Experts Say

Q&A: “Springtime of Hope” Seen for Nuke Disarmament

Jayantha Dhanapala

IPS Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS)
May 4, 2009
With Jayantha Dhanapala

Thalif Deen interviews JAYANTHA DHANAPALA, former under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs

UNITED NATIONS, May 4 (IPS) - When he addressed a massive gathering in the Czech capital of Prague last month, U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic statement pledging that his country will take "concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons."

That speech, which included a call for a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia and an end to nuclear weapons testing, will resonate throughout a two-week meeting of a preparatory committee for the 2010 review conference on the four-decade-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which deals with halting the spread of existing nuclear weapons technology, dismantling nuclear arsenals, and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology.

Jayantha Dhanapala, one of the world's foremost authorities on nuclear disarmament, currently in New York to attend the meeting which concludes May 15, is cautiously optimistic about the state of the nuclear world.

"We are certainly in a springtime of hope after the dark winter of discontent in the disarmament field," said Dhanapala, a former U.N. under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs and president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

In an interview with U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, he said the rhetoric of the Prague speech by President Obama will have to be matched by action on the issues identified.

"At the same time we must not underestimate the opposition to these actions, and civil society should support the [U.S.] president while other countries - especially the nuclear weapon states - must also play their own role in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation," Dhanapala said.

In his Prague speech, Obama warned that while the Cold War between the United States and Russia has disappeared, the thousands of nuclear weapons have not.

"No nuclear weapon war was fought between the United States and the (former) Soviet Union, but generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light," he added.

Obama has also pledged to pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and to put an end to the testing of nuclear weapons.

Dhanapala said the Obama administration and its supporters "must work hard to make the case for ratification in the U.S. Senate, which will require 67 senators voting for it."

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Do you think there will be any breakthrough on CTBT or fissile ban in a changed environment?

JAYANTHA DHANAPALA: While U.S. ratification will provide a major impetus, let us not forget that eight other countries must either sign or ratify the treaty for it to enter into force.

The main reason why the CTBT was always regarded as a litmus test for nuclear disarmament was because with no test explosions, new generations of nuclear weapons, new designs and new capabilities were effectively halted. Any bargain which undermines this would be a Faustian one, which will be rejected by the disarmament community.

On the fissile material ban, the U.S. policy shift on seeking a verifiable treaty should open the way for the Conference on Disarmament to start negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) at long last.

IPS: Will there be any significant developments in advancing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

JD: The NPT is an inherently discriminatory treaty which is not sustainable as long as unequal obligations are cast on non-nuclear weapon states vis-a-vis nuclear weapon states, and the latter are allowed to retain their weapons.

Every five years the nuclear weapon states wake up at the time of the Review Conference and seek to paper over the cracks among the parties.

In 2010, the Review Conference faces fresh challenges because of the unresolved problems over North Korea and Iran, the conclusion of the Indo-U.S. nuclear co-operation deal and the failure of the nuclear weapon states to reduce and eliminate their weapons.

The new atmosphere created by the Obama administration with specific steps taken in the next year may help avert the disaster that took place in (the Review Conference in) 2005 (over a proposed agenda).

IPS: What of the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapons-free world?

JD: The incrementalist approach of those who see global zero for nuclear weapons as a mirage-like "ultimate goal" is increasingly being challenged by those who want a Nuclear Weapon Convention negotiated to outlaw nuclear weapons in the same way that biological and chemical weapons were delegitimised.

The former approach will only lead to more proliferation and greater dangers of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Posture Review planned by the Obama administration must make a doctrinal change so that we eliminate the role of nuclear weapons in national security leading to global security without these weapons.

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