Reaching Critical Will Calls for Action

In the 2013 Eric Fawcett Lecture (see article, this issue), Gwynne Dyer argued convincingly that, in the broad arc of history, human-on-human violence has continually diminished. Further, that arc of diminishing human violence is fed by another arc of negative attitudes to violence that leads the way; and institutional laws ultimately follow that lead. He noted that George Bush will never be imprisoned for launching the war against Iraq, but our shared general consciousness now agrees that he should be.

In light of this slow, but clear progress to a less violent society, RON SHIRTLIFF looks at our frustrating lack of progress in strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and why the rumblings of discontent in the anti-nuclear community are growing stronger.

By Ron Shirtliff | 2014-01-01 11:00:00

The Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which promised to contain nuclear proliferation while giving the big nuclear powers time to downsize and eliminate their existing nuclear stockpiles, is now seen by many as an unrealistic dream or worse, a deliberate fraud perpetrated by the Big Five nuclear powers.

A document published by Reaching Critical Will, (RCW)1 notes, “The promise of the NPT to achieve nuclear disarmament has gone unfulfilled while new restrictions against proliferation have been imposed.” Heedless of their commitment to eliminate these weapons, the nuclear states are actually modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Not only have they failed to act on eliminating their own weapons but they have even enabled other nations to join the nuclear club. For example, the USA and Canada have played a part in India’s development of those weapons and the subsequent local arms race.

The NPT reviews, updates, and renews itself every five years, with preparatory meetings in advance. The 2010 review set out 23 preliminary actions that the nuclear states should take to start preparing for disarmament. It is now apparent that the the nuclear states have not even been willing to agree on a standard reporting form to provide the basis for reduction agreements.

Middle East failure

The 1995 and 2010 NPT set out to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. They called for a conference on this matter to be held by 2012. Many people were hopeful that this might ease tensions in that ongoing hot spot. However, not all states agreed to participate, despite the fact that we have continuing serious conflicts in the area to this day and potentially even more dangerous conflicts in the future. The RCW October 2013 document notes: “Because the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995 in exchange for … the resolution on the Middle East, the failure to make progress on this issue poses an acute challenge to its credibility.” The Egyptian delegation subsequently walked out, a first in the history of the NPT, and the fear is that continuing failure will lead to more nations abandoning what they may come to see as an ineffectual forum.

Another noted irritant for non-nuclear nations: “It is increasingly seen as unfair to put in place stronger legal mechanisms for non-proliferation obligations while disarmament obligations remain unfulfilled.” Some states feel that the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), has allowed its work to be politicized by the West—the treatment of Iran is cited as an example.

How can this deadlock in the NPT be remedied? On the positive side and leading the arc of consciousness, a forceful new discourse about the humanitarian consequences of the use, or accidental misuse, of nuclear weapons is gaining ground in many forums. Further, the very possession of such horrendous weapons which can only be used against populations is immoral; certainly this is not a new argument, but maybe its time has come.

Open-ended solution?

In October 2012, the UN General Assembly attempted to find a way to resurrect the ability of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) to break out of its 17-year deadlock. Under pressure from non-aligned nations and other public and nonofficial institutions, the Assembly created a new body, the Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations. These are more indicators of the growing sense of the need for action but in themselves may not hold out significant promise of success. Many feel the initiative must be grasped by the non-nuclear nations of the NPT who have the leverage of making or breaking that treaty if the Big Five will not cooperate. And the nuclear nations know that if the NPT goes down we will have slipped the dogs of war with rapid nuclear proliferation, a prospect that even the mighty would fear.

We need an international treaty simply banning all nuclear weapons and we need it now. RCW argues that leadership in this project should come from the non-nuclear states in the NPT, as they can act to force cooperation of those with the bomb. The international community has successfully created treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions and thereby achieved very significant moral force, leading to compliance even among those nations that have not yet signed on. Already some 115 nations are members of nuclear free zones and would likely support a treaty that would stigmatize nuclear weapons. Once such weapons were thus publicly designated as immoral and illegal, participating in their development and maintenance would also be deemed illegal. Pressure would build on those holding those weapons and ever more potent legal and symbolic actions could be taken against the enablers of those illegal and immoral possessions. Shaming could lead to financial and business boycotts of nations as well as corporations that facilitate their development and maintenance.

We can hope that this arc of human conscience continues to lead the way to a safer world. As RCW concludes: It is time to ban the bomb.

Ron Shirtliff is an editor of Peace.

1 Reaching Critical Will is a program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. See

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2014

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2014, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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