Arrogance, Denial, Nuclear Colonialism, and the Persistence of Hope by the 98%
Reflections on the UN General Assembly’s first ever High Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament
–Kevin Martin, Executive Director
Two Thursdays ago, September 26, at the United Nations in New York, the General Assembly convened its first ever High Level Meeting (HLM) on nuclear disarmament. You didn’t hear about it? Not surprising, as the headlines at the UN mostly revolved around Security Council action to rid Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal and the so-called “charm offensive” by new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.
In the wake of those relatively high profile news items, and the subsequent telephone call between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama (and the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, which occurred on the same day as the HLM), the daylong talkfest on nuclear weapons got lost in the shuffle.
Yet it was important in that it was part of a persistent, if relatively low profile, campaign by many non-nuclear states that are fed up with the lack of progress by the U.S, Russia and other nuclear states toward abolishing nuclear weapons worldwide. NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) registered with the UN were allowed to attend as observers (with two NGO speakers making presentations, our friend Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee being one of them). I attended along with our national Field Director, Judith Le Blanc, International Committee Chair Judy Lerner and Peace Action of New York State Executive Director Alicia Godsberg.
The meeting was initiated by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and it is part of an Open Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament, so this won’t be the last such meeting. By coincidence, Iran is the current chair of the NAM, so Iranian President Rouhani made the first presentation by a UN member state, after opening remarks by UNGA President John William Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The SecGen (love those UN abbreviations!) was very good, as always, on the topic of nuclear disarmament, noting that the issue is intricately linked to economic development, the environment, and thwarting terrorism, decrying the “layer of fear that clouds all human existence” created by nuclear weapons. Mr. Ban’s excellent five point plan for nuclear disarmament is now five years old and was referenced by several speakers. Somewhat unusually, the SecGen called out Iran and North Korea for nuclear misbehavior, the only countries he mentioned by name.
Then came Iranian President Rouhani, who gave a very detailed address, and he spoke mostly as the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement. He did criticize Israel for remaining outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and called for the convening, as soon as possible, of a conference to establish a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East, as the 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) decided should be held in 2012 (it wasn’t, as the U.S. and Israel predictably balked, fearing Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal would be spotlighted, as it undoubtedly would and should be). Finland is prepared to host such a conference and has diligently worked to make it happen.
As for the NAM proposal, Rouhani called for early negotiations on nuclear disarmament at the Conference on Disarmament (which operates by consensus and hasn’t even agreed on a negotiating agenda since 1998, so prospects for that appear dim), establishing September 26 as an international day to eliminate nuclear weapons, and holding a conference in five years to review progress. All this will soon be embodied in a General Assembly resolution to be introduced by the NAM. The details are less important than the overall message, a “vote of no confidence” in the nuclear weapons states which are obliged to negotiate the elimination of their nukes under the terms of the NPT, which came into force in 1970.
Rouhani quoted an early speech by the SecGen who said “there are no right hands for these wrong weapons,” as did many other speakers.
Other highlights included the following:
-Austria’s President Heinz Fischer called nuclear deterrence “just as fallible as any other human activity.”
-Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who many fear aims to “reinterpret” Japan’s “peace constitution” to pave the way for a more robust Japanese military (already number five in global military spending) touted a meeting next April in Hiroshima of the Non-Proliferation/Disarmament Initiative (one of many unofficial sub-groups of countries concerning nuclear weapons issues, this one initiated by Japan and Australia) and the fact that the 2020 Olympics in Japan will occur during the time of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb observances, thus drawing more international attention to the issue of nuclear weapons (assuming no further problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant force a postponement or moving the venue for the Olympics, crossing our fingers on that one!).
-Kazakhstan announced it would soon introduce a General Assembly resolution on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
-The early leader for the unmitigated gall trophy was the speaker from India, who quoted Mahatma Gandhi not just generally on peace and nonviolence, but on the evil of nuclear weapons, and then went on to justify India’s nuclear arsenal. (Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was only slightly less hypocritical, recalling that in his prior stint as PM he had made the decision to go nuclear in response to India while decrying nukes generally.)
-But of course the unmitigated gall (or in this case, Gaul) award went to the “P-3” (permanent Security Council members) the United States, United Kingdom and France. In a speech that could only be called embarrassing, scolding, insulting, patronizing nuclear colonialism, a speaker from the British foreign ministry blamed the NAM for wasting everyone’s time in convening this meeting and an earlier conference in Oslo on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons (a follow-up meeting will be held in Mexico next February, details forthcoming soon). The three countries doubled down on their disrespect by later each delivering their own condemnations of the non-nuclear states for daring to assert leadership for nuclear weapons abolition, instead of trusting the nuclear states to, eventually, some century perhaps, give up their nukes. The U.S. rep touted a “nuclear glossary” being led by China, as if this is a big development, almost 70 years after the dawn of the nuclear age. The only thing surprising about al this was how extremely arrogant and self-serving it was. I was embarrassed to be a U.S. citizen listening to this drivel, truth be told.
-The Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands spoke with the most legitimacy and poignancy on how nuclear weapons testing had devastated their previously pristine areas of the Pacific Ocean. Their calls to abolish nukes were among the most moving of the speeches, as was a strong statement by the Philippines (which, like many of the NAM, associated itself strongly with the remarks by President Rouhani on behalf of the NAM). The speaker called nuclear deterrence “archaic” and called for the “criminalization” of nuclear weapons by treaty or legal action. Yeah!
-Chile’s speaker was the “Minister for Human Security and Disarmament.” Every country needs one of those!
The main takeaway for me, and I’m sorry not to recall the speaker, was the reality that 98% of the world’s countries eschew nuclear weapons, and those countries are not going to be silent about the negligence and recklessness of the nuclear states, all of whom plan not only to maintain but to “modernize” their nuclear arsenals. While we don’t yet have a strong international grassroots movement for nuclear weapons abolition, these states are planting seeds that will bear fruit. They have to, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
We here in the U.S., along with our peace movement allies in other nuclear states, need to continue to pressure our governments domestically, but also to participate in good faith in multilateral forums called by the non-nuclear states, who have much more moral authority on the subject than the nuclear haves.