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2014 No. 2

Editorial: Mighty rivers and “seemingly impenetrable stones”
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Those who seek change and progress are frequently confronted with assertions that their proposals are not practical or feasible. For the most part, in the disarmament context as much as anywhere else, those opposing change are those that believe they have the most to lose. But they don’t. Disarmament, like any other progressive social change, benefits everyone.

The basis upon which these assertions are made is usually unjustified, misinformed, and/or rooted in a material or political commitment to the status quo. These claims bear some scrutiny. What is “practical”? What is “feasible”? How do we measure these concepts and who determines that?

When the French ambassador says the “step-by-step” approach to nuclear disarmament is the “only realistic one, and so the only one that will allow us to progress,” upon what does he base this? Where is it written that this is the only possible approach? Certainly not in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls simply for “effective measures” for nuclear disarmament. Certainly not in the NPT’s outcome documents, which make it clear that any interim measures they specify are neither exhaustive nor sequential.

When Ambassador Simon-Michel demands that states must implement the step-by-step roadmap “without deviating from the chosen path,” we could ask, where is this path leading? As we meet in New York, 44 years after the entry into force of the NPT, multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament have not yet commenced. It is the nuclear-armed states that have deviated from the implementation of article VI. Do we really feel like we are on the right path?

When the US representative encourages “all parties to join with the United States to advance realistic and achievable objectives,” which objectives is she speaking about? Who decides what is realistic and what is achievable? The core objective of the NPT, as set out in its preamble, is the elimination of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Is this objective no longer deemed realistic or achievable? Is the goal now, as the Japanese ambassador said, only “fewer nuclear weapons,” rather than a nuclear weapon free world?

Ms. Gottemoeller said that her government will “continue to make it clear that arms control regimes and their corresponding nuclear reductions have served the world well for more than 40 years.” Do those that have suffered from nuclear testing think that is true? What about those who struggle to find jobs or shelter or food while their governments squander vast resources on the maintenance and modernisation of these weapons? Has the “progress” declared by the nuclear-armed states been deemed practical or realistic by the majority of the world?

The US delegation asserts that there “is no way to skip to the end.” But we have not yet even seen a beginning to concerted, multilateral action on nuclear disarmament, as required by the NPT.

“Certain parties would like to push us into taking another path, an ideological approach which aims to stigmatize and not to seek solutions,” claims Ambassador Simon-Michel. Stigmatisation is not idealistic. It is a straightforward, logical human response to unacceptable practices. It is explicitly aimed at seeking and leading to solutions. Human society has progressed by identifying and condemning bad behaviour, which informs the building of norms and legal and political responses. It will be no different for nuclear weapons. They will be eliminated when the rest of the world has made it clear that they reject the purported “value” of nuclear weapons, undermining the attempts of the nuclear-armed states to justify the risks and consequences of nuclear violence. Stigmatisation, through a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, will be part of this shift in calculations.

We are told that nuclear weapons are different, though. That in the “right hands” they afford security. As the Chilean ambassador said, we must expose this “persistent fallacy”.

This is just what the initiative to examine the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has accomplished.

Growing out of the NPT 2010 outcome document, this initiative has demonstrated with compelling and chilling evidence that the detonation of any nuclear weapon, let alone a nuclear exchange, would have catastrophic consequences to which no national or international relief service would be able to respond.

As Ireland’s delegation argued, states have a duty of care to protect their citizens—and the world—from these consequences.

This responsibility falls to all states, not just those armed with nuclear weapons. And it is relevant for all disarmament matters, not just nuclear disarmament. It is not only up to those that possess or use the weapons to seek and achieve change. It is up to all of us. And we all get a say in what is practical and feasible, because progressive change is a collective project.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Gottemoeller mused that perhaps we should think of disarmament in terms of how creeks and streams connect to form rivers. “Over time, those mighty rivers are irreversible; they cut through massive and seemingly impenetrable stone on the way to their final destination.” In fact, this well describes the effect that states, civil society groups, and other actors can have when they work together to oppose the entrenched reticence of the handful of powerful states that doggedly perpetuate a belief that their weapons make them powerful. Our collective efforts on a variety of issues—from stopping the bombings of towns and cities, to the prohibition of nuclear weapons, to controlling the arms trade, to preventing the development of unacceptable new weapon technologies—will undoubtedly cut through the “seemingly impenetrable stone” of those who seek security through militarism and who construct power through the threat and exercise of armed violence.