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5 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 3

Editorial: The choice between courage and fear
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Progress or procrastination? This is the choice available to states participating in the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Progress is based on courage. It requires serious discussions, now, in this Conference, about real effective measures for nuclear disarmament. And it requires bold, new commitments from all states parties—including the negotiation of new legal instruments that are truly designed to fulfill the objectives of the NPT.

Most states are demanding exactly this kind of progress. Austria called for the Review Conference to “put a credible process in place to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” Mexico called for “the initiation of a clearly defined and irrevocable process for the negotiation of effective measures.” Costa Rica called for concrete, time-bound commitments. New Zealand called for “measures that, under international law, set the rules and the prohibitions to be followed by us all if we are to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world.” Anything less, Ambassador Dell Higgie argued, would not be a truly “effective measure” for nuclear disarmament.

The alternative to progress is procrastination, which is based on fear. Fear of change, fear of each other, fear of reprisal for stepping up and taking action.

It means continuing to be intimidated by the nuclear-armed states and their allies, states that accuse those wanting progress of being divisive, polarising, ignorant, and even emotional. Indeed, Russia mused that claims that nuclear disarmament is in stagnation “bear no relation to the truth and apparently can be explained either by lack of information or by a polemic fervor, when objective assessments are replaced by emotions.” But it is not the only one to use this sort of language. Its remarks are reminiscent of the Latvia’s comment at First Committee last year that assessing implementation of the 2010 NPT Action Plan is sometimes approached “in a rather emotional manner.” It also reminds one of Belarus’ warning in the Conference on Disarmament earlier this year about “topless ladies” starting to “scream and throw bottles of mayonnaise” from the gallery if broader civil society participation was allowed.

These accusations are highly gendered. When men want to assert their power and dominance and make women feel small and marginalised, they accuse us of being emotional, overwrought, relentless, repetitive, irrational. This technique has been employed for as long as gender hierarchies have existed, including within the nuclear weapon discourse (also see this article).

It is no surprise to hear it leveled by some states against others in the NPT context. The states using this kind of language as a weapon are representative of those calling for procrastination. They want the 2015 outcome to reiterate or “update” what they describe as “reasonable,” “realistic,” “practical,” or “pragmatic” steps. These steps, of course, refer to activities that have been on the international agenda since the 1950s. And the states promoting them argue that anything else is ridiculous, because of the “strategic security environment”.

Most of the nuclear-armed states have argued that conditions are not ripe for nuclear disarmament because of current international tensions. Russia said the question “what next” cannot be answered now because the “strategic stability” is deteriorating. France said nuclear disarmament is only for “when the strategic context allows”. China argued disarmament can only be undertaken in a secure international environment.

Interestingly, the NPT does not include such a condition. The Philippines and South Africa pointed this out, with the Philippines noting that nothing in the NPT sets preconditions for nuclear disarmament actions and South Africa arguing that the only necessary conditions for nuclear disarmament were created when the NPT entered into force.

But beyond that technicality, it should also be pointed out that the states deploring the deterioration of the strategic context are themselves at the heart of rising tensions. “The United States, its NATO allies, and Russia—countries that together possess most of the nuclear weapons that exist,” noted Western States Legal Foundation in its presentation to the NPT last week, “have turned a civil conflict in Ukraine into a violent proxy war in the borderlands of Europe.”

One could argue that a rational perspective would suggest that now is the perfect time to get serious about nuclear disarmament. Fortunately a number of governments, including several in Europe, are being rational about this situation. Austria firmly expressed that “the current tensions in Europe, which unfortunately remains the continent most affected by the presence of nuclear weapons, make the focus on nuclear disarmament and the full implementation of all NPT obligations and commitments all the more important.” Lithuania deplored rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons in support of political goals.

But still, the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies continue to insist that they are reasonable and practical and those who want progress on disarmament—the vast majority of NPT states parties—are irresponsible, ignorant, or emotional. And so as Brazil said last week, we find ourselves “in a stalemate akin to Zeno’s paradox.” Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota explained, “The ancient Greek philosopher claimed that movement was impossible, because before walking a certain distance, first one would have to walk half that distance, and before that, a quarter, and so on indefinitely.” In the context of the step-by-step approach, then, he argued, “the international community has been told that, before taking any first step, we should take half the first step, and before that, half of half a step, and so on.”

But movement is not an illusion nor an impossibility. Momentum for the prohibition of nuclear weapons is growing. And those who are driving this movement are not irresponsible, irrational, or emotional. On the contrary, they are the realistic ones. They realise that continuing down the same path of inaction for another five years will neither reduce tensions nor fulfill the NPT’s goals. They realise that waiting for the nuclear-armed states to lead the way will only lead us deeper and deeper into a world order where the few rule the many through the threat of violence and terror.

We are faced with a choice. We can spend the next five years watching the nuclear-armed states fail to implement the “actions” we roll over from 2010 and then reconvene at the next review conference in 2020 to lament the lack of progress. Or, we can try something new.

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