WAKING UP POLITICIANS: War, Nuclear Weapons, and a Culture of Peace

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
roched@sen.parl.gc.ca
Chairman, Middle Powers Initiative

An address to Third World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates
Rome, October 19-20, 2002


It is an honour to address a meeting convened by Nobel Peace Laureates. Your dedicated work for peace in its many dimensions has inspired countless people around the world. I gather strength from being in your presence.

Thirty years in public life, as a parliamentarian and a diplomat, working in my own country of Canada and in the United Nations system, has convinced me that the political process, left to itself, will not bring peace to the world. Politics is driven by the demands of the rich and powerful and responds to the crises resulting from arrogance, greed and intellectual corruption. The vision and requirements of peace, articulated so well by the Nobel laureates and many like-minded groups, are too often sublimated by the relentless political surge of the culture of war. We are in the midst of such a surge at this moment, as the final political decisions are being made whether to have war in Iraq.

This meeting comes at an opportune moment to animate the political structures that war in Iraq must, and can, be avoided. We must move the world forward to provide security against both weapons of mass destruction and terrorists attacks without recourse to war. This requires not only vision but determination to pursue an integrated agenda for peace that embraces economic and social development, the advancement of human rights, environmental protection, and elimination of weapons of mass destruction – all within the framework of international law. The United Nations, not any one country, must be given the strength to implement, not just talk about, this agenda.

Can this vision of the requirements of peace overcome the daily grind of politics that drags us down time and again? Can a hope in the elevation of humanity to a more mature state of co-existence prevail over the naysayers and cynics? Can a recognition finally take hold that the survival of the world in the new age of weapons capable of total obliteration demands a globalization of cooperation?

My experience has taught me that none of this will happen unless the political process is transformed to include those it encompasses and thus transcend the prevailing cynicism. It must be infused with the values of equity and justice. The evidence that it is not – the rich-poor gap, the violation of human rights, the perpetuation of war, the dominance of the powerful nations, the search for more refined weaponry and the coming weaponization of space – is overwhelming.

It is a fact, staring us in the face, that governments in one breath plead an inability to fund social and environmental needs and in the next breath appropriate huge sums for warfare and its preparation. While millions upon millions go hungry, homeless and jobless, governments have spent $10 trillion on armaments since the end of the Cold War. It staggers the imagination to envision how many schools, water and sanitation plants, health facilities and environmental clean-up operations could have been built for even one-tenth of the $10 trillion.

This double standard is a scandal. It is an outrage. And it is sowing the seeds for the terrorism of the future. Poverty does not by itself lead to terrorism, but terrorists and other kinds of anarchists exploit the rampant social and political injustices for their own ends. A world built on the pillars of peace, development, equity and justice would not necessarily end terrorism or any other kind of crime. But it would enable the human family as a whole to respond to deviation with agreed means that did not provoke further violence.

The full agenda for peace seems to be too much to handle in the daily marketplace of politics. Politicians, even if they want to reach out, are consumed by an array of daily crises. Peace is seen as a long-term issue whereas re-election is decided by short-term solutions. Education of publics is, without doubt, necessary so that electoral demands on politicians would reflect the needs of the long-range agenda. The effects of education, almost by definition, take a long time to be felt. Yet today’s surge of militarism is so pressing that it must be addressed urgently. Time is running out before the confluence of sustainable development problems, on the one hand, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, on the other, produces a massive conflagration.

We must get hold of the peace agenda at a critical point of entry: one that people can understand, that will move politicians to immediate action, that is central to world peace, and that poses the greatest danger. That is the issue of nuclear weapons. Not only are nuclear weapons the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity, they are the centre-piece of the power structures that have led to this fractured world. The elimination of nuclear weapons will not by itself create peace but it will enable the world community to focus on those other elements of peace that are sidelined today. An architecture for peace cannot be built while the most powerful nations reserve the right to possess, and threaten the use of, nuclear weapons.

It is a fallacy to think that the problem of nuclear weapons has gone away. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The reduction in the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the U.S. and Russia, contained in the Moscow treaty signed May 24, 2002 by Presidents Bush and Putin, was presented as a step forward. But an examination of the fine print shows the treaty does not provide for the actual dismantling of these weapons and thus does not meet the key principle of irreversibility, one of the 13 Practical Steps that the Non-Proliferation Treaty states agreed to in 2000. Not only are the delivery systems not destroyed but large numbers of nuclear weapons can be held as a “responsive force” and as “spares.” Thus the announced reduction of strategic warheads to 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012 turns out to allow several thousand additional nuclear weapons (both tactical and strategic) to be maintained for the indefinite future in the arsenals of both countries. This is sleight-of-hand nuclear disarmament.

The claim that there is now a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons is belied by the shift in strategy in military doctrines: from deterrence to first-strike. The new Nuclear Posture Review states United States’ intentions clearly: “Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defence capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends. They provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD and large-scale conventional military force. These nuclear capabilities possess unique properties that give the United States options to hold at risk classes of targets [that are] important to achieve strategic and political objectives.”

Thus a new threshold has been crossed in which nuclear weapons are now seen to have a use in countering biological and chemical warfare.

