Hiroshima and the World: The Road to Zero

by Susi Snyder

Susi Snyder
Susi Snyder is currently the Programme Leader for Nuclear Disarmament at IKV Pax Christi. IKV Pax Christi is an international NGO, based in the Netherlands, that works for peace, reconciliation and justice in the world. Ms. Snyder was born in Frankfurt, Germany in January 1977. She completed her studies at Clark University in the U.S. state of Massachusetts in 1996 with a focus on computer programming and English literature. In 1997 she began working with the Shundahai Network, an anti-nuclear alliance of indigenous communities in the United States, as their programme director. In 2003 she became the United Nations Office Director for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. From 2005- 2010 she served as the International Secretary General for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, based in their Geneva Secretariat.

The Road to Zero

My journey to a nuclear-weapon-free world began in the Nevada Desert, about 100km from Las Vegas. It was a hot day in early July 1997, and despite signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) the year before, the United States was about to conduct a subcritical nuclear weapons test. Technically legal under the CTBT, but certainly in violation of the spirit of that treaty and at the time raised questions as to then President Clinton's commitments to nuclear disarmament as called for in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A group of about a dozen people gathered at the gates to the Nevada Test Site, the US on-continent nuclear test site where the US has detonated around 900 nuclear explosions in the race to build bigger and more destructive nuclear weapons. We were from all walks of life: army and navy veterans, lawyers, activists and indigenous people. We gathered at the request of Corbin Harney, spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone Nation.

The Western Shoshone, in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley with the United States, were granted the land of the test site as part of their national territory. Corbin was the spiritual leader of this tribe that had been relocated at gunpoint in the late 1940s in order to build the test site. His words were clear: "This is our land. We must protect it for future generations." The nuclear tests conducted by the US and UK governments on the land had certainly rendered it uninhabitable for generations to come, but Corbin believed that the land would heal itself, given time and a truly comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons testing. Corbin asked the people to gather at the test site to demonstrate opposition to this continuation of the US nuclear weapons programme, and to call for the test site to be closed and remedial clean-up action to be taken. He prayed for the land, and for the people who made decisions about nuclear weapons. His conviction that the world would be more secure without nuclear weapons came from an inspiring and holistic spiritual, environmental and legal perspective.

Achieving a world free of nuclear weapons by taking a holistic view is something that Corbin taught me and has influenced my work since. To achieve a world free of these weapons it is necessary for the legal, technical and political pieces to align in such a way that action can be taken when the moment is right.

The technical expertise related to nuclear disarmament continues to grow. The lessons learned in disarming countries like South Africa, who chose to renounce its program, have provided valuable contributions to the technical debates. The current nuclear disarmament verification study that is being conducted by Norway, the UK and the NGO VERTIC is adding to that body of knowledge. The road to zero has been well paved with technical expertise.

The body of work related to the legal issues around creating a world free of nuclear weapons has also increased dramatically in recent years. Negotiations around other weapons systems, including bans on chemical and biological weapons have provided a framework that can serve as a basis for negotiating an end to nuclear weapons. Lessons have been learned in both of these processes, as well as from the negotiations banning other weapons or types of weapons including anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. The challenge of legal negotiations around nuclear weapons are certainly different from those of landmines. However, lessons from negotiating definitions, entry-into-force agreements and more can be applied to negotiations banning nuclear weapons.

The remaining challenge is the political one. And it is political will that creates momentum to solve difficult legal and technical questions. Now, international political will to create a world free of nuclear weapons is becoming enhanced and mainstreamed. Firstly, the op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal of 4 January 2007 by four high-level US security veterans: George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn who became known as "The Gang of Four" or "The Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse)." Significantly, they did not advocate drastic reductions alone or a "minimum deterrence" but saw "zero" nuclear weapons as the only solution for the danger of nuclear weapons being used in the future. In the US some two-thirds of all living former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense and national security advisors now support this proposal. Statements by other "gangs of four," most notably in the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, have globalised this call.

Around 200 US nuclear weapons are stored in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Turkey and the Netherlands. Some countries, among them the Netherlands, allow their own planes and crews to be available for use of these weapons in time of war. Greece withdrew from NATO's Nuclear Strike Mission in 2001 and in 2005 nuclear weapons were removed from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Calls for an end to NATO's nuclear sharing, and a shift in deterrence must be voiced by leaders in both nuclear hosting and other NATO countries, and they must demonstrate the political will for pursuing a nuclear free world.

The German government is moving towards the elimination of the nuclear weapons they host by engaging in discussions with the US government. This move needs international support, not only from other nuclear-hosting countries within NATO. It is also important to note that the German decision is linked to the need for a successful NPT Review Conference as well as the debate on the new NATO Strategic Concept, but not to US-Russia negotiations. The political weight of a withdrawal decision in advance of the NPT Review Conference is much greater than the political weight that is provided by these weapons as an outdated and unusable deterrent.

In the Netherlands a group of four prominent statesmen, including former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Max van der Stoel, former Minister of Defense and of Foreign Affairs Hans van Mierlo, and former Minister of Justice Frits Korthals Altes, stated in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad in November 2009 that "We must show ourselves a strong ally by supporting Obama's goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons" and that "The original objective of deterrence has lost its validity."

In the Strategic Doctrine Review, NATO members must realistically examine their threat perceptions, and ask whether tactical nuclear weapons have any logical role in deterring these threats. Most Europeans today consider a theatre nuclear war on European soil inconceivable, even a ground based war between nations on the continent is something that most high school students in the EU have relegated to the themes of history. Currently perceived threats are from far less defined actors than other nations--terrorists, climate change, economic insecurity--and none of these can be defended by nuclear arms.

In advance of the NPT Review Conference, there will be an international conference held in New York City called "Disarm Now!" The conference organizers include several dozen organizations from around the world and participants are expected from every continent. This will come immediately after a civil society forum on nuclear-weapon-free zones scheduled for 29 April and a meeting of states parties to nuclear-weapon-free zone agreements on 30 April.

The NPT itself is a galvanizing moment for international civil society to come together on nuclear weapons issues and bolster the political will developing for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Dozens of events are being planned with the aim of increasing NGO cooperation, furthering government action on disarmament and providing substantive analysis of emerging issues related to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. These events, when coupled by advocacy activities in national capitals, can create an atmosphere for success.

Regardless of the NPT Review Conference outcomes, civil society activities will continue throughout the year. Demonstrations around the world are being called for by the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear weapons (ICAN) on 5 June, to ensure that the momentum generated in advance of the Review Conference does not simply fall to the wayside. Prominent "Gangs of Four" must continue to issue statements and calls for a world without nuclear weapons, and initiatives like the Global Zero Action Plan and the model Nuclear Weapons Convention should be examined carefully and thoughtfully by governments everywhere.

Negotiating an end to the threat of nuclear weapons will be much easier than negotiating an end to the threats posed by climate change. The time to walk together on the road to zero is now.

(Originally published on March 1, 2010)

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