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Rights + Justice

Nuclear Arms Ban Is Hot Again

Interest grows among world leaders, 'Global Zero' campaign builds steam.

Sean Casey 30 Jan

Sean Casey is a reporter for The Tyee.

image atom
'One detonation will wipe all else from global agenda.'

The movement to abolish nuclear weapons, after dropping low on the political radar, shows signs of resurging in the Obama era.

In December, 100 world dignitaries gathered in Paris to unveil the Global Zero campaign -- an effort to eliminate nuclear arms spearheaded by international political, military, and business leaders.

Principal signatories include Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert McNamara.

Global Zero seeks to develop an international agreement to disarm and dismantle nuclear arms through phased and verified reductions. The plan's first phase will call for heavy reductions to U.S. and Russian arsenals, which comprise 96 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons.

Dr. Jennifer Simons -- a Global Zero principle signatory and winner of the Vancouver Citizens' Peace award -- said there's "been a massive change of mind expressed globally" about nuclear proliferation, and that the winds of change now favour disarmament.

Treaties stalled by Bush

After the Cold War, there was a brief flurry of advancement towards disarmament.

In 1994, the U.S. and Russia agreed to de-target their strategic missiles. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was extended indefinitely the following year, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was signed in 1996.

But the past decade has not been kind to abolition ambitions.

Nuclear disarmament stalled in key areas. The U.S. did not ratify the CTBT, and the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 to pursue missile defence systems.

In other political and military arenas, abolition took a step backwards. India and Pakistan emerged on the world stage as nuclear powers in 1998. North Korea tested its own nuclear weapon in 2006, and Iran has been accused of pursuing technology to enrich weapon-grade uranium.

Nuclear disarmament renaissance

Despite the setbacks, new calls for disarmament have emerged from high-level policy analysts in recent years.

In January 2007, Henry Kissinger and George Schulz reignited the disarmament debate with an essay published in the Washington Post. They warned that the U.S. "will enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence" unless the world freed itself from reliance on nuclear weapons and deterrence.

Kissinger and Schulz's warnings have not gone unheeded.

Dr. Wade Huntley, director of the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at UBC's Liu Institute for Global Issues, told a Vancouver conference last week that recommitment to a world free of nuclear weapons "has been increasingly adopted and embraced by foreign policy and strategic thinkers across the political spectrum in the United States."

On the White House's recently updated website, the Obama administration has promised to "move toward a nuclear free world" by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, stopping the development of new nuclear weapons and by taking ballistic missiles off of hair-trigger alert.

"U.S. policy, which has long been an anchor in moving closer to a world free of nuclear weapons, could now become an engine," Huntley said. U.S. diplomatic leadership could pave the way toward "a global nuclear weapons agreement that, much like the land mines ban, would set the goal of elimination and map the path by which that goal can be realized," Huntley said.

Canadian enthusiasm waned

A poll conducted last year found 88 per cent of Canadians believe nuclear weapons make the world a more dangerous place.

But Huntley said the Canadian government's enthusiasm towards nuclear non-proliferation has waned.

"Everybody supports disarmament," Huntley said. "But what's really changed is that the nuclear issue doesn't have the prominence and priority in the public agenda the way it used to. The questions of energy development, of climate change, of human rights and human security have taken priority."

If nuclear apocalypse is no longer feared, why should disarmament continue to be a Canadian concern?

"To me, it's the suit in the deck that trumps all of the other suits," Huntley said. "One nuclear detonation in one major city in the world will wipe off everything else from the global agenda. You won't make further progress on climate change, you won't make further progress on human rights.

"If you think 9-11 dominated American policy, imagine if a nuclear bomb blew up in an American city. The reason I think we have to continue work on this issue is not only because of its intrinsic importance, but because solving that problem is prerequisite to release the world's energies and attentions to deal with all of its other problems as well."

Towards Global Zero

With a favourable political climate, could the world see the end of nuclear threats within our time? Global Zero thinks so. The campaign's initial roadmap called for nuclear disarmament by 2035.

But Simons said the goal could be achieved even sooner.

At the Paris conference, Simons received heavy applause when she called for the roadmap to be accelerated. "I think most people felt 2035 was too far away. I asked them to accelerate the pace because my goal is to have nuclear weapons eliminated within my lifetime." The roadmap timeline is now under revision.

Global Zero will host a world summit on nuclear disarmament in January 2010.

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