An extraordinary thing happened at the 50th anniversary celebration of the United Nations in June 1995. Then Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, announced that he would set up the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The head of a state "under the nuclear umbrella," and an ally of the United States was going to explore the elimination of the "deterrence" that had kept the U.S. safe from invasion for 50 years and no one said a word to stop him!
The Canberra Commission had its first meeting in January 1996. They issued their report on Aug. 14, two weeks prior to the Sept. 1 deadline the Australian government had given them. The report contained just the sort of things that NGOs working for peace have been saying for years. For example:
The Canberra Commission is persuaded that immediate and determined efforts need to be made to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to it. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons is immense. Any use would be catastrophic. The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used - accidentally or by decision - defies credibility.
The Commission recommends that the five nuclear weapons states commit themselves unequivocally to the elimination of nuclear weapons and begin to take the necessary practical steps and set up negotiations immediately. Other recommendations for immediate action include: taking nuclear forces off alert, removing warheads from delivery vehicles, ending the deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons, ending nuclear testing, initiating negotiations to further reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, reciprocal agreement of no first use among nuclear weapons states, and an undertaking by them not to use such weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.
These recommendations should be followed by the negotiation of the START III treaty; improved verification; and bringing into the negotiations China, Britain, France, and the states that have nuclear weapons but do not admit it.
So what's new about all this? It is not what was said, but who was saying it. The Canberra Report is the first of its kind to be commissioned by a western government. The 17 committee members reflected a diverse range of backgrounds and included such notables as Field Marshal Lord Carver, former Commander in Chief of the Far East Division of the British Army; Prof. Joseph Rotblat, 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner; Ryukichi Imai, counselor to the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan; Jacques Cousteau, leading international campaigner on global survival issues; and Dr. Maj-Britt Theorin, member of the European Parliament and president of the International Peace Bureau.
At their first meeting the Commission's members all agreed that the goal was zero nuclear weapons:
The case for the elimination of nuclear weapons is based on three major arguments:
The case against the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons is presented in great detail:
It is false to claim that the world has traversed successfully the most dangerous phase of the nuclear era and is now on the path to modest, passively deployed nuclear forces that will deliver the asserted benefits of deterrence at much reduced risk. ...
Today, the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons or material, including by terrorist and sub-state groups, has become a serious threat to the international community. Even the most powerful country in the world, the United States, is now vulnerable to such threats.
... these weapons have no feasible role in deterring terrorists or sub-state groups armed with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.
The report then goes on to debunk, one by one, the most common arguments for retaining nuclear weapons. These arguments are treated seriously by the Commission in its report; the rebuttals, however, prove each and every pro-nuclear argument to be unsound.
One example is the belief that the elimination of nuclear weapons is unverifiable and that cheating will occur. The Commission responds that if:
... the risk of a failure of deterrence in an environment of thousands of warheads on reliable delivery vehicles [is set] against the risks associated with whatever nuclear force a cheating state could assemble before it was exposed, it is beyond question that, of those two, the former is the vastly greater risk.
The report takes seriously the concerns that nuclear weapon states may have about their security during the reduction towards zero. The Commission outlines a very slow process and insists that "the process must ensure that no state feels, at any stage, that further nuclear disarmament is a threat to its security." The report makes clear that this must be a global effort and must include a series of "phased verified reductions" that would allow states to satisfy themselves, at each stage of the process, that elimination is made safely and securely.
The report overlooks one factor that may explain why nuclear weapons states continue to retain their weapons: the vested interest of the people and corporations whose careers, reputations, and profits depend on nuclear weapons.
The force we must bring against this barrier to disarmament is public opinion. Governments and decision-makers must hear the voices of popular objection loudly and clearly over those of the nuclear industry and its lobbyists. This is a critical goal of the Abolition 2000 campaign. The decision-makers must see public opposition to nuclear weapons as a more powerful force than the lobby in favor of retaining them.
The Canberra Commission and its report need to be widely known and discussed in order to reach its most important audience: the people of the world.
To read the Canberra Report, see web address http://www.dfat.gov.au/d-fat/cc/cchome.html.
Dr. Phillips works with Science for Peace and Physicians for Global Survival.