A Conversation with Aaron Tovish, May 31, 2005
METTA SPENCER: You were at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva and now you're at Mayors for Peace. How did that change occur?
AARON TOVISH: My job in Geneva was to coordinate the work of the NGOs for the second preparatory meeting for the Non-Proliferation Review. The Mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba, and I had previously been active in the campaign to amend the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and get a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTB). In 2003 he came through Geneva and made a presentation to the second preparatory committee meeting. He announced that his organization, Mayors for Peace, wanted to launch a big campaign against nuclear weapons. We were inspired by his speech, but frankly, most of us had never even heard of the organization, which had existed for over 20 years and had gathered a network of over 500 mayors in about 100 countries.
SPENCER: Toronto's mayor already was a member and nobody realized it.
TOVISH: Yes, a city affiliates and unless a new mayor says otherwise, they all are assumed to be affiliated. There was a whole structure that had been quiescent. Its presidency passes from one mayor of Hiroshima to the next. I was invited to propose a plan to the executive committee in October. It was formally launched in Nagasaki, and in February I joined the operation in Hiroshima as international campaign manager.
There's a huge distinction between education and campaigning. It's not just informing people about the horrors of nuclear war. When you're campaigning, you have to convey a sense that you're actually going to change things. You're not going to stop until you have changed things. Immediately that challenges others to think about whether they want to help you with that. It's a very different dynamic.
SPENCER: Who's your audience? Are you trying to influence government officials or the public?
TOVISH: There are two parts -- first, to wake up a sleepy organization. Mayor Akiba is absolutely essential in that. He's determined to use this organ- ization for change. The second part is grassroots. Activists have felt isolated. Diplomats wouldn't give them the time of day. The media wasn't interested. But grassroots people began recruiting mayors. Membership of the organization, which was about 550 when the campaign began, has almost doubled.
SPENCER: I suppose that municipal officials have to answer this basic question: Why ask mayors to influence foreign policy? That's not their role.
TOVISH: Sure. But in recent years, cities are being asked to prepare for terrorist attacks, just as they were once asked to prepare for a nuclear attack. A lot of these mayors recognized that once an attack has occurred, their role is over. They're dead. City Hall is gone. There's no way to take responsibility for that except by abolishing nuclear weapons. They are having to speak up. So this brings us to the third factors of any campaign: How do we engage higher levels of government?
SPENCER: What's your game plan for the campaign?
TOVISH: We came to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference 100-strong and held a special conference for mayors in the General Assembly Hall. The secretary general participated. We marched with 40,000 folks in New York City. The mayors got a lot of press coverage at the beginning of the conference, saying that there had to be a foreseeable vision of a nuclear weapon-free world or else the nonproliferation regime is in deep trouble. We're seeing the consequences of the second point: The NPT is indeed in deep trouble.
SPENCER: The NPT Review Conference just ended three days ago - in complete failure. Do you know what went wrong?
TOVISH: The situation was untenable from the beginning. This was the seventh review conference. By the time of the fifth review conference in 1995 (which coincided with the decision about extending the term in force of the NPT) it was clear that the review process was not strong enough to ensure the full implementation of the treaty. There was an attempt, in which I played a central role, to strengthen the review process. The idea was to set goals for how members should perform in the coming years. The first chance to implement that type of review process was in 2000 and the results were excellent. There was a good review of what had happened in the five previous years and a good plan of action was set out for the future.
But then the Bush administration swept into power. From Day One they renounced the program that had been established in 2000. Then 9/11 occurred and they claimed that everything had to be re-thought. They never explained why. Sure, you need to work harder on keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of non-state actors, but it didn't change anything else regarding state actors. But they washed their hands of their commitments. They went into this new conference opposing any reference to the results of 2000. I have a document that the State Department was distributing to the NPT participants, supposedly proving that the United States is fulfilling all its obligations under the NPT. In it there's a calendar of the great things the US has done. It goes chronologically: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003. It skips over 2000. It refuses to acknowledge that important commitments were made in 2000 -- which had been removed from history. What does that say about how relevant the results of 2005 will be in 2010?
