13 May 2010, No. 9

An obligation to reality
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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During Wednesday morning’s debate in Main Committee III, Ambassador Labbe of Chile said that the first obligation of diplomats is to look at the reality of any given situation, noting, “reality cannot be imposed upon us.” He went on to argue that governments cannot just put forth allegations regarding the nature of the Treaty so that they end up with the interpretation they want.

At the time, he was speaking about the articles of the Treaty dealing with the “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy. However, his comment is equally applicable to all of the NPT’s provisions and the decisions and commitments made in 1995 and 2000. His comment is also applicable to the rhetoric, assumptions, and allegations about many issues related to nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and nuclear energy that are routinely made in conference rooms, repeated ad nauseam in the media, and integrated into the beliefs, efforts, and analysis of governments and civil society alike.

It is indeed an obligation of diplomats—and of journalists and NGO representatives—to look at reality. It is our job to question, explore, and investigate that which our colleagues purport to be reality. It is our job to ask hard for clarification, to challenge our colleagues to be forthright, transparent, and honest, and to apply critical analysis to all that we do. As singer Ani DiFranco says, “we have to be able to criticize what we love, to say what we have to say, ‘cause if you’re not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.”

Several delegations have demonstrated their willingness to do this at the Review Conference. They have asked questions, challenged the rhetoric, and pushed for changes to the status quo. The result is more engagement and fruitful deliberations, not less, as purported by many who oppose criticism.

The delegations of Ireland and Austria continued this positive demonstration of critical thinking and critique in Main Committee III. In the midst of a discussion about the benefits of nuclear power, they noted that this form of energy brings with it many questions of long-term sustainability, legacies for future generations, health and environmental risks, and economic burdens. Austria’s delegation pointed out that the Chernobyl disaster left a legacy that has affected millions of people and required billions of euros to address. Both the Irish and Austrian delegations also expressed concern with the common refrain that nuclear energy is a possible solution to climate change. Austria’s delegate noted that discussions on this issue in the competent forums have not included recommendations to bring nuclear power into the energy mix to combat climate change, and therefore questioned the value of bringing those types of discussions into the NPT forum. The Austrian delegate urged states to make decisions about their energy mix on the basis of aiming for a more efficient use of power in general and noted that while the IAEA has tools to help states make these decisions, so do other organizations, such as the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Of course, this debate about the merits of nuclear energy takes place in a rather heated context—many NPT states parties are sensitive about any discussion that could be perceived as intending to limit their right to make their own choices about energy sources or to limit their access to relevant materials, technologies, and expertise (see News in Brief, pp.4-5, for details of the MCIII debate). This sensitivity is not unjustified. It stems from the inherent imbalances of the NPT between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”. On Wednesday, the debate in Main Committees I and III clearly charted the lines between states that possess nuclear weapons and/or “peaceful” nuclear technology on the one hand, and those who seek guarantees that they will not be attacked with the first and that they will have access to the second.

In both cases, we need transparent, straightforward, and honest commitments and implementation of obligations in order to build a safer world and a stronger system   of international relations based on trust and equity


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