Pulling back from the nuclear precipice


'On 29 and 30 August 2007 six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were loaded on a US Air Force plane, flown across the country and unloaded. For 36 hours no-one knew where the warheads were or even that they were missing.'

So reported a bipartisan US panel of American international relations celebrities including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. The panel used this diabolical faux pas in the handling of nuclear weapons by their country as part of their case for a nuclear weapons free world.

The eminent Americans wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 15 January 2008 of 'the importance of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons as a guide to our thinking about nuclear policies, and about the importance of a series of steps that will pull us back from the nuclear precipice'.

I couldn't agree more.

Most Australians no longer think about the nuclear threat. Yet the editors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said in January 2007 that the minute hand of the 'Doomsday Clock' had moved from seven to five minutes to midnight.

'We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age,' they said. 'North Korea's recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed US emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.'

That list of reasons alone is long enough to generate profound concern. Yet there are more. The Bush Administration has abandoned commitment to the international rule of law and encouraged allies such as the former Howard Government to do the same. Only two of the nuclear weapons states — China and India — have declared a no-first-use policy.

Many of the 12,000 deployed nuclear weapons are on high alert status. Nuclear weapons are still being included in active military strategic doctrine. The bargain at the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is being broken. The five nuclear powers that are party to the Treaty, who pledged 'the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals' under the NPT, are instead upgrading their nuclear weapons.

Not only do India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons but so does Israel. Iran and North Korea have apparently tried or are trying to acquire these weapons. Keeping the weapons out of the hands of terrorists is vital. There is a stalemate in multilateral disarmament negotiations. The 2005 Review Conference of the NPT failed to even agree on an agenda.

Many authoritative forums and people have called for complete nuclear disarmament. The International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that 'There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith, and bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.'

The Canberra Commission established at former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans' initiative wrote that 'The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility ... Nuclear weapons have long been understood to be too destructive and non-discriminatory to secure discrete objectives on the battlefield.'

At the 2000 NPT review conference the five nuclear states party to the Treaty gave an 'unequivocal undertaking ... to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament.' The Bush Administration's backing away from this commitment was a major cause of the deadlock at the 2005 NPT review conference.

Incremental steps towards outlawing nuclear weapons could begin with taking all nuclear weapons off high alert status and making large reductions in numbers. Prohibiting the production of fissile material and urging all nuclear states to make no-first-use pledges are vital steps.

Australia's role in this global survival strategy must include active policies relating to the alliance with the US, the export of uranium, joining with the strongest advocates of a nuclear weapons convention, continuing to sustain the obligations of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, and insisting upon rigorous scrutiny of the uses of uranium exports.

Prime Minister Rudd has undertaken to re-form the Canberra Commission. Robert McClelland, then Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced on 14 August 2007 that Labor supports negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention and that if the party was elected (which, of course, it subsequently was) it would seek and support steps towards that goal.

Not only is a nuclear weapons abolition treaty essential but there are many practical reasons for considering that it is possible. Biological and chemical weapons abolition treaties have been negotiated successfully, and negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention is already supported by 125 countries at the UN.

The support of responsible and perceptive people is essential to growth of the political will to make it happen.

John LangmoreJohn Langmore is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and National President of the UN Association of Australia. He was formerly a Labor MP and then a Director in the UN Secretariat in New York. email



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Existing comments

This is a timely reminder to us all about the urgent need to secure agreement of relevant states to eliminate nuclear weapons. We need to try and make this a an urgent public issue once again.
Tony santospirito | 18 February 2008

Selling uranium to my gramdmotherly mind akin to an undertaker murdering his own children in order to stay in business.
Margid Bryn-Burns | 21 February 2008

John Langmore is completely right in his attitude towards this terrible threat to the world. But the question is: how can the message be passed on - and enough people persuaded so as to ensure that nuclear weapons are eliminated?
Bob Corcoran | 18 March 2008


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