Susi in Berlin- part 2: building the framework for a nuclear weapons free world

This is the second speech I deliverd in Berlin last week.  The Middle Powers Initiative organised an two day conference on Creating the Conditions and Building the Framework for a nucelar weapons free world. I spoke in the last panel discussion- on buidling the framework.  My remarks are below (close to, but not exactly as delivered).


Thank you to the organisers for inviting me here today

Thanks to John Burroughs for his thoughtful briefing paper, and to all of the previous speakers and comments I’ve heard so far.

We are as humans are disconnected from the nuclear weapons reality. And that’s problematic, absolutely.  It’s not something that we think about every day because we don’t see it as a real worry.  When i ask people, random people on the street, hey what do you think about nuclear weapons, they say oh yeah, Iran, that’s a problem.  When i ask people in the Netherlands what they think about nuclear weapons in the Netherlands, they go “What are you talking about? that doesn’t exist…”

I want to repeat something I said the other night, and the public session- civil society is the conscience of democracy. I think it can also be the catalyst for governmental action.

Let me start off by saying that civil society, and the public at large don’t want nuclear weapons. In fact, in a poll conducted in 21 countries in 2008, 76% of respondents favour the elimination of nuclear weapons. 76%.

Often when I hear about a poll, I wonder exactly what question was asked, I’m sure some of you do as well. So let me tell you. People were asked to “consider a possible international agreement for eliminating all nuclear weapons.  All countries with nuclear weapons would be required to eliminate them according to a timetable. All other countries would be required not to develop them. All countries,  including yours, would be monitored to make sure they are following the agreement. Would you favour or oppose such an agreement?”. Again, 76% said they would favour it. But what about in the nuclear armed countries?

77% of US respondents said they supported the elimination of nuclear weapons. I was quite surprised to learn 86% of the French and 83% of Chinese would support it. 81% of the British said to get rid of them. Maybe not so surprising, only 69% of Russians supported this (although that’s still a higher majority than what wins many elections), 62% of Indians, 67% of Israelis, and the only ones polled who didn’t have a clear majority for elimination were the Pakistanis, with only 46% saying they would favour elimination, although only 41% said they would oppose (13%) had no opinion or didn’t know.

If you ask me, this is pretty clear, people overwhelmingly want nuclear weapons eliminated. Heads of state and government, have said they want this. So, if everyone wants it, why hasn’t it happened?

Global public opinion seems to invalidate the argument that there isn’t political will, but I forget, there is a serious democratic deficiency when it comes to security decision making, especially nuclear weapons.

There is also a clear need to further stigmatise nuclear weapons, to push the issue further, so we can see actions that match such fine words. Stigmatising nuclear weapons is helpful.

Nuclear weapons are dangerous. Whether they are intended for use or not, they pose a risk. A risk of catastrophic proportions. nuclear explosions, by accident or intent (or idiocy or lunacy) cause inter generational harm. It is not just the blast radius of a bomb, not just the fireball that creates hell on earth, it is also a radioactive legacy. The legacy of cancers. The legacy of birth defects. nuclear weapons have already created jellyfish babies, those born without bones or with organs on the outside of their bodies.

Nuclear weapons cannot distinguish between military personnel and civilians. The ICRC has made it clear that first responders would not be able to provide the emergency assistance needed. Medical infrastructure would be destroyed- there would be no blood to treat victims, no hospitals left to hold the blood. And I’m not even going to begin to talk about a limited exchange that could thrust billions into famine and make our planet dark and unable to provide food.

Ay use of nuclear weapons, any detonation of a nuclear weapon, would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. If you’ve heard the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have you heard about the Marshall Islanders or the Kazakhs?  They still suffer, and will for decades and generations to come.

In any hands nuclear weapons are dangerous. The only way to prevent their use is to eliminate them, for everyone.

There is a role for civil society, to remind of these stories, or should I say horrors? To be the collective conscience of our global society and go push governments to act without delay.

Nuclear weapons are not legitimate, and even financial institutions are recognising their incompatibility with humanity. Although not current officially classified as inhumane weapons per we, a number of financial institutions, like the Dutch Rabobank, are withdrawing financial investments from building and maintaining nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. It is the ethical thing to do.

We also need to recognize in today’s version of warfare, nuclear weapons are becoming more obsolete.  With global urbanisation, the likelihood of using a nuclear weapons that does not cause critical infrastructural damage is becoming less and less.

And war is changing faster than military planners can keep up with. The face of war doesn’t have a face anymore. It is unmanned drones, cyber attacks, and if we’re not careful, fully autonomous weapons soon. What Human Rights Watch calls ‘killer robots’. Weapons that don’t have a human between their trigger and the death they cause.

With war looking like that, what is the point of clinging to nuclear weapons?

That brings me to a point raised yesterday, the vested interests in keeping us from eliminating nuclear weapons. Nukes are big ticket items, hugely expensive endeavours that require technical expertise as well as costly infrastructure to create and keep. So, I wondered, what incentives are there to shift these vested interests? How can nuclear armed countries keep the feeling of power and prestige that they get from nuclear weapons?

