Disarmament is more practical than we are conditioned to think

As attention shifts to the NATO summit in Chicago, a statement by sixteen non nuclear weapons states, including Switzerland and Norway - an ally of the nuclear weapons states, says that nuclear weapons and programmes have catastrophic humanitarian consequences and should be abolished.

In a recent article on the progress of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament talks now under way in Vienna, Rebecca Johnson notes that the newly formed coalition of pro-humanitarian states has the potential to become a game changer. Of all that has happened thus far in Vienna the most exciting news is the statement by a coalition of 16 non nuclear weapons states, including Switzerland and Norway - an ally of the nuclear weapons states, that nuclear weapons and programmes have catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that they should be abolished.

This initiative is the first involving western states to apply to nuclear weapons the thinking that has moved humanitarian disarmament on land mines, cluster munitions and the arms trade.  President Obama’s cry for nuclear disarmament in Prague in 2009 may have had more effect than skeptics and critics believe. But more needs to be done as disarmament has long suffered from some kind of lethargic paralysis. Paraphrasing Richard Moyes and Thomas Nash, if disarmament were like an old PC it would need to be restarted. Indeed, restarting disarmament is a must, and not only at the nuclear level. The consequences would be immense, including a boost to democratic development as highlighted by Andrew Lichterman.

So how can disarmament be restarted? To begin with, we need to realize that compared to tackling climate change the technical issues are simple. Unlike combating climate change, disarmament can tremendously benefit from past achievements. We need not reinvent the wheel. Cost-efficiency and time-effectiveness are the road to success, especially in times of global recession.

The dilemma for civil society activists is to find the effective measures within the complex political and technical world of weapon systems. All too often NGOs can become ensnared in this world and lose touch with a wider public. A fabulous example of how to get technical while keeping a radical agenda can be found in the work of the century old global feminist organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom whose ‘Reaching Critical Will’ is a key resource on the official documentation of disarmament talks.

So how can the majority in the world get some new energy to pressure the nuclear haves? After all, much as we would like to ban the bomb, it’s impossible, right?

The noted communitarian Amitai Etzioni endorsed this approach in a recent message  which referred his supporters to a denunciation of ‘nuclear utopianism’ by one Keith Payne. ( Readers might be interested that the same Payne once wrote in the days of Ronald Reagan that ‘Victory is Possible’ in an all-out nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union).

The ban the bomb majority in the world can use a forgotten but tried and tested means of eliminating a nation’s WMD. This the system of inspections in Iraq from 1991-2003 led by Rolf Ekeus, Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baredei. This effort did its job and there were no WMD in Iraq, despite the slurs of Dick Cheney and the Neo-Cons that legitimated the whole invasion of Iraq on the basis that the inspectors were merely naive UN folk – easy pawns for the evil and sophisticated Saddam.

In our concept for achieving complete world disarmament in the SCRAP project we offer precision tools for the most rapid and effective disarmament measures for the use of non-specialists seeking to be able to hold their own with specialists. Unsurprisingly it is not in the interests of those favouring the status quo to advertise most of the good practice we are offering. Older readers may remember that before the end of the Cold War in the Reagan–Gorbachev era great disarmament agreements were made, and that the the UN did complete the WMD disarmament of a quintessential ‘hard case’, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The ‘best practice’ for governing and eliminating WMD can be found in the mandate and work of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in Iraq between 1999 and 2003 (UNMOVIC took over from the work of its predecessor UNSCOM) and in the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Drawing on this work would benefit from more than sixteen years of expertise and on-the-ground experience (UNMOVIC continued to be effective until 2007) with great results in Iraq – despite the calculated denigration of the inspectors that enabled the Iraq war to be launched.

Using the UNMOVIC and IAEA work as a model provides a proven method to do away with the nuclear and other WMDs of all nations, including those of the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) as well as those of the nuclear powers outside the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea). Research results from VERTIC concerning warhead dismantlement should also be integrated into disarmament procedures to render them effective as well in restricting terrorist access to nuclear technology and fissile material stocks.

The nuclear haves always argue that while disarmament is a fine ideal it is not practical. They also tend to argue that it is unenforceable and unverifiable. However, when faced with the idea of having to go through the processes that disarmed Iraq, officials from these countries tend to make the opposite argument - that the Iraq processes are too intrusive! Arguing to apply the Iraq inspections globally would not just be practical but presents a delicious irony that can perhaps foster further support from the wider public. Non nuclear weapons states, especially the more vocal ones, could therefore incorporate this argument in their demands for the denuclearization of the haves.

They should also intensify their offensive by demanding more transparency from the nuclear powers. Enhancing confidence security building processes, regionally and globally, can only result in more trust and less security dilemma. This and calls for universal adherence to the Open Skies Treaty would corner nuclear weapons states as they run out of excuses to maintain their nuclear arsenals. The Open Skies Treaty permits aerial inspections of military activity across the Euro-Atlantic region and could be extended globally. Here again the work of UNMOVIC and IAEA could be of unprecedented value as they join to coordinate potential cooperative projects amongst the nuclear states as proposed by the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

Technology and science will play an ever increasing role in disarmament, arms control, non-proliferation and international security. Drones and automated planes could be used for peaceful not bellicose purposes – as is already happening in certain parts of the world. New ideas are necessary, new thinking is primordial, but most of the work has already been done. One may cite for example what a senior Obama official, Rose Gottemoeller has coined “public verification challenge”. As states engage in disarmament talks and action citizens can get involved in helping them meet their reduction commitments.

The 2012 round of non-proliferation talks in Vienna is drawing to a close. Divisions persist but the non nuclear weapons states have the chance to continue to push nuclear weapons states towards denuclearization. Attention will now shift to the coming NATO summit in Chicago where the alliance clings to its Cold War strategies. Civil society’s role is crucial - coalescing and cooperating is the way ahead. Restarting disarmament will be achieved not by reinventing the wheel but by building on the best practices of the past and present times.

About the authors

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

David Franco is a Research Assistant in the Disarmament and Globalisation programme at the SOAS Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy where he is coordinating SCRAP. He is also Editor and Columnist at InPEC, an independent online magazine on international politics, energy, and culture founded by SOAS alumni in 2011