Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dismantling bombs to make room for new ones

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced earlier this week that his country will dismantle some of its airborne nuclear weapons. This is good news, right? Well, yes … but not entirely.

He made the announcement at the inauguration of a new nuclear-armed submarine, appropriately named The Terrible, and stressed that France’s “nuclear deterrent” remains its “life-insurance policy”.

Disappointingly, this scenario has become quite typical. The five original nuclear weapon states – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China – are all bound by Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to disarm.

But the trend has been to get rid of obsolete weapons while building new ones – and then they claim that they’re fulfilling their disarmament obligations. This kind of proliferation, known as vertical proliferation, should be universally condemned. But very few countries are bold enough to criticise.

On a more positive and personal note, I have been selected to attend the Australian Prime Minister’s 2020 Youth Summit in Canberra. It will be a great chance to encourage the new Government to lead the international charge for nuclear weapons abolition and to get other young people enthusiastic about the cause.

Youth have been at the heart of efforts to end extreme poverty and to tackle climate change; we must now also put our energies into the equally important task of banning the Bomb. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Palm Sunday protesters demand disarmament

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the traditional day of protest against war and injustice. It coincided roughly with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and large peace rallies took place across Australia. I was invited to address the crowd in Melbourne, and this post is a summary of what I said.

I don’t usually quote Arnold Schwarzenegger – because we have quite different political views – but last year he said something about nuclear weapons that made remarkable sense. He said: “A nuclear disaster will not hit at the speed of a glacier melting. It will hit with a blast. It will not hit with the speed of the atmosphere warming but of a city burning. Clearly, the attention focused on nuclear weapons should be as prominent as that of global climate change.”

I worry that large numbers of conscientious people across the world have become complacent about the second inconvenient truth of our time. There are still some 26,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, several thousand of which are kept on hair-trigger alert – able to be used within minutes of a command.

The situation really is frightening. The international Doomsday Clock sits at just five minutes to midnight, which means that the threat of nuclear annihilation today is as high as it was through most of the Cold War years.

I believe that Australia, as a middle power, can and must drive an international push for a treaty the outlaw – and ultimately eliminate – the worst weapons of terror. I’m pleased that one of the Labor Party’s pre-election promises was to do just that. Robert McClelland, who is our Attorney-General now and who was Shadow Foreign Minister at the time, said that ultimately the question to be asked is not why there should be a ban but why the international community has not yet agreed to start negotiating one.

This is good news, no doubt. But the Australian Government must ask itself these hard questions: What credibility does it have promoting the abolition of nuclear weapons so long as continues to export uranium to nuclear-armed countries or to countries which on-sell it to nuclear-armed countries? And what credibility does it have promoting the abolition of nuclear weapons so long as it continues to nestle cosily under the United States nuclear umbrella? Further, by lending bases, ports and infrastructure for the US nuclear war-fighting apparatus, we also lend weight and credence to the idea that nuclear weapons bring security.

Another question I would like our Labor parliamentarians to consider is: What role might Pine Gap play in a possible US-led nuclear attack against, say, Iran or North Korea? And how would that sit with their consciences? It seems clear to me that, if we are to be credible in advancing a nuclear-weapon-free world, we must adopt a nuclear-weapon-free defence posture. It’s what New Zealand did in the 1980s; it’s what we must do now.

In addition to this, we need to stop making excuses for the United States’ failure to disarm. Time and again, we praise our mightiest ally for dismantling a small number of its obsolete Cold War nukes while failing to criticise it for the nuclear weapons modernisation it’s involved in.

Similarly, we failed to criticise the United Kingdom last year when, remarkably, its Parliament gave the go-ahead to re-build the nation’s fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines – with a whopping price tag of more than £50 billion.

In some respects, we’re contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons through our silence. But, significantly, we are also contributing through our actions. Selling uranium to nuclear-armed countries is irresponsible. The Government assures us that the sales are subject to stringent and entirely effective safeguards. This is not true. Last year, the Medical Association for Prevention of War released a damning report, Illusion of Protection, in which it pointed out the fundamental flaws in domestic and international safeguards systems.

Safeguards are little more than a veil to make unquestioning citizens feel comfortable about the dodgy deals being made by governments on their behalf. And even if safeguards were 100 per cent effective – which they’re not and never will be – we’re still freeing up a country’s domestic reserves of uranium for nuclear bomb-making. That’s a problem which no amount of safeguarding can remedy.

Thankfully, the new Australian Government has ruled out the possibility of exporting uranium to India – an idea that former Prime Minister John Howard had been toying with, even though India isn’t a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the Rudd Government intends to continue selling uranium to other nuclear-armed states, including China.

And it might also proceed with a deal to export uranium to Russia, which has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and the world’s worst nuclear safety record. You can have your say on this by making a submission to the Senate inquiry into the matter.

Despite these comments, I am pleased at the commitments the new government has made. It seems to be taking a much more active approach towards nuclear disarmament than the previous government. Our task, as activists, is to make sure that it lives up to its various commitments – and the most important of them, in my view, is the undertaking to lead the global push for a nuclear weapons ban.

People often say to me that it’s naive to think we will ever get rid of nuclear weapons. I say to them: what’s naive is to think that nuclear weapons can be retained, in perpetuity, and not used.