Some have suggested that new military technologies, like prompt global strike or missile defence systems will be the key to reductions and elimination. I wholeheartedly disagree, as I believe these technologies will only lead to a new arms race.

We don’t need star wars, we need star trek.

Think about it. An opportunity to collaborate, to collectively reach out to explore the furthest reaches of space. If it sounds like something out of science fiction, and I know a few of you have just laughed into your hands, diplomatically. Think about it though.

The money and the minds that were mobilised to create nuclear weapons, to make them bigger, badder, more usable, less usable, etc. all that focused on the protection and exploration of the global commons of space instead, now that could really be something.

Something like this’d would ignite the minds of science and offers a way to build on norms mitigating space debris, offers incentives to prohibit anti satellite technology and delivers a sense of pride and power. Star trek, not star wars because I’d rather teleport than die in a nuclear holocaust or famine I’d also rather see 70 billion spent on building a global space exploration community than on nuclear weapons.

2013 offers us some pretty incredible opportunities to help us towards a nuclear weapons free world. The high level meeting on 26 September, the group of governmental experts on a fissile materials treaty, the open ended working group on nuclear disarmament, and of course next weeks conference on that puts the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons at the forefront of discussions.

On the Oslo meeting next week, it’s good to know that about 120 countries have indicated they will participate. It is an evidence based discussion about what nuclear weapons actually do.  In meetings like this, where we talk about policies, postures, processes and procedures, I think that too often we forget to remember that these are weapons of terror, weapons that cause intergenerational pain and suffering, weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians, and weapons so horrible no one has used them in warfare for decades. They’re not illegal, yet, but they will be soon and there are a number of ways for us to get there.

Let me talk about the open-ended working group.  The mandate is helpfully vague- the working group will “develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons”.  Because it is a group of the General Assembly, I can’t quite picture there being agreement from the NPT outliers that this would be a good time to talk about implementation of the 2010 NPT disarmament action plan, although that could be interesting.  I also don’t think that it is worth anyone’s time to revisit the decades old agreed practical steps towards achieving a nuclear weapons free world, unless someone were to suggest a new starting place for those steps.

You all know which ones I mean- the step by step approach touted by so many.  The alphabet soup of CTBT, FMCT, Negative Security Assurances, US-Russian  reductions etc.  I am pretty sure I read this formula in a re-published speech from the UN General Assembly in the 1950s.  And this prescription has not cured the world of it’s nuclear weapons addiction, it hasn’t done the job.

However, the ideas there are good.  These are certainly steps to maintain a nuclear weapons free world. If a step-wise approach is the only one that people are really willing to take, then lets put the horse in front of the cart, and take the correct first step-  let’s universally ban nuclear weapons.

You see, a ban combined with an FMCT, CTBT, etc, could well be the framework that John talks about in his paper.

The Open Ended Working Group is not bound to consensus rules. The General Assembly is what brought us the NPT, the CTBT (when it failed to get consensus in the Conference on Disarmament).  The GA is a place to talk about this need, and it would be quite interesting if the open ended working group discussed the needed elements for a clean, simple, treaty banning stockpiling, deployment, investment, maintenance, use, production and transfer of nuclear weapons (among other elements).

Alternatively, it could be a vehicle for a clear and unequivocal ban on use, as a step.  Though I’m inclined to think that this may only partially solve the security assurances questions, and would not really be satisfactory (certainly not to me).

Then there is the opportunity presented by the High Level Meeting on 26 September.  As a civil society representative, it’s nice to have a clear date to mobilise around.  We all know that some high level meetings have led to positive contributions when it comes to nuclear security and safety- some, not all.  The High Level meeting on non-proliferation, on nuclear terrorism, on nuclear safety & security, have all at least focused attention on these key issues.  It really is about time that the focus was put on nuclear disarmament, and I’m glad that it is going forward.

The timing is pretty nice as well.  It is on the eve of the UN Secretary General’s five year anniversary of his five point plan for disarmament. It is a great opportunity for states to declare their intent, at the head of state and government level to negotiation a ban on nuclear weapons.   Why not?  Non-Aligned countries have made it clear in August 2012 that they want nuclear weapons eliminated by 2025.  CELAC countries have made it clear that they stand for a ban.  There will be a new Pope by then, and he could declare the possession and use of nuclear weapons a mortal sin…  Nuclear Weapons Free Zone countries could announce their intent to extend their treaties to cover the adjacent areas (and those within the zones that are under nuclear umbrella agreements could shut the umbrella), or to make declarations that they will eliminate investments from their national pension funds for nuclear weapons producers..

There are many things that could come together into a powerful, dynamic, engaging meeting – with civil society attention and appreciation- and set the stage for the elimination of nuclear weapons and the maintenance of an unarmed world.

So, to sum up-

Nuclear weapons are horrible, no matter who has them;

Incentives, not only punishments, need to be created to get rid of them and shift the vested interests behind them, and;

The public WANTS elimination.

So, we need champions.  We need states willing to be bold, to be heroes.  The public will support you, if you can step up.