Today the world faces two inconvenient truths: both are frightening and incontrovertible. Yet only one of them - global warming - has made its way to the fore of public consciousness. The other, while even more stark, has somehow escaped our attention. But there’s no denying that we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age.
The infamous Doomsday Clock is fast approaching midnight. All five original nuclear weapon states - the same powers that control the UN Security Council - are actively re-arming. Most have even threatened to unleash nuclear catastrophe upon non-nuclear states.
On top of this, North Korea has joined Israel, India and Pakistan in acquiring the “bomb”. And without drastically restricting access to enriched uranium or spent nuclear fuel the world seems powerless to prevent Iran, and others, from following suit.
Alas, these are testing times for the global community. But we mustn’t despair. A growing number of nations are calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and many army chiefs have publicly questioned the military utility of these worst weapons of terror.
The coming weeks present a prime opportunity to advance nuclear disarmament - and to steer the world towards sanity and survival. Diplomats and ministers from across the globe last week descended on Geneva for the first session of this year’s Conference on Disarmament (CD). And hopes are running high.
Opening the proceedings, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon urged delegates to “make this a breakthrough year”, after lamenting that the conference’s successes - among them the formation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty - have become “distant memories”. He remained confident that the principal multilateral disarmament negotiating body in the world could move beyond its stalemate and revive progress towards complete nuclear disarmament.
On top of the agenda for 2008 is the negotiation of a treaty to ban the production of fissile material used in nuclear weapons - a vital step to curb proliferation. Providing assurances to non-nuclear states that they will not be attacked with nuclear weapons is also a priority.
Australia could be instrumental in transforming conference rhetoric into prompt action. Whereas the Coalition Government was always cautious to toe the US line and say as little as possible, the new Labor Government has already shown - with the promised withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq by mid-year - that it’s able to make up its own mind on international issues.
Our disarmament ambassador, Caroline Miller, proclaimed at the conference last week that it’s high time we “walked the walk” instead of just “talking the talk” - a shift from the previous government’s do-nothing approach.
During the election campaign, Labor undertook to re-establish the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and to advance negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention - that is, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons - if it won.
The new government should also reconsider our status as a nuclear “umbrella” nation. Though we don’t permanently host US nuclear weapons on our soil (unlike six west European countries), we provide bases, ports and other infrastructure to support the US nuclear war-fighting apparatus.
This situation is patently unacceptable. It says: we will help you to use nuclear weapons whenever you choose. It severely undermines our credibility in promoting a nuclear-weapon-free world and lends credence to the misguided view that nuclear weapons enhance - rather than threaten - security.
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