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January-February 2011

Vol. 36, No. 1

Next steps toward nuclear disarmament

Passage of the new START Treaty during the Congressional lame duck session kept hope alive that the Obama administration’s commitment to nuclear disarmament could have an impact. Although legitimate and serious questions have been posed about the cost of this ratification, especially the significant investment in new or existing nuclear facilities and the unabashed promotion of a missile shield, without ratification of new START, any serious move toward nuclear disarmament would have been off the political table for the foreseeable future.

While the administration has mentioned U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as the desired next step, Abolition 2000, the global umbrella group of over 2,000 peace and nuclear disarmament groups worldwide, is also urging every country with nuclear weapons to take them off high alert. Abolition 2000 members see this as essential to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and the implementation of a global nuclear weapons convention that would provide a legal framework permanently outlawing nuclear weapons.

According to Abolition 2000, “There have been over the years a number of incidents involving especially U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons systems in which it is not an exaggeration to say that the end of the world has been potentially minutes away. We’ve been saved by a cool Russian colonel who didn’t press a red button, by an aide to President Yeltsin who said ‘Excuse me Mr. President let’s wait another minute’ and by a U.S. Minuteman launch control officer who -- as a practice launch sequence turned into the real thing and wouldn’t stop -- ordered heavy military vehicles driven on top of silo doors.”

In a letter to presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, secretaries of state and UN diplomatic missions of the countries understood to possess nuclear weapons – the U.S., Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel – Abolition 2000 wrote:

“Perhaps most dangerous aspect of today’s nuclear arsenals are the many thousands of nuclear weapons which remain on high-alert, launch-ready status. There is strong international agreement, shown by the overwhelming support in the General Assembly that ‘calls upon the Nuclear Weapon States to take measures to reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons and to also consider further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security.’

“The international community, including the leaders of States possessing nuclear weapons, has recognized that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences - and thus a practice and norm of non-use has developed.

“However, as the leader of a State in possession of nuclear weapons, you have the possibility to initiate a nuclear war at any time. With more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, a nuclear first-strike can start a chain reaction that would end in a nuclear holocaust. Recent scientific studies tell us that the detonation of even one percent of the operational nuclear arsenals during a conflict would cause grave changes in the climate and ecology of the Earth; a large nuclear war would end human existence.

“Thus, the operational and deployed nuclear arsenals of the States possessing nuclear weapons and the continued policies providing for possible use in a wide range of circumstances, represent a self-destruct mechanism for humanity. It only takes a single failure of nuclear deterrence to trigger global nuclear suicide.

“Yet, as the leader of a Nuclear Weapon State, you can choose to act now to prevent such an ultimate catastrophe. We urge you to issue a Presidential Decree which forbids the launch of nuclear weapons based only on a tactical or strategic warning of attack (electronic signals from early warning systems, which could be a false warning or represent  conventional warheads), and to de-alert your launch-ready nuclear forces ...

“Of course the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used by accident, miscalculation or intent is to prohibit and eliminate them … Until recently, such an aim appeared utopian. However, the political and technical feasibility of nuclear abolition is now apparent from the statements of world leaders, the agreement at the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and the Five-Point-Plan put forward by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which includes a draft treaty [which includes de-alerting as the first step] …

“We urge you to prohibit launch on warning, de-alert your nuclear weapons and join the process to achieve a global prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons under a nuclear weapons convention.”

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