Nuclear talks: Groundhog fortnight returns to Vienna

07.05.2017 - Budapest, Hungary - Tony Robinson

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Nuclear talks: Groundhog fortnight returns to Vienna
Groundhog day celebrations in 2005, the inspiration behind the Hollywood movie from 1993 in which a day repeats itself over and over again. (Image by Aaron Silvers on Flickr)

One of the most important issues facing the world these days is under discussion right now in the Austrian capital and is, as always, facing a void from the world’s media: nuclear weapons.

Tuesday the 2nd of May saw the start of a process that will take us through to May 2020 when the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be reviewed and evaluated.  This treaty that came into force in 1970 has been ratified by 190 States and, according to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, “more countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement”.

Yet being in Vienna, listening to the delegations giving their addresses in the general debate, you might think you’d slipped into some kind of time warp, because in this NPT 5-yearly circus nothing changes.  It’s like a nightmare version of “Groundhog Day”.

There is a permanent dance between the five nuclear-weapons states in the NPT and an increasingly self-confident group of non-nuclear-weapon states who are fed up of waiting for progress.

Let’s set the context: according to various respected sources there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with 90% of them in the hands of the USA and Russia, and with hundreds of them deployed and ready to be launched within seconds of the command being received.  This number of 15,000 is clearly progress from the 80,000 nuclear weapons in existence at the height of the Cold War, yet in conferences in 2013 and 2014, the international community learnt that scientific models show that a nuclear war in which only 100 nuclear weapons would be dropped on cities would be enough to plunge the world into a nuclear winter that could lead to 2 billion dead and the end of civilisation as we know it.

When “progress” means that instead of having the possibility to destroy humanity 800 times over, we now “only” have the power to do so 150 times over, our feeling of comfort evaporates somewhat.  And furthermore, the community of nations should apparently be grateful!

“The U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile has fallen more than 85% since the height of the Cold War,” explained the United States.  While Russia added, “Such impressive results have required efforts of thousands of experts and billions in expenditure. And it is impertinent to ignore it for the sake of propaganda.”

Of course, trying to make the world think we are all safe in their “responsible” hands apparently isn’t propaganda.

While trying to portray themselves as paragons of disarmament virtue the USA also looks for any justification to delay any further moves towards abolition.  In recent NPT cycles, Iran has been used as the justification, now it’s North Korea’s turn.  “Determining how to mitigate the nuclear threat from North Korea should be the central issue in our discussions during this PrepCom,” they concluded.

Clearly, North Korea is a concern: the country is testing nuclear weapons and delivery systems.  Yet, we go back to the obvious observation: there is no justification for maintaining a level of nuclear oblivion which is 150 times more than necessary.  North Korea will be as equally deterred by the international community if there would be only 100 nuclear weapons in the world.

On the contrary, the central issue in these discussions should clearly be how to drastically reduce the number of nuclear weapons and their state of deployment.  As Ecuador said, “the minimal reductions registered demonstrate the lack of fulfilment by nuclear-weapons states of the provisions of the NPT, the commitments made in the Review Conferences of 1995 and the 2010 Action Plan.”

In this dance, the non-nuclear-weapon states see no need to delay moves towards drastic reductions in weapons, and have generated considerable irritation in the nuclear-armed states with moves that have taken place at the United Nations in New York on drafting a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

The irritation comes principally as a result of the fact that the veto of nuclear-weapon states doesn’t work in that forum. “Abandoning consensus might yield an illusion of progress, but not its reality, and even that illusion would quickly dissipate,” complained the USA.  Russia went even further saying that a ban treaty would be incompatible with the NPT because, “In accordance with the NPT, the presence of nuclear arsenals in five nuclear powers is completely legitimate,” which leads one to wonder if there is any intention to disarm ever.

“While understanding the motivation that pushed them to start negotiating the prohibition of nuclear weapons, we believe they took the wrong path that endangers the viability of the NPT regime,” explained Russia.  To which Austria pointedly responded, “The Prohibition Treaty will NOT weaken the NPT: The NPT came under strain because of the actions of North Korea, the inability of the nuclear armed states to make progress on disarmament, and the inability to make progress on a WMD free zone in the Middle East.”

