BERLIN - Leading supporters of disarmament see new hope arising from the announcement by the U.S. and Russian presidents that they are willing to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with a new one.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama made that announcement in London Apr. 1 on the eve of the G20 summit.
"We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world," the leaders said jointly. Russia and the United States possess about 95 percent of nuclear weapons.
The who's who of the disarmament world agreed to take that impetus forward at a conference held in Rome Apr. 16-17. The Conference on Overcoming Nuclear Dangers was attended by 70 former and current government officials and experts from about 20 countries.
The announcement by Obama and Medvedev "will give new impetus to disarmament and arms control, and certainly strengthen our common effort for a successful outcome of the 2010 NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference," said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, which co- sponsored the conference. "Other nuclear powers should follow the lead of the U.S. and Russia."
Full compliance with disarmament and non-proliferation treaties, "first and foremost the NPT, is an essential condition of real progress towards the achievement of our stated goals," he said.
But the road is littered with multiple obstacles, warned Mikhail Gorbachev, who was president of what was the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991. He had signed START with then U.S. president Ronald Reagan.
Gorbachev, who presides over the World Political Forum (WPF), urged the U.S. and Russia to work towards removing the hurdles. "Unless we address the need to demilitarise international relations, reduce military budgets, put an end to the creation of new kinds of weapons and prevent weaponisation of outer space, all talk about a nuclear weapon free world will be just inconsequential rhetoric," he said.
The WPF, an international NGO founded in Piedmont (Italy) by Gorbachev, organised the conference along with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). "We serve as a meeting point for cultures, religions, political leaders and civil society - an open forum where analysis of the issue of interdependence provides a framework for the building of a new world political architecture," WPF's director of external relations Roberto Savio told IPS. The U.S.-based NTI is co-chaired by Ted Turner of CNN and former senator Sam Nunn. It seeks to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
The conference threw up the idea of "base camps" leading up to a nuclear- free mountaintop. Such base camps, that would serve as platforms to design the best way up towards a world free of nukes, and supportive measures in other areas of arms control and security cooperation, can help usher in a world free of nuclear weapons, according to a joint statement by Gorbachev, George P. Schultz, the U.S. secretary of state 1982-1989 under Reagan, and Frattini.
The conference statement says there is growing recognition - both inside and outside of governments - of the need to embrace the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and the urgent steps necessary to overcome nuclear dangers.
"The current shift towards nuclear abolition in the international political arena, where such a vision has so far been seen as unrealistic, provides a vital opportunity," Hirotsugu Terasaki, executive director of peace affairs at the Tokyo-based Buddhist association Soka Gakkai International (SGI) told IPS.
SGI launched a 'People's Decade' in September 2007 along with international anti-nuclear movements such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a campaign initiated by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a federation of medical professionals in 60 countries that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1985.
"The aim of the People's Decade is to increase the number of people who reject nuclear weapons. Ordinary citizens and civil society must be the protagonists, creating a groundswell of demand for nuclear abolition that will influence decision makers," Terasaki said.
SGI was one of three civil society organisations that took part in the Rome conference; the other two being the Italian Peace Roundtable - a network that unites more than 1,500 civil society organisations and local authorities, and the Global Security Institute (GSI), a U.S.-based group that aims to strengthen international cooperation and security based on the rule of law, with a particular focus on nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.
"We have a situation where chemical weapons and biological weapons are condemned universally but nuclear weapons, which are even more horrific than biological or chemical, are allegedly acceptable in the hands of nine countries (Britain, France, Russia, China, Canada and the United States as well as India, Pakistan and North Korea). This is incoherent and unsustainable," GSI president Jonathan Granoff told IPS.
"The only solution is to either allow all countries to use these terrific devices - clearly unacceptable - or to universally ban them," he said.
"They are not over-ambitious in saying that we are going to achieve this in five years time or so because they know they have to create a climate of opinion and then the principal players - U.S. and Russia - have to be persuaded to act and then gradually we go towards the summit which is ridding the world of nuclear weapons," India's former foreign secretary and disarmament expert Lalit Mansingh told IPS.