A Nuclear Weapons Convention: The Time Is Now

This is an excerpt from former Senator Douglas Roche’s recent speech in Hiroshima, where he was made an honorary citizen. A full elaboration will be contained in his new book, How We Stopped Loving the Bomb, to be published by James Lorimer & Co. in early 2011.

By Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C.

For the first time, the subject of a Nuclear Weapons Convention—a global treaty to ban all nuclear weapons— is on the international agenda. Consider the progress that has so far been made:

Two-thirds of all national governments have voted at the UN to start negotiations on a convention. In 21 countries, including the five major nuclear powers, polls show that 76 percent of people support negotiation of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons. China, India and Pakistan, all with nuclear weapons, are committed to negotiations. The European Parliament has voted for a convention, along with several national parliaments. Long lists of non-governmental organizations want it. In Japan, 10 million people signed a petition for it. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has spoken repeatedly in favour of it. There is no doubt that historical momentum is building up.

Opposition remains. The powerful military-industrial complexes are still trading on public fear. There is a virtual mainline media blackout on the subject, which limits national debates. Yet the tide is turning.

The Final Document of the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting said: “The conference notes the Five-Point Proposal for Nuclear Disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which proposes inter alia consideration of negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention or agreement on a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments backed by a strong system of verification.”

This language is weak, yet now we have an agreed document to build on. Our task now is to get negotiations started. The most practicable action would be a core group of countries calling their own conference, to which interested states would be invited. This work could evolve into the full-scale international conference. The point is to start preparatory work now before the present window of opportunity closes.

In 1996, Canada called a conference of states concerned about anti-personnel land mines. The “Ottawa Process” produced a treaty within a year. Today, 80 percent of the world’s states have ratified or acceded to the Convention, and many of those that remain outside have adopted its norms.

In 2007, Norway followed a similar process to build support for a ban on cluster munitions. Again, within a year, a legally binding treaty was produced, It was opposed by some countries that produce or stockpile cluster munitions, including the US, Russia and China. But when Barack Obama became president, the US signed on, overriding Pentagon objections. This action started to influence other holdouts.

A Nuclear Weapons Convention may be rejected by the major states at the outset, but they do not have a united front. China has already voted at the UN for a convention and spoken out in favour at the NPT Review Conference. The United Kingdom has accepted that a convention will likely be necessary in the future and has started the requisite verification work. Even India and Pakistan, opponents of the NPT, have committed themselves to participate in global negotiations.

Norway, Germany and Belgium, all NATO members, are ready to join important like-minded countries, such as Austria, Switzerland, Brazil and Chile, which have openly called for a convention. A group of non-aligned countries, led by Costa Rica and Malaysia, have already met to start the process. When significant middle-power states enter the discussions, a new compact will be in the offing.

A model treaty already exists. It obliges states not to “develop, test, produce, otherwise acquire, deploy, stockpile, retain, or transfer” nuclear materials or delivery vehicles and not to fund nuclear weapons research. Further, states would destroy the nuclear weapons they possess. Turning to the obligations of persons, the treaty would make it a crime for one to engage in the development, testing and production of nuclear weapons, and would protect whistle-blowers.

The model treaty specifies five time periods for full implementation. In Phase One, by one year after entry into force of the treaty, all states parties shall have declared the number and location of all nuclear materials, and production of all nuclear weapons components will have ceased. In Phase Two (by two years after entry into force), all nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles shall be removed from deployment sites. In Phase Three (five years), the US and Russia will be permitted no more than 1,000 nuclear warheads, and the U.K., France and China no more than 100. In Phase Four (10 years), the US and Russia will bring their nuclear stockpiles down to 50 each, and the UK, France and China down to 10 each. Other nuclear weapons possessors would reduce in similar proportions. All reactors using highly enriched uranium or plutonium would be closed or converted to low enriched uranium use. In Phase Five (15 years), “all nuclear weapons shall be destroyed.”

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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