UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24, 2011 (IPS) - As the world's nuclear powers continue to drag their collective feet, stalling all attempts at nuclear disarmament, a group of peace activists and civil society organisations is vigourously challenging the long-held myth of "nuclear deterrence".
"Nuclear deterrence is a doctrine that is used as a justification by nuclear weapon states and their allies for the continued possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons," says the coalition, which met in Santa Barbara, California last week.
Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation and one of the participants at the meeting, told IPS that members of the coalition agreed that the longstanding doctrine must be discredited and replaced with an urgent commitment to achieve global nuclear disarmament.
"Before another nuclear weapon is used, nuclear deterrence must be replaced by humane, legal and normal security strategies," she said.
A declaration adopted by the coalition states: "We call upon people everywhere to join us in demanding that the nuclear weapon states and their allies reject nuclear deterrence and negotiate without delay a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of all nuclear weapons."
The participants at the meeting ranged from representatives from the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation to Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Disarmament and Security Centre.
The world's five "declared" nuclear powers are the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
Additionally, there are four "undeclared" nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel (which studiously maintains a "don't ask, don't tell" nuclear policy).
Asked if a worldwide campaign for nuclear disarmament by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would succeed - as it did in the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines years ago - Peter Weiss, president of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS the analogy with the international campaign against landmines and cluster munitions must not be overdone.
Those weapons, unlike nukes, were never seen by the countries that had them as ways of projecting their power to their neighbours or throughout the world, even if they never used them, he said.
He pointed out that the last word on the difficulty which nuclear weapons countries have in giving them up was spoken years ago by Juan Marin Bosch.
In his capacity as Mexico's ambassador for disarmament, he said, in refreshingly undiplomatic language: "The big boys are scared shit that we're going to take away their toys," recounted Weiss, who is also a vice president of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA).
Alyn Ware, director of the New Zealand-based Peace Foundation, said during the past four decades the international community has achieved treaties prohibiting and eliminating inhumane weapons such as anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, biological weapons and chemical weapons.
However, the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, the most inhumane and destructive of all, remains elusive.
Ware acknowledged the role played by civil society in achieving the mine ban treaty and the convention on cluster munitions. He said two key factors in the success were a focus on the humanitarian consequences of the use of these weapons, and the application of international humanitarian law.
Ware also said that civil society action has been effective in changing public attitudes to nuclear weapons, especially in the states possessing nuclear weapons or covered by extended nuclear deterrence.
Whereas public opinion polls in the 1980s indicated majority acceptance of nuclear weapons, recent public opinion polls indicate the majority now supports the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, he noted.
However, such a change in public opinion appears to have had only a minimal impact on government policy.
But there has been a slight shift, in that most governments now accept the vision and responsibility for achieving a nuclear weapons-free world, he added.
Nonetheless, said Ware, few of the nuclear weapons states or their allies are prepared to abandon nuclear deterrence, prohibit the threat or use of nuclear weapons, or commence negotiations on anything other than minimal steps towards disarmament.
The real potential of civil society to effect change in nuclear weapons policy is probably somewhere in between two polarised perspectives: public pressure is not irrelevant to a political realist world, but nor is it a magic cure that will by itself deliver the abolition of nuclear weapons, Ware declared.
Dr Mary-Wynne Ashford of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War said there are many NGOs working on the issue of nuclear disarmament, including the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
"Yes, an NGO campaign is practicable and feasible," she said. "I think consistent pressure from civil society is essential to motivate the nuclear weapons states to move to zero."
Doctors continue to raise the issues of the health consequences of the entire nuclear cycle from mining to production of weapons, said Ashford, who is also an associate professor at the University of Victoria in Canada.
Dr Dale Dewar, executive director of Physicians for Global Survival (PGS), told IPS her organisation has been sustained by donors for 30 years in its campaign for a nuclear weapons-free world.
"It will continue to do so as long as a donor base is willing to support it," she added.
Nancy Covington, also of PGS, told IPS: "I personally don't see any other option than to mobilise civil society."
"If there is enough public education (on nuclear disarmament), then maybe civil society can make a strong enough statement that we can be heard," she declared.
Thalif Deen is UN Bureau Chief and Regional Director with Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS).