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Nuclear non proliferation back on the agenda

By Sue Wareham - posted Wednesday, 4 May 2005

Have you heard much about nuclear disarmament lately? Real disarmament - that is, getting to zero nuclear weapons. No? Not surprising really - it’s hardly a fashionable topic these days.

But non-proliferation - that’s different. That’s where the action is. Keeping nuclear weapons in a few trusted hands only. Going to war against Iraq. Threatening Iran and North Korea. We’ll be hearing more about non-proliferation this month too, with the five-yearly Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which commenced on May 2 at the UN in New York and runs until May 27.

Don’t get me wrong. Non-proliferation is an absolutely essential goal. Lord knows 28,000 (or more - estimates vary) instruments of terror are enough without adding to their number. That’s why we must make the NPT review work. And the only element that has a hope of making it work is disarmament by the existing nuclear weapons states.


The simple reality is that preventing the diversion of nuclear technology and materials from current arsenals, either to other nations or to terrorist groups, is proving virtually impossible. The International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded over 600 cases of illicit trafficking of radioactive sources and nuclear materials in the last ten years.

In addition there is an even more fundamental imperative for complete nuclear disarmament: the perceived status these weapons confer. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wrote in The Economist (October 16, 2003), “The very existence of nuclear weapons gives rise to the pursuit of them. They are seen as a source of global influence, and are valued for their perceived deterrent effect. And as long as some countries possess them (or are protected by them in alliances) and others do not, this asymmetry breeds chronic global insecurity.”

The necessity for disarmament was recognised in 1970 when the NPT came into force, and was written into the Treaty. Article VI spells out the obligation: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament ...”

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the commitment was reaffirmed, with the nuclear weapons states giving an “unequivocal undertaking” to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Obligations don’t come much clearer than that.

At least, one would have thought so. But the verbal gymnastics on the part of the big powers to contort the meanings of words are truly Olympic Gold standard. US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Stephen Rademaker, stated in February this year that Article VI does not require the conclusion of “agreements” relating to disarmament, and the Treaty establishes no timetable for disarmament. (Of course, how silly of us. “Early” means “late”.)

The problem is that double standards have become so much a part of the global order that they barely raise an eyebrow. In February 2004, Russian President Putin, who professes strong support for the NPT, affirmed Russia’s commitment to nuclear forces “for some decades ahead”. In May 2001, US President Bush stated, “We must work together with other like-minded nations to deny weapons of terror from those seeking to acquire them”. How laudable. In the same speech, the following: “Nuclear weapons still have a vital role to play in our security and that of our allies.” No awkward questions asked of either leader, no need to explain such mind-blowing hypocrisy on the part of the countries that, between them, maintain 96 per cent of the global nuclear weapons stockpile.


Similarly, when Prime Minister Howard stated on November 9, 2002, “We cannot allow weapons of mass destruction to remain in the hands of a country which in the past has demonstrated a willingness to use those weapons”, the obvious question was not asked. What episode was he thinking of? Was it Hiroshima? Or Nagasaki perhaps? After all, there is only one nation that has used the most destructive of all weapons.

It is barely surprising therefore that this year’s NPT review is threatened by increasing frustration on the part of many nations that the Treaty’s promise of nuclear disarmament has not been fulfilled. Not surprising, but of grave concern. If the NPT goes, we’re really up the creek without a paddle.

Already Australia’s approach to the NPT does not look good. Last week the Mexican Government hosted a conference of States Parties to Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (such as the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone of which Australia is part). The conference was to seek further ways of co-operating to achieve a nuclear weapons free world. The Australian Government refused to attend.

While our leaders pay lip service to the responsibilities of the existing nuclear powers to disarm, Australia’s strongest actions - including the strongest action a nation can take, invasion of another - are reserved for those who challenge the nuclear apartheid.

So far, we’ve been spared the nightmare of another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. We’ve had, to use Jonathan Schell’s words, “the gift of time”. In his 1998 book of that name he wrote, “Some 35,000 nuclear weapons remain in the world. Whether these are merely a monstrous leftover from a frightful era that has ended, and will soon follow it into history, or whether, on the contrary, they are seeds of a new more virulent era, in which nuclear weapons are held more widely and rooted more deeply, is not a matter of prediction; it is a matter of choice.”

Indeed we must choose. Australia must choose whether we focus at this year’s NPT Review Conference primarily on weapons that don’t yet exist, or equally on the 28,000 plus that do exist. Without addressing the latter, non-proliferation is dead. And in the age of terrorism, that’s frightening.

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About the Author

Dr Sue Wareham is a Canberra GP who joined the Medical Association for Prevention of War out of a "horror at the destructive capacity of a single nuclear weapon". She has many interests and fields of expertise, including the contribution of peace to global sustainability. Sue believes that her work with MAPW is fundamental to her commitment to the protection of human life and the improvement of human well-being. She is Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia); and on the Australian Management Committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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