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The Toronto Star

Invest in People Not Weapons

Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger

With this month's new round of sanctions against Iran and its nuclear enrichment program, nations have been forced to once again consider the political and military implications of one day having yet another nuclear-armed state.

Lost in this debate, though, is the recognition of exactly what this ongoing pursuit of the world's deadliest weapon means for our ability to protect and promote everyday human rights and the necessities of life.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, countries have spent large fortunes on the research, development and maintenance of their nuclear arsenals. The United States alone spends upwards of $35 billion a year on maintaining its nuclear stockpile - money that is diverted from health care, education and other essential social services.

In a country where rural schools are in desperate need of funding, and where nearly 50 million people have no health insurance, these billions could be better spent somewhere else.

"We've put this money down a black hole of so-called security," says David Krieger, president of the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. "In a more just and humane society, that money would be spent on health care, housing and the alleviation of poverty."

The United States is not the only country that funnels money into nuclear weapons while its most vulnerable citizens go without. Just last month in India, another nuclear-armed nation, the government allocated $26 billion for defence and weapons spending, despite the fact that nearly 80 per cent of its population lives on less than a dollar a day.

China, which has roughly 300 nuclear warheads, spends more than twice as much as India on its defence budget, yet allocates barely $20 per person for education.

"It's hard not to conceive of this as a human rights issue," Krieger says.

It's long been assumed that having this technology translates into increased clout on the international stage. So as long as countries continue to raise the stakes by spending billions on nuclear arms, others will want to do the same.

North Korea's acquisition of a nuclear bomb has stirred fears of an arms race in Asia, and talk that Al Qaeda wants to acquire a bomb for itself has grown steadily louder. Each time the ante is raised, our ability to achieve a basic quality of life falls lower on the priority list.

That's why Krieger's organization is hoping to collect a million signatures demanding the next U.S. president take the lead on developing a phased, verifiable and transparent international agreement on the disarmament of the world's 27,000 remaining nuclear warheads - something the U.S. and other armed nations have failed to do since signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty back in 1968.

"We have a tremendous responsibility to do something," he says. "No other generation in the past has had to confront the possibility of human annihilation by means of its own cleverness."

Before any such agreement becomes possible, there will need to be a major shift in global priorities. Investing in weapons with the power to wipe out the entire Earth in the hope of achieving peace is an inherently flawed approach, one that leaves us in a precarious and unpredictable balance between deterrence and destruction.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world.

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