Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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Nuclear Disarmament’s Midnight Hour

CANBERRA – Last month, the Doomsday Clock’s hands were moved a minute closer to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the respected global organization that for decades has tracked the risk of a nuclear-weapons catastrophe, whether caused by accident or design, state or terrorist, fission bomb or dirty radiological bomb.

Few around the world seemed to be listening. The story – as others like it since the end of the Cold War ­– came and went within a half-day’s news cycle. But the Scientists’ argument was sobering, and demands attention. Progress since 2007 – when the Clock’s hands were last set at five minutes to midnight – has stalled, and political leadership has gone missing on all of the critical issues: disarmament, non-proliferation, and key building blocks needed for both.

On disarmament, the balloon has well and truly deflated. The New START treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in 2010, reduced the number of deployed strategic weapons, but left both sides’ actual stockpiles intact, their high-alert status undisturbed,  weapons-modernization programs in place, disagreements about missile defense and conventional-arms imbalances unresolved – and talks on further draw-downs going nowhere.

With no further movement by the US and Russia, which together hold 95% of the world’s total of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, no other nuclear-armed state has felt pressure to reduce its own stocks significantly, and some – China, India, and Pakistan – have been increasing them.

The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was a modest success, mainly because it did not collapse in disarray, as had the previous one in 2005. But it could not agree on measures to strengthen the regime; its push for talks on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East has so far gathered no momentum; North Korea is no closer to being put back in its NPT box; and Iran is closer than ever to jumping out of it, with consequences that would ricochet around the region – and the global economy – if it makes that decision.

Despite President Barack Obama’s good intentions, the US Senate is no closer to ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, while China, India, and Pakistan, among others, take shelter behind that inaction, with a fragile voluntary moratorium the only obstacle to resumed testing. And negotiations on another crucial building block for both disarmament and non-proliferation – a treaty to ban further production of weapons-grade fissile material – remain at an impasse.

The only half-way good news is that progress continues on a third building block: ensuring that weapons-usable materials, and weapons themselves, currently stored in multiple locations in 32 countries, do not fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. At the end of March, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will host a follow-up meeting to Obama’s successful Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, which brought together 47 government leaders to agree on a comprehensive program aimed at securing all such materials within four years. High on the agenda will be the security implications of nuclear safety: the Fukushima catastrophe showed that nuclear-power plants may be vulnerable not only to natural disaster, but also to terrorist sabotage.

But nuclear security is only one small part of what must be done to eliminate nuclear threats once and for all, and summit fatigue will make it difficult to sustain key world leaders’ commitment to meeting for so narrow a purpose. New thinking is urgently needed on how to recover the momentum of just two years ago.

To achieve that requires meeting three conditions. First, political leaders and civil-society leaders must restate, ad nauseam if necessary, the case for “global zero” – a world without nuclear weapons – and map a credible step-by-step path for getting there.

Second, new mechanisms are needed to energize policymakers and publics. One is to develop and promote a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention as a framework for action. Another is a “State of Play” report card that pulls no punches in assessing which states are meeting their disarmament and non-proliferation commitments, and which are not (the Nuclear Materials Security Index, just published by Senator Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, is one example). Advocacy-focused leadership networks, such as those now operating in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, comprising well-known former leaders and other senior figures, could also help.

Third, sustaining high-level policy attention to the entire nuclear agenda requires an institutional setting. The Nuclear Security Summit’s focus is too narrow for this role; the International Atomic Energy Agency’s formal mandate is too restricted; the NPT Review Conference meets too irregularly; and the United Nations Security Council’s membership is too limited. The best forum for norm-building may prove to be the G-20, whose members embrace both North and South, account for most of the world’s population, GDP, and all but a handful of its nuclear weapons, and whose heads of government meet regularly.

With its foreign ministers meeting in Mexico this month to discuss broader global governance issues, the G-20 is beginning to move beyond a narrow economic focus. That is to be welcomed. Economic destruction causes immense and intolerable human misery. But there are only two global threats that, if mishandled, can destroy life on this planet as we know it. And nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2 can.

Read more from our "Deciphering Disarmament" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedParrain Boursorama

    The best model for expanding Alternative Energies and Environmental Protection globally is through using market equilibrium, whereas governmental subsidies and fiscal stimulus to be just supplementary

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Zsolt 09:27 28 Feb 12

    I agree that the nuclear situation is both frightening and sobering, but I feel that highlighting this alone is similar when AIDS appeared and everybody was concentrating on fighting, highlighting the AIDS epidemic when from the same sources Hepatitis variant infection caused much highler number of morbodity and mortality.

    Of course a nuclear war would be devastating and a future of humanity after a nuclear catastrophe would be totally unpredictable, we can kill each other with conventional weapons just as well, as we have been doing it continously since WWII.

    And wars are not our only problem, we are facing an imminent economic meltdown, environmental disasters, dwindling natural resources, cultural and educational crisis and we can go on.

    In order to achieve true, long lasting solution we have to arrive to the source of the problem, simply putting nuclear treaties in place will not solve anything.

    The source of the problem is found in our inherent self centered nature, which views anyhthing outside of him with disregard, only as a source for self satisfaction and would exploit anything and anybody happily for its own gain given the chance.

    Until we recognize this nature in all of us, first of all in ourselves, and start correcting it considering others ahead of ourselves we will not find a solution to any of the crisis situations we are facing.

    We have to find the motivation to have a healthy drive in this positive direction, since we cannot build a new system by coercion, force as then we simply remake fascism or communism as we did before.

    The positive motivation would come from the understanding that in this global, integral world of the 21st century we all depend on each other, I simply cannot succeed, prosper without the whole system functioning properly, without true mutual care and consideration.

    Thus the first step is a global education program helping each and everyone understand the intermingled system we live in, how we can make it work for the benefit of all of us. If we are successful with this we will simply forget about weapons, financial problems as a corrected, harmonious single, united human system would grow out effortlessly.

    This is not a dream or utopia but a clear possibility within a short time provided we gather all the available inforamation and we all understand where we are and who we are.

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