A limp Throne Speech for Obama

The government's Throne Speech contained this sentence: "Recognizing the danger posed by the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology to global peace and security, our government will support the initiatives of President Obama and participate fully in the landmark Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April." Who would want to quarrel with that? But as Peggy Lee used to sing: "Is that all there is?" The lonely sentence is monumentally inadequate to the challenges the world—and Canada—faces. The government sees a world that seems to revolve around Canada. Here is the world that I see: "Twenty years after the end of the Cold War there are at least 23,000 nuclear warheads still in existence, with a combined blast capacity equivalent to 150,000 Hiroshima bombs.... The US and Russia together have over 22,000, and France, the UK, China, India, Pakistan and Israel around 1,000 between them. "Nearly half of all warheads are still operationally deployed, and the US and Russia each have over 2,000 weapons on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched immediately—within a decision window of just 4-8 minutes for each president—in the event of perceived attack. "The command and control systems of the Cold War years were repeatedly strained by mistakes and false alarms. With more nuclear-armed states now, and more system vulnerabilities, the near miracle of no nuclear exchange cannot continue in perpetuity." These sobering words are taken from the 2009 report of the International Com-mission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, sponsored by the governments of Japan and Australia. Only a few days ago, the foreign ministers of both countries stated that the threat of nuclear weapons is one of the most serious issues humankind faces. They pledged to attain a meaningful agreement at the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty concerning each of the treaty's three pillars, nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This leadership gives us heart that the long struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons is gaining a foothold on the international agenda. US President Barack Obama's initiative last September in convening an unprecedented summit meeting of the United Nations Security Council devoted to the nuclear weapons issue has given new hope to the world. With both US and Russian leadership seriously committed to nuclear disarmament negotiations, a new opportunity exists to make substantive reductions in existing nuclear arsenals, halt proliferation and set the world on an irreversible path to zero nuclear weapons. Now President Obama is preparing to host another ground-breaking summit on nuclear security, to be held in Washington April 12-13. The purpose of the summit of 44 nations is to plan collective steps to secure vulnerable nuclear materials and prevent acts of nuclear terrorism. Obama has drawn in India, which, in standing outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is not part of the current regime to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For the first time, a global regime to achieve Obama's vision of a nuclear weapons-free world is in prospect. This is truly a watershed moment in world affairs. One summit in Washington will not take the world to nuclear zero, to be sure. That is precisely the point. Without strong support from his allies, Obama will be stalled by his domestic political opponents in moving US policy forward. A new 21st-century diplomatic configuration that takes in all nuclear powers deserves far more than the limp response Canada has offered in the Throne Speech. The world community has got to speak up loudly so that this new opportunity to rid the world of the threat of nuclear warfare is not lost. That is why a group of Canadian nuclear disarmament leaders in January stated: "It is urgent that the prime minister and foreign minister find early and prominent opportunities to publicly address nuclear disarmament and reaffirm Canada's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons." Calls for achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world have continued to pour in from many quarters, notably UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He has called for work to start on a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would be a legally-binding treaty to move the world in successive stages to the elimination of nuclear weapons. More than 500 members of the Order of Canada have urged the Canadian government to actively support this effort. International polls show that people around the world overwhelmingly support the proposition that all countries should sign a treaty that prohibits all nuclear weapons. But they are passive, if not skeptical, in expressing this view. The sheer horror of nuclear weapons, and the catastrophic economic, environmental and human costs of their use have not yet penetrated the public consciousness. While it's hard to find anyone who actually thinks using nuclear weapons is a good idea, the subject seems remote from daily concerns. Nuclear disarmament campaigners are frequently relegated to the sidelines of society's concerns. What we need is a single-focused idea to get rid of all nuclear weapons in a safe and secure way. That's the beauty of a Nuclear Weapons Convention: it provides a legal basis for phasing in concrete steps with a visible intent to reach zero nuclear weapons in a defined time period. The public can easily understand this clear notion. Key countries like Canada can perform a great service to the nuclear disarmament agenda by ensuring that the Final Document of the forthcoming NPT Review Conference contains a passage calling for active work to begin on a convention. This work could then take the form of international consultations involving a core group of like-minded states and representatives of civil society to thoroughly explore the focus, scope, verification, and other elements relevant to a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Societal attitudes are indeed changing even though moving to a nuclear weapons free world represents a tectonic shift in how the world operates. The very powerful are being asked to give up that which makes them very powerful and this has never been done before in the history of the world. Nonetheless, historical momentum towards the abolition of nuclear weapons is building up. The Government's "recalibration" effort seems to have missed this development. Former senator and ambassador for disarmament Douglas Roche is author of Creative Dissent: A Politician's Struggle for Peace. editor@embassymag.ca

Douglas Roche
Published: Wednesday, 03/10/2010 12:00 am EST

The government's Throne Speech contained this sentence: "Recognizing the danger posed by the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology to global peace and security, our government will support the initiatives of President Obama and participate fully in the landmark Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April."

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