Experts Say

Comment on SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's 2011 Peace Proposal -- The right to life is the most fundamental right of all

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April 30, 2011
By Tilman Ruff

The Fukushima disaster is a powerful reminder of our both technical and profoundly human incapacity to predict or control complex systems. Events considered unlikely both happen and compound in unforeseen ways. When the forces involved are the primordial nuclear forces that power the stars, recreated in our frail, unruly human world on our small interconnected planet, a danger anywhere has global ramifications. The process that powers nuclear reactors to boil water for electricity produces large amounts of the most hazardous waste and is the same process that powers the world's most heinous weapons. Every day the danger from both ticks.

Through escalation of a conflict, such as in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, or in Korea; technical or human failure or error; terrorist infiltration or cyberattack; use of nuclear weapons is no less likely than what recently happened in Fukushima. Nuclear weapons will one day be abolished. The question is whether this will happen through their use, or whether we manage to outlaw and dismantle them first. It is a race we must win, but victory is not pre-determined or assured. It will be achieved only through love and commitment, effort and sacrifice, courage and leadership of many people working together.

Ikeda's deep-thinking proposal draws attention to the pivotal importance of civil society filling the gaps in international political leadership on the most profound challenges of this – or any – age, from building respect for human rights, to abolishing nuclear weapons. Humanity's fragmentation into nation states and the serious inadequacies of our political systems mitigate against effective cooperative action oriented to long-term, intergenerational sustainability. Our leaders are too often driven by electoral horizons of a few years at a time; dominated by moneyed vested interests; and hostage to a commercially-driven, titillation seeking, personality focused mass media pre-occupied with short-term inconsequential distractions.

But in the end, it is only governments who can abolish nuclear weapons, and drive the policies and urgent and massive investments required to secure benign, renewable energy systems. Recent events in the Middle East remind us how powerful coordinated civil society action can be, and how quickly political change can occur when critical thresholds are reached. Ikeda recognizes well that the remarkable human capacity for cultural evolution resulting in social and political change is where hope lies.

The logic of Ikeda and SGI's advocacy – including through the Peoples' Decade for Nuclear Abolition – of a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC), is unassailable. The notion that a global treaty to abolish nuclear weapons is premature or might undermine the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was put to rest at last year's NPT Review Conference, where an unprecedented 140 governments expressed support for such a treaty, and it was referenced twice in the Conference outcome document.

A comprehensive treaty has been the basis for eliminating every other kind of inhumane and indiscriminate weapon – from dum dum bullets in 1899, through biological and chemical weapons, to landmines and cluster munitions most recently.
Indeed it is impossible to conceive how a task as demanding and complex as achieving and sustaining a world without nuclear weapons could be accomplished without a legal regime linking all the essential elements of disarmament, non-proliferation and control of fissile materials into a comprehensive treaty. A NWC will need to meet the well-established benchmarks of being equitable, universal, verified, transparent, phased, binding and irreversible.

Negotiating and implementing such a convention will be complex, challenging and take time. The sooner negotiations can start the better. There is no valid justification for further delay. People everywhere share vulnerability to the terrible radioactive and famine-inducing dangers of use of nuclear weapons anywhere. Therefore all people and every government have a shared stake in and responsibility for eradicating nuclear weapons, whether or not they possess them or contribute to their possible use through a nuclear alliance. Much work is needed to define, prepare for and progress the elements of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. While UN processes can be important vehicles and Ikeda draws particular attention to them in his proposal, they can become bogged down, especially where consensus is required, as in the Conference on Disarmament, which has produced nothing concrete in the past 15 years; and the UN Security Council which is hostage to veto by any one of the nuclear-armed P5. It is noteworthy that progress on both the landmines and cluster munition treaties required them to be taken outside UN processes.

Ikeda's articulation of the need to thoroughly challenge nuclear deterrence is key. Deterrence is now the most widely used and accepted justification for continued possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons. However, 100% reliable predictability is not necessary for nuclear deterrence. This raises fundamental questions about the extensive and expensive nuclear weapons refurbishment, modernization and “stockpile stewardship” programs of all the nuclear armed states. The unpalatable but inescapable grim reality is that deterrence means credible plans, deployments, capacity and willingness to use nuclear weapons. It means the illegal and barbaric threat of radioactive annihilation pointed at billions of civilian hostages; terrorism on the most breathtaking scale. The International Court of Justice, in its landmark 1996 Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons, regarded threat of use of nuclear weapons – and therefore nuclear deterrence – as legally equivalent to actual use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are a shared enemy like smallpox. We have no time to lose, and everything to gain. We and our descendants' future cannot be secure until nuclear weapons are eradicated.

Tilman Ruff, aged 56, graduated in medicine from Monash University, is Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and associate professor in the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne.

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