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Banning Nukes Still a Political Fantasy

By Thalif Deen

Prime Minister Hasina

Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, says her country faces a triple nuclear threat literally at her doorstep, from India, China and Pakistan. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 3 2013 (IPS) - The General Assembly’s first-ever high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament closed last week on a predictable note: the longstanding proposal for the elimination of nuclear weapons remains firmly in the realm of political fantasy.

The one-day meeting, referred to by insiders as the HLM, provided no concrete assurances from any of the world’s five declared nuclear powers – the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, told delegates her country was perhaps the only country facing a triple nuclear threat literally at her doorstep. The South Asian nation lives in dangerous proximity to not one but three nuclear powers: India, China and Pakistan.

She rightly pointed out that her country has “good reasons to worry about these vicious weapons”.

Hasina called for the establishment, as an interim measure, of nuclear-free zones in South Asia and the Middle East.

But a long-delayed international conference on the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East was postponed last year and remains in limbo, mired in the politics of the region.

Asked if last week’s high-level meeting produced anything concrete, Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee, a strong anti-nuclear advocate, told IPS “one cannot expect miracles or enormous breakthroughs at the HLM or similar multinational disarmament forums”.

“The greatest impact comes when there is popular pressure, and social movement demands from below, for nuclear disarmament and abolition, as we saw in the 1950s, early 60s, and the freeze era of the late 1970s and early ’80s.”

That said, the fact that the HLM was held, with 74 heads of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors and other foreign ministry personnel speaking, reflects the continuing commitment of the vast majority of the world’s nations to achieve a nuclear weapons free world, as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Gerson pointed out.

“These demands and the increasing isolation of the United States and Israel in such forums is something those of us who are U.S. Americans need to be teaching our compatriots,” he added.

Until the HLM, he said, the U.S. and other P5 states (Britain, France, China and Russia) had boycotted such multilateral disarmament conferences, most recently the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons.

“So, tiny and incremental as it may be, the fact that the administration [of U.S. President Barack Obama] was represented in the HLM, albeit by low-level officials and defensively, reflects the reality that it cannot indefinitely ignore the demands of the majority of the world’s nations,” he added.

Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs, told IPS last month that unless disarmament becomes a priority for possessor states, “speeches and meetings alone are not going to change the stark dangers posed by this most destructive weapon of mass destruction”.

A decision to outlaw nuclear weapons in the same way as biological and chemical weapons is essential, he stressed, and the time to start negotiations on a Nuclear Weapon Convention is not tomorrow but now.

Long before the meeting concluded, delegates were readying for two key upcoming meetings early next year.

Firstly, an international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons scheduled to take place in Mexico in February 2014.

And secondly, a ministerial meeting of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) to be held in Hiroshima, Japan in April 2014.

Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, a programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told IPS the HLM provided an opportunity for governments to be bold and visionary in a way that other fora dealing with nuclear issues do not.

She said governments aren’t constrained by having to adopt a consensus outcome or negotiate an agreement. Rather, they can say exactly what they think.

In that sense, she said, what would have been a good outcome for the HLM was a series of forward-looking statements condemning the continued possession of and reliance on nuclear weapons and calling for their banning and elimination.

This could help governments – especially those free of nuclear weapons – to mobilise more effectively against nuclear weapons, she added.

Outside of the HLM, foreign ministers and high-level representatives from the 183 member states who are parties to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) issued an urgent call last week to the eight remaining states – China, North Korea, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States – to sign and ratify the CTBT.

According to guidelines of the CTBT, ratification by these eight countries is necessary for the treaty’s entry into force.

Gerson told IPS the HLM also provided non-nuclear states an opportunity to continue pressing the U.S. and other nuclear powers to fulfill their Article VI Nuclear Non-Proliferating Treaty (NPT) obligations and to fulfill the obligations agreed in the Action Plan of the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

This includes a commitment to hold a conference on the creation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, as well as planning among themselves – most impressively by the Nonaligned Movement – ways to exert greater pressure on the nuclear powers.

On the sidelines, the HLM drew civil society and disarmament activists from across the U.S. and internationally to New York.

This “provid[ed] us the opportunity to share information to develop plans for the remainder of the Obama administration, especially as we approach the Mexico Follow-On Conference on the Human Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and the 2015 NPT Review Conference,” said Gerson.

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