And while this dancing-round-in-circles-going-nowhere continues year after year, there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: nuclear energy is good and should be expanded everywhere.  For instance, “Chile reaffirms the importance to recognise the inalienable right [to nuclear energy] that article IV confers…”

This is a point of view that may have been acceptable in the sixties, but is hardly justifiable today: not only in light of disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima which continue poisoning the planet unabated, but moreover the advances in renewable energy make nuclear energy increasingly unnecessary.  The carrot of apparently safe, clean, eternal energy supplies was used to encourage all countries outside those 5 with the technology to create nuclear weapons to adopt the NPT and it worked in all cases except for India, Pakistan and Israel.

Yet knowledge and experience have now shown that what was promoted as safe and clean was neither, and if previously the risks from nuclear waste could be justified with the quantities of energy produced, today, with the incredible advances in renewable technology, that claim no longer holds true.

In terms of proliferation to other countries, as we were reminded by the US delegation on Tuesday, “In 1963, President Kennedy warned of the prospect that, by the end of the 1970s, as many as 25 countries might develop nuclear weapons.”  So while the NPT has served a valid purpose in the past (limiting possession to only 9 countries), today it’s important to recognise that that so-called “grand bargain” in which non-proliferation and disarmament were coupled to the roll-out of nuclear energy around the world no longer works and a new deal is required.

The original treaty has been undermined in a number of aspects.

Article IV which says that all countries have an inalienable right to nuclear energy has been surpassed by both the events in Chernobyl and Fukushima and the development of increasingly cheap and effective forms of renewable energy and battery technology.

Article V envisions the safe application of nuclear explosions such as the US “Operation Plowshare” programme which was terminated in 1977 when opposition to poisoned water and nuclear fallout became unbearable.

Articles I and II about not transferring or receiving nuclear weapons or the means to create them have been violated by those countries that allowed India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea to build nuclear weapons and for which there have been no sanctions.  And whereas the text of articles I and II is interpreted as allowing US nuclear missiles on the territory of 5 NATO countries, clearly this is against the spirit of the treaty and the objective of disarmament.

So, in this light, we are very doubtful that anything useful will come out of Vienna this time, or New York in May 2020.  The political conditions don’t allow it.  New thinking is required to change even further the paradigms surrounding nuclear weapons discussions.  In other words the humanitarian aspects of nuclear war need to enter not only the consciousness of the diplomats (something which ICAN has done spectacularly), but the whole world.

World without Wars called in their short presentation to the assembled delegates for countries against nuclear weapons to fund all possible measures to eradicate nuclear weapons and to take money from their conventional military budgets if necessary.  These measures include the introduction of peace, nonviolence, and disarmament education in the curriculum of every child.  Such a curriculum will create the seeds of a global consciousness that will grow in new generations leading to a physical abhorrence of nuclear weapons.  Measures should moreover include the raising of awareness in the adult population, and for this there is no better solution than calling for investment in art and culture.  As World without Wars said, “Let us not forget that President Reagan watching the film “The Day After” was so moved that it led him to change his mind on the prevailing policy of nuclear war which subsequently led to the signing of the INF Treaty.  Art and Culture have the possibility to change the world because they travel the world and have the capacity to enter and inform every household on the planet in a way that nothing else can.”

In this same field, projects such as that from the Dutch anti-nuclear organisation PAX that call on citizens to “don’t bank on the bomb” are excellent examples.

Whether money is made available in the short term for such projects or not, what is sure is that it is incumbent on activists in all fields to inform themselves about nuclear weapons and join forces to eradicate them.  Just as grassroots campaigners half a century ago started informing children about the threats to the environment, so today’s campaigners need to inform children and adults alike about conflict resolution, nonviolence as a lifestyle and especially the need for nuclear disarmament.

If governments, in their eternal dance towards oblivion are unable to get us to nuclear abolition, then ordinary people will have to take their own measures until governments are forced to implement the will of the people.  Until then, this Groundhog experience is destined to continue until we’ve destroyed the planet not only for groundhogs, but for human beings also.

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