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2012 No. 3

Editorial: Rights and responsibilities
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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During the thematic debate on nuclear weapons, Ambassador Kennedy of the United States criticized the increasing demands for “wholesale approaches to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.” She complained, “Disarmament is hard work. There are no shortcuts and no practical alternatives to the step-by-step approach. Trying to accomplish everything at once will distract us from more realistic efforts.”

However, the step-by-step approach, originally developed in the 1960s, has failed to achieve results. Fifteen years ago, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) had been adopted, a mandate for negotiating a fissile material treaty had been reached, and 13 practical steps for disarmament had been agreed by all nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) states parties. There may have been momentum for the step-by-step approach at that time. Now, however, this path seems have reached a dead end. The CTBT has not entered into force, the fissile materials treaty has not been negotiated, and the 13 practical steps have largely been ignored or even abdicated in some cases.

While the 2010 NPT Review Conference endorsed a new action plan for moving forward, the nuclear weapon states have so far failed to make tangible progress implementing their disarmament commitments. As Jim Kelly of Ireland argued last week, the original NPT bargain was made between the “will disarms” and the “will foregos”. As he noted, “The ‘will foregos’ have kept their side of the bargain, and we believe that progress in-kind from the ‘will disarms’ is overdue.”

There is a growing realization by non-nuclear weapon states that, if left on their own, the nuclear weapon possessors will not comply with their legal obligations to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Furthermore, if these states are left on their own, it is not clear that any instruments that they develop will have concrete effects. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists has pointed out, “reduces the legal limit for deployed strategic warheads,” but “it doesn’t actually reduce the number of warheads.” Earlier this month, he remarked that based on the aggregate data released by the US State Department, “it is not clear that either country has made any explicit warhead reductions yet under the treaty.”

Thus the majority of non-nuclear weapon states have recognized that they will have to take the lead on ensuring nuclear disarmament actually occurs. The status quo, in which the tyranny of the minority can threaten the security and survival of the vast majority, will no longer be accepted. The 21st century is characterized by an unprecedented level of interconnectivity and international solidarity. People throughout the Middle East are reaching out to each other in mutual respect to assure each other that they do not war in the region. Citizens from the United States have marched in Pakistan to show that they oppose their government’s use of drones. The idea that a handful of governments can continue to possess weapons of terror and say they are for purposes of “security” seems outrageous to most people—and most other governments.

During her remarks last week, Ms. Nyhamar of Norway agreed, “There is no doubt that nuclear disarmament is not easy and requires hard work.” However, she argued, “That is why we cannot allow the current impasse in the machinery to prevail. And just as nuclear weapons concern us all, so the responsibility to work for a world without nuclear weapons rests with all UN Member States.”

UN member states are indeed taking the initiative for nuclear disarmament. Austria, Mexico, and Norway have tabled a resolution to create an open-ended working on nuclear disarmament. The Non-Aligned Movement is proposing a high-level meeting on this subject during the next General Assembly. This week, more than 30 governments will deliver a joint statement on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

And governments are not alone in seizing responsibility for action. Over the weekend, dozens of humanitarian and disarmament civil society organizations came together in New York to strategize for how to move forward on creating a more equitable, just, and peaceful world for all. Our work, whether on establishing international standards for the arms trade, eliminating entire weapon systems, or developing norms and laws for international behaviour, will be the path forward.

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