Progress on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation may be one of the casualties of the current chill in U.S.-Russia relations resulting from the horror show that is Syria and continuing tension over Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine intrigues. This week Russian officials suspended or curtailed a number of cooperative efforts with the United States aimed at discouraging nuclear proliferation, including feasibility studies on the conversion of Russian research reactors to low-enriched uranium and the continuing implementation of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. That program commits Russia and the United States to eliminating parts of their weapons-grade plutonium stocks.
The Russian countermeasures on proliferation followed quickly on the heels of a U.S. decision to suspend what had become fruitless negotiations toward a cease-fire in Syria. They represent one more blow this week to efforts to diminish the threat posed by nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. The setback does not bode well for near-term progress on U.S.-Russia disarmament, an effort that has stalled for years after decades of significant moves to reduce nuclear stockpiles.
As major nuclear powers prepare for modernization programs that could lead to a new nuclear arms race, activists around the world have been coming at the issue of disarmament from a number of different angles in recent years. In that “ban the bomb” campaign they have been enjoying the renewed interest and support of the Holy See and Pope Francis in disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.
Related: No More Nukes?
Just a few days before the Russian snub on proliferation, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, had been at the United Nations arguing that “nuclear arms offer a false sense of security” and describing “the uneasy peace promised by nuclear deterrence” as a “tragic illusion.”
Addressing a General Assembly side event marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on Sept. 27, the archbishop said, “Nuclear weapons cannot create for us a stable and secure world.
“Peace and international stability cannot be founded on mutually assured destruction or on the threat of total annihilation.”
He concluded, “It would be naïve and myopic if we sought to assure world peace and security through nuclear weapons rather than through the eradication of extreme poverty, increased accessibility to healthcare and education, and the promotion of peaceful institutions and societies through dialogue and solidarity.”
In another setback this week to the international anti-nuke movement, the United Nations’ highest court on Oct. 5 rejected nuclear disarmament cases filed by the tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands against Great Britain, India and Pakistan. The International Court of Justice, in a close decision, ruled that the Marshall Islands failed to prove that a legal dispute over disarmament existed between it and three nuclear powers before the case was filed, "consequently the court lacks jurisdiction.” The 16-judge bench ruled there was no evidence that the Marshalls had been involved in a prior dispute with any of the three nuclear powers or sought bilateral negotiations on the issue.
The groundbreaking suit was first brought to the I.C.J. by the Marshall Islands in 2014. The international court had been perceived as a possible equalizing option for small nations hoping to force nuclear powers to make more progress on disarmament. The Marshall Islands originally filed cases against all nine nations that have declared or are believed to possess nuclear weapons: The United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. But only the cases against Britain, India and Pakistan got to the preliminary stage of proceedings. The I.C.J. had refused to take up cases against the other countries as they did not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
Phon van den Biesen, a Dutch lawyer who represented the Marshall Islands, said he was deeply disappointed by the rulings.
“If the court keeps creating this sort of threshold, what is the court for?” he said. “It’s a dispute that is clear to all of the world except for eight judges here.”
Though he cast the deciding vote to toss out the case against Britain, the court's president, Ronny Abraham, acknowledged that the Marshall Islands has a particular interest in nuclear disarmament “by virtue of the suffering which its people endured as a result of it being used as a site for extensive nuclear testing programs.”
Representatives from the Marshall Islands had brought the case to The Hague arguing that the health and lives of its citizens had been destroyed by the dozens of nuclear tests conducted along its territory between 1946 and 1958. According to Greenpeace, 67 nuclear tests were conducted by the United States in the Marshalls in that period, making it one of the most contaminated places in the world.
Greenpeace reports: “With a population of less than 70,000, the Islanders suffered greatly from the impact of radiation; the land and sea poisoned as well.”
The Marshall Islanders had argued that by not stopping the nuclear arms race, Britain, India and Pakistan had breached obligations under the the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—even if New Delhi and Islamabad have not signed the pact.
At hearings in March, Marshall Islands former Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said he watched one of the U.S. nuclear tests as a 9-year-old boy while fishing with his grandfather off the Rongelap Atoll. It was the testing of a thermonuclear bomb in 1954, 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. “The entire sky turned blood red,” he told judges in an emotional speech. After the explosion, he testified, it began to rain radioactive fallout at Rongelap. Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance.
“No one knew it was radioactive fallout,” said de Brum. “The children thought it was snow. And the children played in the snow. And they ate it.” De Brum testified that some of his country’s islands were “vaporized” by the tests.
Pope Francis has frequently spoken of the church’s revived concerns with the status quo on nuclear deterrence and the lack of progress on disarmament. Last year during his historic address before the U.N. General Assembly in New York he called for the “complete prohibition” of nuclear weapons and condemned the doctrine of deterrence. “An ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction—and possibly the destruction of all mankind—are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the United Nations, which would end up as ‘nations united by fear and distrust,’” he said. “There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Nonproliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons.”
Editor's note: After this story posted Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, was quick to point out that there were was indeed more positive developments in recent days for the anti-nuke movement.
The AP reports:
Despite arm-twisting and vocal opposition from nuclear powers like the United States, six non-nuclear countries urged the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday to work toward a "legally-binding" accord to ban nuclear weapons in hopes of ridding them from the planet altogether one day.
The countries—Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa—sent world diplomats a draft text that calls for a U.N. conference next year to draw up a treaty banning nuclear weapons, diplomats said. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the text, which is to be considered at the U.N. in New York starting next month.
The 3-page draft, which heads to a U.N. committee in New York, hews closely to a resolution passed at a working-group meeting of non-nuclear states in Geneva last month. The text urges states "to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons" that would aim one day for their "total elimination."
However, it stops short of setting a calendar or deadline for an eventual passage of the treaty.
The text also urges countries to apply working group recommendations to increase transparency about the risks of nuclear weapons, enact measures to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized detonations, and raise awareness about the consequences of a detonation.
Austria's permanent representative in Geneva, Thomas Hajnoczi, called the text a "big step." While acknowledging that security agreement at the U.N. for a nuclear weapons ban would likely be a long process, Hajnoczi expects a vote on the text by a U.N. committee on disarmament around Nov. 1 that could send it to the assembly in December.
"It's hard to see how this treaty wouldn't strengthen the non-proliferation regime," he said, alluding to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that has been a global benchmark of limiting nuclear weapons for years.