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We need to turn-back the nuclear Doomsday clock.

By John Langmore - posted Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Kevin Rudd's decision to establish a Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission is a vital and timely initiative, for nuclear risks have been rising.

 "On 29 and 30 August 2007 six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were loaded on a US Air Force plane, flown across the country and unloaded.  For 36 hours no one knew where the warheads were or even that they were missing" report a bipartisan US panel of American international relations celebrities including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. 

The eminent panel use this mistake in the handling of nuclear weapons (NW) by their country as part of their case for a NW free world.  The commanders responsible for this mistake have just been relieved of their responsibilities by the US Secretary of Defence.


The eminent Americans wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 15 January 2008 of "the importance of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons as a guide to our thinking about nuclear policies, and about the importance of a series of steps that will pull us back from the nuclear precipice". 

Most Australians no longer think about the nuclear threat.  Yet the editors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced in January 2007 movement of the minute hand of the "Doomsday Clock" from seven to five minutes to midnight. 

They said: "We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age.  …  North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed US emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth."

That list of reasons is quite long enough to generate profound concern, yet there are more. The Bush Administration has abandoned commitment to the international rule of law and encouraged allies to do the same.  Only two of the nuclear weapons states have declared a no-first-use policy, China and India.      

Many of the 12,000 deployed NW are on high alert status.  Nuclear weapons are still being included in active military strategic doctrine.  The bargain at the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is being broken: the five nuclear powers which are party to the Treaty, who pledged "the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals" under the NPT, are instead upgrading their NW.

Not only do India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons but so does Israel.  Iran and North Korea have apparently tried or are trying to acquire these weapons.  Keeping the weapons out of the hands of terrorists is vital.  There is a stalemate in multilateral disarmament negotiations.  The 2005 Review Conference of the NPT failed to even agree on an agenda. 


Many authoritative forums and people have called for complete nuclear disarmament.  The International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith, and bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." 

The Canberra Commission established at Gareth Evan's initiative wrote that "The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility. … Nuclear weapons have long been understood to be too destructive and non-discriminatory to secure discrete objectives on the battlefield." 

At the 2000 NPT review conference the five nuclear states party to the Treaty gave an "unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament."  The Bush Administration's backing away from this commitment was a major cause of the deadlock at the 2005 NPT review conference.

Incremental steps towards outlawing nuclear weapons could begin with taking all NW off high-alert status and making deep reductions in numbers.  Prohibiting the production of fissile material and urging all nuclear states to make no-first-use pledges are vital steps. 

Not only is a nuclear weapons abolition treaty essential there are many practical reasons for considering that it is possible.  For example: biological and chemical weapons abolition treaties have been negotiated successfully; and negotiation of a NW convention is already supported by 125 countries at the UN.

Australia can have a significant role in a global survival strategy by taking a lead in advocating nuclear disarmament and in defining steps towards that goal.  That is the task of the new Commission to be co-chaired by Gareth Evans.  The support of responsible and perceptive people is essential to growth of the political will to make it happen.

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About the Author

John Langmore, a former MP and Director at the UN, is now a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and National President of the UN Association of Australia.

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