In the vastness of the universe there is only one place we know of where life exists. That place, of course, is our planet, our Earth. Our planet has been hospitable to the evolution of life, resulting in the development of complex life forms, including homo sapiens, the “knowing” ones. We are “knowing” because we have the capacity to perceive and reflect upon our surroundings, our vision reaching to the far ends of the universe itself.
We humans are nature’s mirror. We were created by the conditions of the universe, but in a sense it is also true that, by our perceptions and reflections, we create the universe. A well-known philosophical riddle asks whether a tree falling in the forest would make a sound if there were no one there to hear it. In the same way, but on a larger scale, we might ask if the universe itself would exist if there were no creatures like ourselves capable of perceiving and reflecting upon it.
All of this is to say that human beings are special. In the long span of universe time, the appearance of humans is just a few short ticks on the cosmic clock. Yet, in that short span of time we have achieved remarkable intellectual, spiritual and artistic heights. We have also created tools capable of destroying much of life, including ourselves. By our cleverness in creating nuclear weapons, we have placed our own future on the planet in danger.
With the existence of the future of our species in jeopardy, we are faced with a choice. We can confront this existential threat with ignorance, apathy and denial, or we can join together to end this threat of our own making. Choosing the latter route would mean accepting responsibility for our common future and acting to assure it.
The diplomats from many nations of the world who negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had a solution to the nuclear weapons threat to humanity. They sought to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to other states, and they also sought to eliminate the nuclear weapons already in the arsenals of those states that possessed them. Their efforts resulted in Article VI of the Treaty, in which the nuclear weapons states were required to engage in “good faith” negotiations for nuclear disarmament.
The NPT was opened for signatures in 1968, and we are still waiting for those “good faith” negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament. In 1995, an NPT Review and Extension Conference was held on the 25th anniversary of the Treaty entering into force. Many civil society organizations argued at this conference that the NPT should not be extended indefinitely, since it would give the equivalent of a blank check to the nuclear weapons states who had so badly failed in fulfilling their Treaty obligations for its first quarter century.
But the United States, along with the UK and France, argued for an indefinite extension. They twisted arms and, in the end, prevailed. And the warnings that they would approach their obligations for “good faith” negotiations with the same disdain or indifference with which they had approached them in the past have proven true.
At the five-year NPT Review Conferences and the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meetings in between, the United States and its allies have fought against recognition of their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty. They distribute slick public relations brochures that gloss over the lack of progress in complying with Article VI. They resist accepting even the responsibility to engage in the good faith negotiations to which they have committed themselves. Their goal seems to be to deflect criticism, while actually doing virtually nothing to promote a world free of nuclear weapons.
At the NPT Review Conferences and PrepComs, civil society organizations come to plead on behalf of humanity. They are given a few hours on the program to make their impassioned pleas, but often find that the official delegates to the conference are unwilling even to come to hear what they have to say. Over the years, the expectations that the delegates to the NPT will achieve any substantial progress have continued to diminish.
I am no longer interested in the charades that are played by the delegates to the NPT representing the governments of the nuclear weapons states. I want to see some meaningful action on their part. We have a right to expect and demand such action.
At stake is the future of our species. It is time for countries to stop playing cynical games that seek to avoid existing NPT obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Mutually Assured Destruction is unacceptable, whether it be between the US and Russia or India and Pakistan. Mutually Assured Delusions are also unacceptable. It is time for the UK and France to stop relying upon nuclear weapons because these weapons make them feel like they are still important world powers. Israel needs to end its nuclear weapons program before other Middle East countries follow its example. Other countries, for example those in NATO, need to step out from under the US nuclear umbrella and stop being enablers of the nuclear addiction of a small number of states.
The only way out of our nuclear dilemma is for the countries of the world to demand that the Article VI obligation for “good faith” negotiations for nuclear disarmament be fulfilled. The US will have to provide leadership or it is unlikely that substantial progress will be possible. If the US doesn’t act, it is unlikely that Russia will do so, and without Russian participation, it is unlikely that significant progress will be possible with the UK, France and China.
The NPT, with its membership of nearly all the world’s countries, provides an appropriate forum for the countries of the world to negotiate a new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. Once negotiations are planned, the non-NPT states (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) should be invited to join. Alternatively, the United States, as the world’s most militarily powerful country, could under new leadership use its convening capacity to initiate negotiations among the nine nuclear weapons states, leading to a Nuclear Weapons Convention with universal participation.
Civil society has already prepared a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention. It has been introduced to the United Nations by the Republic of Costa Rica and Malaysia. The draft treaty is feasible. It is desirable. It could be accomplished relatively quickly. All that is required is the political will of the nuclear weapons states. Without this political will, the human future remains in peril. It is the 21st century equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, but with far graver potential consequences for our common future.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is a councilor of the World Future Council.