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A menace more real than ever: The risk posed by nuclear weapons

L'Osservatore Romano, 6 May 2010

For those of us wanting a world without nuclear weapons, and deeply fearful of the future of this planet if we don’t achieve this goal, this is a critical month in a crucial year.

If the five-yearly Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that opens at the UN in New York this week produces clear consensus commitments -- from the nuclear weapons states to get serious about shedding their warheads, and from everyone to get serious about stopping new states acquiring them -- this will give tremendous momentum to the dream given new life by President Obama last year. But if it fails, like the last conference in 1995, there seems every prospect that optimism will evaporate, momentum will stall, and the dangerous sleepwalk of the last decade will continue.

Also crucial this year will be ratification by the US Senate of the new US-Russia treaty to limit deployed strategic nuclear weapons, not because the gains in this agreement were so dramatic, but because this is the foundation on which all future arms reduction negotiations will be built between these two nuclear superpowers, who possess between them 95 per cent of the world’s stockpile of 23,000 nuclear warheads: equivalent to 150,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs and capable of destroying the world many times over.

There are other benchmarks as well, all identified in President Obama’s Prague speech a year ago: ratification by the US -- with China, India and others then following its lead -- to bring into force at last the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; negotiation in Geneva of a new treaty to ban outright the production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for weapons purposes; commitments by nuclear armed states to explicitly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their military doctrine; agreement on measures to once and for all secure loosely guarded nuclear weapons and materials from the risk of theft or diversion; and above all effective steps to reverse the breakout that has already occurred in North Korea, and may be in preparation in Iran.

On most of these issues there is real concern as to whether the year will end on a positive note. The Washington Summit in April successfully addressed the problem of nuclear security, and the recently announced US Nuclear Posture Review made modest advances in US nuclear doctrine by limiting the number of cases in which the nuclear option was kept open. But on just about every other issue, either present signs are negative or big question marks remain. .

On all these issues, and many others as well, a comprehensive guide to what needs to be done, and how to do it, is to be found in the recently released report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymaker, accessible on www.icnnd.org. This report, jointly sponsored by the Australian and Japanese governments, brought together a globally representative and genuinely expert group of senior international figures. It is written in a form that should be readily accessible to non-specialist policymakers and those who influence them, and is hard-headed and practical in its approach, not content with describing an ideal world but making clear the rocks that lie in the path along the way.

The central message is that the threats posed by nuclear wapons - and their misuse by both governments and non-state terrorist actors - are very real, in fact greater now than was ever previously the case, and defy complacency. So long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any such weapons remain, they are bound one day to be used, by accident or miscalculation if not design; and any such use would be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it. It is sheer dumb luck, not a matter of political genius or the inherent stability of our security systems, that the world has not seen a major nuclear-weapon disaster in the last 65 years. It cannot be assumed that our luck will continue, and maintaining the status quo is simply not an option.

The report structures its many specific policy recommendations into three action agendas for policy makers, for the short term to 2012 (during which crucial foundation stones must be laid for a world without nuclear weapons), the medium term to 2025 (with the target a “minimization point” involving arsenals reduced by 90 per cent, and with doctrine and physical deployments to match), and the longer term beyond 2025 (with the objective being to achieve the complete elimination of nuclear weapons as soon as possible). .

Over the last few months, however, it has become apparent that the short-term target date that matters most is in fact not 2012, but 2010. And the most immediately critical objective is to make a success of this month’s NPT Review Conference. There should not be differences between North and South, or nuclear armed and non-armed states, on the need for early and serious moves toward disarmament, tough measures to prevent further proliferation, and support for safe and secure peaceful nuclear energy development. Achieving a nuclear weapon free world is not a North or South agenda, but a genuinely global one. If this perception does not prevail, and the conference falls apart in recriminations as it did in 2005, the future looks very bleak indeed.

Gareth Evans is Co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, a former Foreign Minister of Australia, Chancellor of the Australian National University and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group.