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12 October 2009 - First Edition

Editorial: The past, present, and future of nuclear weapons
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will


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The opening week of First Committee’s general debate has been once again a largely static affair. Though the tone has been much more positive than in recent years, with most delegations welcoming the “positive momentum” created by the renewed interest in establishing a nuclear weapon free world, little has been proposed in the manner of concrete action.

This trend did not go unrecognised. The Swiss representative, Mr. Anton Thalmann from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued, “While words and good intentions are needed to create a positive atmosphere, they alone will not move the disarmament agenda forward. Real action is needed.” He provided several concrete examples of real action, including “lessening of the role of nuclear weapons in national doctrines” and “reduction of the alert levels of nuclear weapons”.

The Swiss were not the only ones to outline specific steps. Returning to what Bush-era diplomats dismissed as “laundry lists of traditional arms control steps,” US Under Secretary of State Tauscher cited reducing her country’s nuclear arsenal, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and negotiating a verifiable fissile materials cut-off treaty as necessary undertakings.

Welcoming this return to past commitments, it is important to note that indeed these steps are past commitments. As a few delegations pointed out during general debate, there appears to be a movement by some nuclear weapon states toward expanding the non-proliferation requirements beyond those stipulated in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while at the same time referencing only past commitments to disarmament without moving toward their implementation. UN Security Council resolution 1887, adopted on 24 September at the Council’s Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, is case in point.

Actually implementing past commitments is essential to moving forward. Furthermore, it is imperative for the majority of UN member states and civil society that the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament agendas advance together.

In an effort to encourage forward-looking debate on nuclear disarmament that leads to concrete steps toward abolition, Reaching Critical Will last week urged delegations to consider and discuss the humanitarian merits of nuclear weapons, removed from the rhetoric of military utility. Some have already begun to engage this topic.

Norway’s representative, Mr. Steffen Kongstad from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphasised, “There can be no doubt that nuclear weapons are the most inhuman and indiscriminate weapons ever created. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are essential from a humanitarian perspective.” He also argued, “advancement in the field of disarmament and arms control can only be achieved if states listen to, learn from and include strong voices from civil society that advocate change. Such advocates for change must include field-based organisations, women’s organisations and representatives of the people affected by the continued stalemate over these issues.”

Speaking out as an organisation that endeavours to prevent human suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and principles, the International Committee of the Red Cross addressed the issue of nuclear weapons for the first time in its statement to the First Committee. On behalf of the ICRC, Mr. Robert Young argued, “Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, in the risks of escalation and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, indeed, to the survival of humanity.”

Every step on the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda must be geared toward ensuring the security and survival of humanity. As High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Sergio Duarte noted in a speech on 18 September 2009, the old rationale for nuclear weapons is neither practical nor realistic. He argued that nuclear deterrence cannot prevent the use of nuclear weapons, “as there are countless ways that such deterrence can break down—a danger that is only compounded by the expanding number of states that possess such weapons.” He also argued that pledges of no-first use are insufficient for avoiding the use of nuclear weapons, since such pledges “implicitly rationalize the second use of such weapons, even against cities.”

This demonstrates the need for a new discourse on nuclear disarmament. The Norwegian representative argued that important lessons can be learned from the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty, which “demonstrated that it is possible to make a real difference to human security by breaking old habits.” He cited “mobilising political will, working across traditional groups, and in partnership with survivors and relevant stakeholders” as imperative for these and other disarmament instruments.

Reaching Critical Will hopes more delegations will speak out about nuclear weapons and human security during the thematic debate on nuclear weapons this week. We look forward to hearing proposals this week that turn the positive atmosphere into positive action.

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