Nuclear weapons now being developed will rely on a deep-penetrating delivery system to place a small nuclear charge at the heart of a buried target. Though billed as “low yield” nuclear weapons, a radioactive cloud seeping from the crater would release a plume of radioactive gases that would irradiate anyone in its path. Such a weapon, used ostensibly to root out terrorists in or near a city, would produce casualties in the hundreds of thousands and possibly millions.

Building a “low-yield” nuclear weapons requires no scientific breakthroughs. It can be done. Nuclear weapons fissile materials are not securely guarded everywhere. They can be stolen. Suit-case nuclear bombs are not an imagination. They will become a weapon of choice of both rich and poor.

The longer nuclear weapons are tolerated anywhere by a complacent public and compliant political system, the greater the risk of their proliferation not only to the smaller nations but to sub-state actors as well. It is not only terrorists’ acquisition of nuclear weapons we should be concerned about, it is the continued maintenance of them by the nuclear powers who refuse to give them up. As history moves on, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are being forgotten and nuclear weapons are acquiring, as India and Pakistan have shown, a political acceptability. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is supposed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, will not endure if the “good faith” provisions calling for comprehensive negotiations for total elimination continue to be ignored.

The dangers posed by huge arsenals, threats of use, proliferation and terrorism are all linked. The refusal of the nuclear powers to disarm is linked to proliferation and proliferation makes nuclear materials more accessible to terrorists. I take it as axiomatic that as long as any state possesses nuclear weapons, others, including non-state actors will seek to acquire them. And as the number of those possessing nuclear weapons increases, so does the likelihood of their use.

In many years, many conferences, and many negotiations dealing with the nuclear weapons problem, I have learned that technical arguments will not win the day for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Even political arguments seem unavailing. It is the moral and legal case against nuclear weapons that must now be brought forward.

Nuclear weapons contravene every aspect of humanitarian law. They are morally bankrupt. They have cost the world trillions of dollars. They have ruined environments where testing has taken place. They have produced not security but insecurity. They reverse what the United Nations stands for.

Why then is there not a world uproar at the retention today of 31,000 nuclear weapons, at the conduct of the nuclear weapons states which are also the permanent members of the Security Council, at a powerful military alliance enfolding many allied states under a nuclear umbrella, at new plans for shifting the posture of nuclear weapons from deterrence to war-fighting, at the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states, at the “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now moved to seven minutes to midnight?

The nuclear powers would not be able to so blithely carry on with their nuclear weapons programs if world consciousness, raised to a new recognition of this evil, demanded abolition. But world consciousness has been dulled. We have lived with the bomb for so long that it has insinuated itself into our thinking. Two over-arching principals must now be asserted: nuclear weapons are immoral and their use is illegal. The moral case against nuclear weapons is clear-cut. Nuclear weapons assault life on the planet, they assault the planet itself, and in so doing they assault the process of the continuing development of the planet. This is an affront to the Creator of the universe, an affront to the mysterious process of creation that makes a connection between us and an unfathomably distant past that the present generation has no right to interrupt. Nuclear weapons lure us into thinking we can control the destiny of the world. They invert order into disorder. Nuclear weapons are evil because they destroy the very process of life itself.

Similarly in the legal realm, the time has come for governments to formally declare that the use of nuclear weapons is illegal based upon the rules of international law. A world ruled by law is the only hope for a peace with security and stability.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has made a profound contribution to de-legalizing nuclear weapons by reaffirming the cardinal principles of humanitarian law, which are the following: in order to protect the civilian population, states must never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets; it is prohibited to cause unnecessary suffering to combatants, and hence states do not have unlimited freedom of choice of weapons.

It is time to press forward, as the Court suggested, to a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would prohibit the possession, development, threat, and use of nuclear weapons. The Court’s opinion enables politicians and activists who support nuclear disarmament to take the legal high road against nuclear retentionists, who are now vulnerable to accusations of flouting international law.

This is the approach taken by the Middle Powers Initiative (MPI), which includes three organizations which have won the Nobel Peace Prize among its co-sponsors. MPI, a Program of the Global Security Institute, works with middle-power governments to encourage them to press the nuclear weapons states to live up to their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This work supports the valiant efforts of the New Agenda states, which today constitute the most effective political call for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Though not without its achievements, this political work runs up against the powerful war culture, which still dominates political decision-making. The war culture fosters more militarism as the response to disorder.

However, I am convinced that the political process is by no means immune to calls for morality and law as the basis for public policy. Unfortunately, these calls are not made often enough, clear enough, or loud enough. The Nobel laureates have a special capacity for breaking through the din. On the 100th anniversary of the first Nobel prizes, 100 Nobel laureates signed a statement, which said: "… If… we permit the devastating power of modern weaponry to spread through this combustible human landscape, we invite a conflagration that can engulf both the rich and poor."

That is a message that politicians everywhere can understand. But are they listening?

I appeal to this great meeting, building on the Nobel power for peace, to send out a powerful message to politicians and governments everywhere that, for the survival of humanity, a culture of peace must overcome the culture of war.

Douglas Roche is an Independent Senator from Alberta and the author of Bread Not Bombs: A Political Agenda for Social Justice.