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Obama Puts Nuclear Abolition Back on Agenda

by Jeffrey Allen

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president ever to take the gavel at the United Nations Security Council next week, but those lobbying to eliminate the world's nuclear-weapon stockpiles are hoping the session will be historic for its circumstance, not just its pomp.

(Flickr photo by 200MoreMontrealStencils) What's the Story?

Groups lobbying for the United States, Russia, and other nations to reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals were pleased to hear Obama had chosen to use the high-profile platform to focus the world's attention on nuclear disarmament, but they are hoping he goes beyond theoretical pronouncements and takes tangible steps toward the goal he stated earlier this year of "a world without nuclear weapons."

The California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) presented a five-point plan for Obama's UN session in an email to supporters last week. The group thinks the U.S. president and other Security Council members should pledge never to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict and then set up a UN committee to lay out a roadmap and begin to execute a plan for the elimination of the world's nuclear weapons.

The group would also like to see the Security Council members strengthen the nuclear inspections process and endorse a proposal from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that would launch negotiations on nuclear disarmament and eliminate other weapons of mass destruction.

"It is, of course, not possible for all of this to happen in a single meeting of the members of the UN Security Council, but a bold start could be made," said NAPF president David Krieger. "It is an opportunity ripe with potential for needed change."

The group is urging its supporters to write to Obama ahead of next week's session to press its demands. [» Read the NAPF's full statement to Obama.]

There are some early indications that at least some of Krieger's wishes may come true.

The political news outlet Politico published last week a draft text of a UN resolution Obama is expected submit, which calls for nations that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to begin negotiations to reduce their nuclear stockpiles. The resolution, which is still subject to change, also calls on those nations to negotiate "a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control," and calls on all other states to join in this endeavor. Read the entire resolution.]

Obama Has Shifted the Discussion

In a groundbreaking speech in Prague this April, Obama pledged the United States' commitment to abolishing nuclear weapons.

"As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act," Obama said. "We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

"So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Obama has expressed three major goals on his nuclear agenda: ensuring the security of the 20,000 nuclear weapons currently held around the world, preventing the spread of nuclear material to new countries, and reducing and eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Since the Prague speech, anti-nuclear weapons activists have ramped up their campaigns to support Obama's vision and convince the U.S. Congress to play along.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, an advocacy group rooted in medicine and public health, called on its 25,000 e-activists in June to press Congress to support Obama's goal, noting that Sen. John McCain had recently expressed his support for a nuclear-weapons-free world, but that otherwise, "Congress has, for the most part, responded to [Obama's] bold vision with silence." Read the call to action from Physicians for Social Responsibility.]

The Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World, which includes over 40 national advocacy groups, is urging its supporters to write to Congress too.

"The U.S. can work with Russia to reduce our stockpiles to 1,000 or fewer nuclear weapons, strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and secure loose nuclear material," the coalition's letter says. Read the entire letter to Congress.]

It's still unclear if and when the U.S. Congress will take action to express support for Obama's vision or to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which, if adhered to, would make it significantly harder for nations to develop nuclear weapons. That treaty has been ratified by 35 nations, but still requires the assent of the United States and eight other countries to come into force.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation at a separate global conference next week aimed at moving the treaty toward enforcement.

In his speech in April, Obama recognized that the abolition of nuclear weapons would require a coordinated international effort. At major international forums since -- including the U.S.-Russia bilateral talks in July, which resulted in an agreement to reduce each nation's nuclear stockpile to less than 1,700 weapons, and the G-8 meeting of economic superpowers that followed -- other world powers have expressed their readiness to move forward.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon stands at the center of most of the action, and he is optimistic.

"Disarmament is back on the global agenda -- and not a moment too soon," he wrote in an August op-ed in the Washington Times, pointing to recent efforts to negotiate a fissile material treaty and next year's scheduled conference to review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"A groundswell of new international initiatives will soon emerge to move this agenda forward," he added.

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