Bruce Kent

Justice magazine nuclear weapons

Abolishing nuclear weapons? An opportunity not to be missed.

Even those who have been calling for years for the abolition of nuclear weapons can hardly believe what they are now seeing. Steps that were once called utopian dreams are now turning into political possibilities. Why now? Because next May in New York there will be another review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in 1968.

Its title is misleading. It was, and is, a treaty aimed at getting rid of all nuclear weapons. Article vi is clear: Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament The International Court of Justice in 1996 was even stronger: There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.

A legal obligation to negotiate abolition? Hasn't that been going on for years? Unfortunately not. There has been a certain amount of nuclear good housekeeping like warhead reduction dressed up as progress towards abolition, but it has taken the arrival of President Obama to make quite clear that global elimination should be the real objective. Already he has halted the funding of yet another US nuclear warhead, he is in serious negotiations with the Russians aimed at massive cuts in both their arsenals, and he is pouring cold water on the so-called defensive shield President Bush wanted to place in Eastern Europe.

He is not alone. Two-thirds of the countries in the United Nations General Assembly want abolition negotiations to start. China, India and Pakistan, all nuclear-armed, are included in that number. But this is not just a state political issue. Our present Pope has been clear. What can be said about those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries? Along with countless persons of goodwill one can state that this point of view is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. (Pope Benedict, World Peace Day 2006)

However, calling for an end to the illusion that stable security can ever be built on nuclear weapon threats is one thing, getting to the elimination of nuclear weapons is another. The steps needed are not all that difficult. A draft abolition convention already exists. A distinguished group of lawyers, engineers, scientists and doctors, has prepared this document which covers every contentious issue and especially the difficulties of inspection and verification. The convention would also make it criminal to work on weapons of mass destruction and would give international protection to nuclear whistle-blowers prepared to reveal illegal activity.

So what is lacking at the moment is not the means but the will which involves taking our global citizenship rather more seriously than we have done so far.

What about the United Kingdom? One part of that kingdom, Scotland, is very anxious to cease being host to our nuclear submarines. No one has been clearer on the immorality and illegality of the whole, nuclear deterrence system than Cardinal Keith O'Brien. But in other parts of the UK too there has been a massive shift in public opinion about what constitutes real security. People know that nuclear weapons are no answer to terrorists, suicidal fanatics, global warming, health pandemics, or the consequences of the vast gap between the rich and the poor. For the first time in my memory there is a majority British public opinion opposed to renewing Trident at a cost which would mean about 70 billion for its construction and running costs.

The political parties are uncertain. Labour has deferred a decision on Trident until after next May's NPT meeting. The Lib Dems are holding out the possibility of some scaled-down system. The Conservatives can only say that we do not know what risks we might face in 50 years time. Perfectly true. But if we tell the rest of the world that our security depends on nuclear weapons there can be little doubt that others will follow and risks will increase.

How about us as Christians? At least we can make it clear that the best use of the billions involved would be to spend it on peacemaking, social justice, health provision, a just economy, environmental protection and sustainable energy. Poverty and war are not separate issues. They interconnect at every level - from the arms trade and nuclear waste to refugees and child soldiers.

I will be going to the NPT meeting next May and I want to take with me tens of thousands of petitions available from CND calling on our government to start the process of nuclear weapon abolition. That's what Obama wants. This is a US/UK partnership of which we could be proud. Get your diocese, parish, religious community, or Catholic organisation to join in. Obama offers an opportunity which may not come again.

6 August 2009