, jurisprudence, nuclear-weapon-free zones, the missile control regime, and nuclear weapons and recent conflicts. The contributors are some of the most renowned scholars in the field.

  • Njølstad, Olav, ed. Nuclear Proliferation and International Order: Challenges to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. London: Routledge, 2011.

    Study of the role of nuclear weapons and their influence on peace and stability but with a specific analysis of India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (by different authors) and the nuclear powers (France, China, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States). Nuclear terrorism is also mentioned.

  • Nystuen, Gro, Stuart Casey-Maslen, and Annie Golden Bersagel, eds. Nuclear Weapons under International Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Highly recommendable collective book that offers a complete view of the legal regime of nuclear weapons, from the perspective of jus ad bellum, international humanitarian law, international criminal law, international environmental law, disarmament, and human rights law. Special references to current context and debate about the legality of these weapons.

  • Pant, Harsh V., ed. Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation. London: Routledge, 2012.

    Covers a broad spectrum of issues and discusses the origins of nonproliferation as well as the most recent problems. It includes studies of nuclear states’ policies and the reasons for others to renounce this armament.

  • Singh, Nagendra, and Edward McWhinney. Nuclear Weapons and Contemporary International Law. 2d ed. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1989.

    One of the basic studies on nuclear weapons. Ambitious content that examines the applicable legal system, mentioning all existing treaties, national and international jurisprudence, comparative law, and customary rules and principles.

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