During the first week I gave a presentation and said the conference was going to fail. At the last minute of the conference when they made their final statement, the US spoke for at least twenty minutes. At least 18 of those minutes were spent criticizing other people and the remaining two minutes saying "We have done everything that could possibly be expected of us and we don't accept that anybody can tell us what to do."
Another indication: Every other conference has been preceded by a joint statement of the five nuclear weapon states to show that they are approaching the conference in a constructive way. This time they did not even have a joint statement. They could not find common ground with the US.
SPENCER: On what point did they diverge?
TOVISH: They probably each have their own reasons. The British are committed to achieving a nuclear weapon-free world. They also are in the funny position of keeping the US from being isolated, but they won't renounce their position of 2000. The Chinese favor initiating negotiations on the elimination of nuclear weapons. They are disturbed by the Star Wars development, which they see as aimed against themselves. They are therefore enlarging their nuclear arsenal -- which the US then uses as an excuse for not engaging in irreversible reduction. Russia is hedging its bets in terms of whether it may have to use its tactical nuclear weapons because of the overwhelming conventional US might. So there are lots of different divisions. The French have their own nuclear weapons, but they are also horrified by these unilateral tendencies.
SPENCER: So the other nuclear states would move toward disarming -- it's only the US that won't.
TOVISH: On a first order approximation, yes, that's the basic situation. They've become polarized against the US policies. I'm not saying that everyone else is blameless. Iran has been misrepresenting its nuclear weapons program. It was helpful to both Iran and the United States that they could point fingers at each other, while the vast majority of countries wanted to get something constructive done.
SPENCER: Can anything good happen?
TOVISH: The great majority of countries and big majorities within the nuclear weapons states --
SPENCER: Including the US?
TOVISH: Including the US -- need ways of democratically realizing their objectives.
SPENCER: Concern about nuclear weapons is considered an old fashioned idea. What people are concerned about are "WMDs" -- that's the fashion. You can't even get the press to listen to you if you want to talk about nuclear weapons.
TOVISH: Well, this conference marks the beginning of change in that area. There's a great majority of support for nuclear disarmament. Roosters will come home to roost. Bush already has trouble with the Bolton nomination. One focus of our work has to be creating a profound debate, especially in the next US presidential election. There needs to be someone saying: Why do we have these weapons at all? What security benefit are we gaining by having these weapons? If that were the only issue on the agenda, the American people would vote for the person who says to put all our weapons on the table and demand that everyone else put all their weapons on the table and negotiate their elimination.
Associated Press did a poll about a week before the NPT Conference. They gave a scientifically chosen sample of Americans' four choices:
(a) Should the US alone have nuclear weapons?
(b) Should the US and its allies have nuclear weapons but no one else?
(c) Should those who already have weapons be allowed to keep them but no one new should get them?
(d) Should everyone get rid of them, including the United States?
The last choice got 66 percent.
SPENCER: That's terrific! I'm not surprised, but the problem is the gap between that opinion and any mobilization of that opinion.
TOVISH: That's where the Mayors' campaign and Abolition 2000 hint at a new wave of public engagement.
SPENCER: When we had dinner in New York, you mentioned the possibility of an Amendment Conference for the NPT -- a novel idea. If it were to happen, it would take years of planning, just as the Amendment Conference to the PTBT did. Is anybody serious about this?
TOVISH: We are looking at various options for filling the vacuum left by the NPT Review Conference failure. (Most likely, unfortunately, the Conference on Disarmament will not fill it.) Any approach has to be started by a tight group of countries and gain the support of a broader group, so as to bring this issue back into forefront of the international community. The amendment approach is one. It can be started by even a single country proposing an amendment. Then, if a third of the parties to the treaty (which in this case is about 160 countries) want an amendment conference to be held on that subject, the conference has to be convened by Russia, the United States, and Britain. That's similar to what happened with the PTBT Amendment Conference. That's an option we'll look at.
SPENCER: Was anybody talking about it at the NPT Review?
TOVISH: No, no. At the review conference everybody had to try in good faith to get results. To be talking about alternatives openly would be saying they had given up on that process and were already thinking about others. But there have been discussions behind the scenes. And there are other options too. The amendment approach is pretty radical. It's not something you enter into lightly. The PTBT Amendment Conference occurred about 25 years of waiting for the PTBT to lead to a CTB Treaty. It occurred when the United States and Britain were trying to kill the idea of a CTB and countries felt they had to rally to its defence.
