30 May 2005, Final Edition
A phoenix of hope
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F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
After a month of the deplorable diplomacy, lack of leadership and dominance of narrow national interests that crippled the Seventh Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is more difficult than ever to heed Fitzgerald’s advice. But, as UNIDIR Director Patricia Lewis so eloquently stated, “It is imperative that we remain optimistic. In times of despair, it is easier to become cynical... but it is hope that will get us through to the next stage, when the political climate is a bit more conducive to progress on the disarmament and nonproliferation front.”
It will not be easy to retain our hope. The failure of this Review Conference has shaken the world’s faith in the Treaty to an unprecedented degree. The promise of the 1995 indefinite extension- that of “permanence with accountability”- now seems hollow. Many are wondering how, during such a crisis of nuclear proliferation and a growing threat of actual use of nuclear weapons, the Review Conference of the NPT could have failed.
And fail it did. While a few pieces of paper labeled “Final Document” were produced and agreed upon, this document does not contain an iota of substantive recommendations or actions to strengthen the global disarmament and nonproliferation regime.
It failed due to the intransigence of a few States, which effectively sabotaged the Conference and allowed it to be bogged down in procedural quibbles. These States, namely Iran, Egypt and the United States, allowed the Conference to fail- or perhaps, more accurately, willed it to fail- precisely because they have lost their faith in the Treaty to ensure their own security.
Let’s look at the Treaty for a minute, and remember why States subscribe to it. The US favors the NPT because it is a legal instrument to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by those which do not already possess them. Egypt remains a party to it based on the belief that it constitutes a norm by which it will be possible to reign Israel in to the nonproliferation family, thus freeing the Middle East from the nuclear weapons that currently plague it. Iran’s reasons are probably similar to that of Egypt’s, though they also hope to use the NPT as a way by which to obtain security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons.
Under the NPT, as under any effective global mechanism, States receive benefits and achieve certain objectives in exchange for certain behaviors. All States, then, are accountable to others for their actions. With such lamentable erosion of the Treaty, some States are now thinking that they can achieve their same objectives through other means, which may lack any of the accountability of a multilateral treaty.
The US has been working hard these past few years to set up a system of unverifiable, non-universal, plurilateral agreements and frameworks which help to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, Security Council resolution 1540, and the G8 Partnership, among others. These initiatives may prove themselves to be very effective tools in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons- and all without the promise of nuclear disarmament in return.
Ten years after the 1995 Review Conference’s package of decisions and resolution on the Middle East, Israel remains outside of the NPT family, its nuclear weapons continually threatening its neighbors in the region. Egypt sees no reason why it should accept stricter controls on its nuclear energy program while the nuclear facilities of Israel remain unchecked and unsafeguarded.
For Iran, it has been clear that the US- and the other Nuclear Weapon States, for that matter- have no intention of providing binding security assurances to the Non-Nuclear Weapon States parties to the Treaty. The denial of Iran’s objectives are thus prompting it to seek security elsewhere- perhaps through acquisition of its own nuclear weapons, which the Nuclear Weapon States themselves revere as the ultimate source of security.
The vast majority of States, however, still believe that the NPT provides the best road to security. With over 50 working papers put forth at this Conference, there are many issues which do enjoy widespread support. The near-consensus in so many areas only exacerbates the anger and resentment over the time, resources and opportunity wasted at this Conference. Some States parties, including Malaysia, Chile and New Zealand, utilized the last day of the Conference to express their outrage and disappointment with the failed Conference.
Canada’s Ambassador Meyer, usually a perfect reflection of Canada’s patient, bridge-building role, did not attempt to hide his personal outrage and frustration in delivering Canada’s closing statement, in which he summed up the failure of the Conference thus: “We have let the pursuit of short-term, parochial interests override the collective long-term interest in sustaining this Treaty’s authority and integrity. We have seen precious time that might have been devoted to exchanges on substance and the development of common ground squandered by procedural brinkmanship… We have been hampered, frankly, by a lack of imagination and will to break with the status quo and adopt new ways of conducting our business.” (see, “A Treaty Worth Fighting For,” page 10.)
The General Assembly (GA) Hall was dead silent as Iran prattled off a list of eight examples demonstrating “the abysmal record, achieved unilaterally by the United States in the short span of five years (that) testifies to a mentality which seeks solutions solely through demonstration of power.” The failure of the Review Conference, said Iran, was clearly the fault of the US, which, they insisted, “tried to create smokescreens in this Conference to deflect attention from its abysmal record.”
(The US, interestingly enough, did not exercise its right of reply in response to the Iranian statement. Failure to reply to such harsh criticism is an unusual choice by a government at the United Nations, especially when it allows such a statement to constitute the last substantive words of a high-profile Conference.)
With each stalled day, the prospects of an effective outcome grew more and more dim. NGOs struggled to retain their hope in the sea of disappointment. On the penultimate day, refusing to be bogged down in the cynicism and despair of this Conference, some NGOs had decided to present to the delegates, as they entered the GA hall to close the Conference, with a giant sunflower each, a symbolic reminder of the global desire and will for nuclear abolition. (Due to the security set-up of the GA, NGOs were prevented from actually handing them to the delegates, and so we were left holding these symbols of disarmament themselves. See “Sunflowers Instead of Missiles”, page 11.)
Unfortunately, the UN Security decided there was no room in the GA for such symbolic optimism. A squad of security guards burst into the observer gallery, marching up and down the rows, and literally ripped the sunflowers out of the hands, laps and briefcases of the NGO representatives.
You can take the sunflowers out of the peace activists’ hands, but you can’t wipe out all the seeds of hope that these flowers symbolize. As Ambassador Meyer said, “If there is a silver lining in the otherwise dark cloud of this Review Conference, it lies in the hope that our leaders and citizens will be so concerned by its failure that they mobilize behind prompt remedial action.”
NGOs and their governmental partners are wasting no time in strategizing creative ways to tackle the core challenges of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. At an Abolition 2000 press conference on May 26, Alyn Ware, the Coordinator of the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament, asserted that, “negotiations should happen through the NPT or through the Conference on Disarmament. They’re not. So now we’re consulting with governments to look at alternative paths…” He continued to discuss some of the successes of “alternative” processes, including the 1996 International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion, the strengthening of existing Nuclear Weapon Free Zones and the creation of new ones, and the slew of GA resolutions which consistently call for the implementation of disarmament obligations through the negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
“We’re not giving up just because of the lack of progress through the NPT,” Ware said. “We believe nuclear disarmament is a political, moral and legal responsibility- and a practical possibility- and we’re going to make sure that happens.”
As we watch the cinders of the failed NPT Review Conference smolder out, a new hope is festering. Out of its ashes will rise a renewed plan for eliminating the nuclear threat, propelled by the raw tenacity and moral urgency of civil society. Even as the men with guns rip the flowers from our hands, or as the men in suits push us, through their inaction, ever more closer to the edge of annihilation, the majority of the world’s people will continue the fight for freedom from fear, inching all the more closer to reaching a critical mass of political will for nuclear disarmament.