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Public Momentum Builds Against Nukes

by Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - Willing or not, the handful of nations armed with nuclear bombs will likely find it ever more difficult in the next few years to reject growing international opinion in support of complete abolition of nuclear weapons, anti-nukes activists and politicians say.

Many critics see the US as the most irresponsible member of the nuclear club, for not only failing in its NPT obligations, but also going to great lengths to block, and even derail, the international discourse on nuclear disarmament in the past. (photo: Flickr user citizenswaine) At U.N. headquarters in New York, the international group Mayors for Peace presented a stack of more than one million signatures from people across the world demanding an end to the nuclear threat.

"This movement brings together mayors and other…like minded citizens and peace groups," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki- moon said at the exhibit's launch Thursday. "They all understand that nuclear weapons make us less safe, not more."

Mayors for Peace, which is active in more than 4,500 cities in 150 countries, has been working with the U.N. since 1991.

Flanked by international peace activists and some of the survivors of the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Ban called for swift action on nuclear disarmament, an issue that has languished for many years.

"For decades, citizens banded together to campaign against specific weapons, and categories of weapons have succeeded in moving their governments to act," he said. "The landmine ban is a shining example. Now we need progress on the nuclear front."

Ban pointed to major events planned for the next year, including the second nuclear security summit and an international meeting on the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The event featuring over a million signatures took place at the U.N. just a day after a declaration was released by the Simons Foundation and the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) and endorsed by eminent experts in international law and diplomacy.

According to the Vancouver Declaration, nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and "incompatible" with international humanitarian law, which clearly defines what is universally prohibited in warfare.

Considering the level of heat and radiation that nuclear weapons release, experts say their possession inherently violates international law forbidding the infliction of indiscriminate and disproportionate harm on civilians.

Entitled "Law's Imperative for the Urgent Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World," the declaration calls for governments to swiftly commence and conclude negotiations on the global prohibition and elimination of these weapons.

Citing the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the declaration's signers argue that, "It cannot be lawful to continue indefinitely to possess weapons which are unlawful to use or threaten to use, are already banned for most states, and are subject to an obligation of elimination."

The essence of the 1970 landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was that countries that did not possess nuclear weapons agreed not to acquire them, and states that did possess them agreed to "good faith" negotiations to destroy them.

The United States and Russia are the world's largest nuclear weapon states. They possess 93 percent of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Sweden-based think tank that tracks weapons production and exports worldwide.

Among others, China has 400 warheads, France 348, and Israel and Britain about 200 each. India is believed to have more than 80 and Pakistan about 40 nuclear weapons.

However, many critics see the United States as the most irresponsible member of the nuclear club, for not only failing in its NPT obligations, but also going to great lengths to block, and even derail, the international discourse on nuclear disarmament in the past.

The Ronald Reagan administration (1981-89), for example, looked the other way when Pakistan was developing its illegal nuclear programme in the 1980s. Similarly, the George W. Bush administration (2001-09) decided to make a nuclear trade deal with India that remains outside the fold of the NPT.

The Barack Obama administration recently signed a new strategic arms treaty with Russia, but it allows the United States to keep at least 3,500 nuclear weapons in its arsenal even after 2020.

That, as proponents of disarmaments noted at the time, was a step in the positive direction, but not enough.

John Burroughs of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy believes the U.S. could take the lead on disarmament by reducing its stockpiles to "much lower levels" without undermining its own capability to respond to a nuclear attack.

However, as he witnessed Thursday's permanent installation of over a million signatures in support of the complete abolition of nuclear weapons, he agreed with those who think that the peace movement is now moving forward faster than ever before.

"I think over the past few years, there has been change in the elite opinion as well as the general public," he told IPS. "There's a dynamic in the peace movement. [The petitions] will help crystallise that."

In her comments on the declaration, Dr. Jennifer Simons, president of the Simons Foundation, said she hoped that in the debate about "the road to zero, [it] will serve to underline the essential element - the inhumanity and illegality of nuclear weapons - and hasten their elimination."

"The possession of nuclear weapons should be an international crime," she added.

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