SPENCER: Although the Amendment Conference succeeded, it still isn't US policy -- so that doesn't bode well for a similar approach.
TOVISH: Well, that's hardly the fault of the Amendment Conference that we fell short! If anything, it was the fact that people didn't continue on with the amendment process, but resorted to the CD route. If they had used the entry-into-force mechanism of the amendment approach, we would be in a much stronger position now. The Amendment Conference deserves credit for keeping the test ban issue alive and propelling it forward in the mid-90s.
SPENCER: I hate to say this, but if the US Administration doesn't want something, it's not going to happen.
TOVISH: After 2008 there will be a different government in Washington. Therefore, what we do has two criteria in mind. One is, how does it help the American people to think through the situation with nuclear weapons and inspire them to try a new course? How does it make it possible for a new administration to take that course? To be involved in a campaign, you need a long-range attitude. We need international fora that pose the question: Is the US on board with this task or is it standing aside? If the polls that I cited to you hold up, 66 percent will vote to jump in and work for disarmament.
SPENCER: I would love to be that optimistic. The reality is --
TOVISH: -- that their loyalties are divided among many different issues. Yes. So how can we address the majority that we have? It may take referenda or other forms of democratic action.
SPENCER: Does anyone travel around trying to ignite fires in mayors' bellies?
TOVISH: Akiba does and some other people, as they travel, meet with local peace groups and mayors. We may have 1500 mayors as members by August. We have depended a lot on the Abolition 2000 campaign to approach City Halls.
SPENCER: How widespread is Abolition 2000?
TOVISH: It brings together over 2000 NGOs around the world. In both Abolition 2000 and Mayors for Peace, we have good mobilization in the Anglo-Saxon world and Japan. We are beginning to see mobilization in Eastern Europe, a bit in Latin America, a bit in Africa, a bit in the rest of Asia, but we've got a long way to go in some of those places. In Canada, Ploughshares is part of Abolition 2000. It's a very loose network. No hierarchical structure.
SPENCER: I'm active in Science for Peace and Pugwash. We're always having conferences to talk to each other. I think that's the least promising thing to be doing. What we need is many more public awareness campaigns.
TOVISH: One of the ideas we're playing with - and I hope we'll have a serious action plan in August -- is to adopt the Disarmament Week in October. You know, the UN day that kicks off a week of disarmament? It's sort of fallen into disuse in recent years and maybe we could revive it. The idea would be to encourage City Halls around the world to open their doors for town meetings during this week. We might have a few international events going on that could be picked up through webcasts or television. We're still considering this. Ideally we'll get a decision and produce materials for use by civil leaders everywhere.
SPENCER: Great. You done good, guy!
TOVISH: Thank you. Mayors are great to work with. I've worked with parliamentarians, who tend to be more elitist because they spend most of their time in the capitals, not with their constituents. Mayors are living right there among their constituents and they tend to be just regular folks.
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.
Some activities suggested at the Mayors for Peace conference in New York:
Letters, information pamphlets, personal campaigning, and media work to promote Mayors for Peace to every civic authority. A letter sent by six Belgian mayors to their colleagues, calling for a march from Ypres to the NATO building in Brussels, led to a huge increase in the number of peace-friendly councils: 221 of the country's 589 mayors are now part of the campaign.
Undertaking nuclear weapons inspections. The mayor of Santa Fe, made this suggestion. New Mexico leads the US both in nuclear weapons research (it's home to the Sandia and Los Alamos labs) and in many indicators of poverty.
Divestment to challenge the nuclear war system. For the past 22 years, the city of Tacoma has had a ban on investment in, or purchases from, companies connected to the nuclear weapons industry. And Belgian mayors are looking to divest from the five banks in their country that invest in nucle orities encourage a targeted divestment campaign, as was done against apartheid in South Africa.
Make sure your mayor goes to the World Peace Forum in Vancouver, 23-28 June 2006. Vancouver's Mayor Larry Campbell was at the conference to urge everyone to do so.
-- From a report by Phyllis Creighton