By Jamshed Baruah
BERLIN - "We want a nuclear weapons free world." More than 80 percent of people around the globe have expressed this overwhelming desire to authors of a new report. But a close look shows that very little is happening rather slowly in terms of reducing nukes and putting a halt to proliferation. This is cause of profound concern also to atomic scientists.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) released a study on January 16, which says that every country in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa is in favour of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, as are most nations in Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East. But in Europe and North America, particularly among members of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) nuclear alliance, support for a ban on nukes is weakest.
ICAN's report, titled 'Towards a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons', comes one week after the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was moved one minute closer to midnight in response to growing nuclear dangers around the world and a lack of progress towards nuclear abolition. The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2010, when the Clock's minute hand was pushed back one minute from five to six minutes before midnight.
The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world's vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.
The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) moved the Clock one minute closer to midnight after reviewing the implications of recent events and trends for the future of humanity with input from other experts on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, climate change, and biosecurity.
In a formal statement on January 10, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted: "It is five minutes to midnight. Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007."
Commenting on the Doomsday Clock announcement, Jayantha Dhanapala, member of the BAS Board of Sponsors, former United Nations under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, and ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States, said:
"Despite the promise of a new spirit of international cooperation, and reductions in tensions between the United States and Russia, the Science and Security Board believes that the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear, and leadership is failing."
Dhanapala further pointed out that the ratification in December 2010 of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States had reversed the previous drift in US-Russia nuclear relations. "However, failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea and on a treaty to cut off production of nuclear weapons material continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons."
The world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world's inhabitants several times over, said Dhanapala.
An ICAN campaigner and the author of the study, Tim Wright, said: "The vast majority of nations believe it is time to ban nuclear weapons in the same way that biological and chemical weapons have been banned."
Abandon snail's pace
"Nuclear disarmament cannot continue at a snail's pace if we are to prevent the further spread and use of nuclear weapons. It must be accelerated, and the best way to achieve that is through a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty with timelines and benchmarks for eliminating nuclear stockpiles," Wright said, adding: "This must be the next big negotiating objective of the international community."
The pressing need for doing away with nukes was also stressed in a historic resolution in November 2011 by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which has close to 100 million members and volunteers worldwide.
The resolution highlighted the humanitarian dangers of nuclear weapons and called on governments "to pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement". [Read alo: Red Cross Movement Wants Nukes Abolished]
ICAN study finds that support for a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons has grown considerably since 2008, when the UN Secretary-General made such a treaty the centrepiece of his nuclear disarmament action plan.
"At the May 2010 review conference of the ailing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two references to a nuclear weapons convention made their way into the agreed outcome document, despite strong protestations from some nuclear-armed nations," notes ICAN.
Arielle Denis, a senior campaigner at ICAN’s office in Geneva, believes that governments have a clear popular mandate to ban nuclear weapons. "Right across the world, even in nations with large nuclear arsenals, opinion polls show that a majority of citizens support the elimination of these immoral, inhumane and illegal weapons. The people believe the time has come for their leaders to cast off the nuclear shadow," she said.
But, as Robert Socolow, member of the BAS Science and Security Board, says, "Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain. Among these are disagreements between the United States and Russia about the utility and purposes of missile defense, as well as insufficient transparency, planning, and cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states to support a continuing drawdown."
Socolow adds: "The resulting distrust leads nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals. While governments claim they are only ensuring the safety of their warheads through replacement of bomb components and launch systems, as the deliberate process of arms reduction proceeds, such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups."
The way out of this morass is to mobilise public opinion. "Whether meeting the challenges of nuclear power, or mitigating the suffering from human-caused global warming, or preventing catastrophic nuclear conflict in a volatile world, the power of people is essential," says BAS executive director, Kennette Benedict.
"For this reason, we ask other scientists and experts to join us in engaging ordinary citizens. Together, we can present the most significant questions to policymakers and industry leaders. Most importantly, we can demand answers and action," she adds.
BAS points out that some of the key recommendations for a safer world have not been taken up and require urgent attention. These include ratification by the United States and China of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and progress on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty;
There is a pressing need for implementing multinational management of the civilian nuclear energy fuel cycle with strict standards for safety, security, and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, including eliminating reprocessing for plutonium separation;
BAS also pleads for strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency's capacity to oversee nuclear materials, technology development, and its transfer.
BAS was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists subsequently created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero), to convey threats to humanity and the planet.
The decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin's Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.
Picture: BANG (Ban All-Nukes Generation) launched in New Zealand before the May 2010 NPT Review Conference in New York | Credit: enact.org.nz