Nuclear disarmament must be set on a swifter course

6 May 2009

Nuclear disarmament must be set on a swifter course

Obama's pronouncement that the world should be rid of nuclear weapons is highly promising. At the same time, political realities are rather more stubborn, and there will be considerable dawdling along the way to a nuclear weapon-free world.

by Harry van Bommel and Krista van Velzen

President Obama gave an inspiring speech in Prague on the need for nuclear disarmament. It goes without saying that we welcome and applaud this call, which after all endorses the principles which we have been promoting for many years, both within and outside of Parliament. The speech, moreover, added strength to previous declarations by former government leaders and diplomats in the United States, Germany and elsewhere, such as the now well-known letters from former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal, and from former Chancellor of the Federal Republic Helmut Schmidt and others in the International Herald Tribune. Maxime Verhagen, Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated in April of last year that he was a supporter of the abolition of nuclear weapons. As regards the necessity of such a move, then, there is wide political consensus, and the idea also has widespread popular support. Yet, as always, the devil is in the detail, which here concern the practical steps which nuclear-armed states must take.

When it comes to such steps there remains a great deal to be criticised in the American position. The most practical move cited by Obama is a considerable proposed reduction in the gigantic nuclear arsenal of the US and Russia. By means of agreements contained in a new START treaty, the President wants to reduce the number of nuclear weapons to around a thousand each. This would clearly be a major step in the right direction, but a long way still from nuclear disarmament. Other proposals lay heavy emphasis on resisting the spread of nuclear weapons, including punishments for transgressors. That sounds just, but becomes problematic when you consider that existing agreements are being circumvented or even violated.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is crucial in this regard, having been signed by every country bar India, Pakistan and Israel. Obama said that all nuclear-armed states will be involved in the reductions, but that will be difficult when it comes to these three countries, which fall entirely outside the NPT and the agreements it contains. The President did not, unfortunately, cite the UN forum where nuclear disarmament should properly be negotiated, the Conference on Nuclear Disarmament in Geneva, or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the multilateral UN forum charged with carrying out nuclear inspections. Instead he mentioned mechanisms established by the US under Bush, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is not a UN institution. It is essential to arrive at a multilateral consensus if we are to achieve nuclear disarmament. Of course, what happened in Prague was only the beginning of a long process. But smaller, yet nevertheless significant steps could be taken more quickly. NATO is currently revising its Strategic Concept, a good opportunity to remove the paragraph which concerns nuclear weapons. Unfortunately Foreign Minister Verhagen's reaction to our call at least to raise the subject of NATO's nuclear strategy for discussion was to consign it to the waste paper basket, a move which a majority in Parliament endorsed.

Although several months' negotiations over the New Strategic Concept remain, it would be possible in the meantime, in keeping with Obama's wishes as expressed in Prague, to make a start on the nuclear disarmament of NATO, by ridding Europe of nuclear weapons. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave impetus to this by announcing that he would like to speak to the US government about removing NATO nuclear weaponry from German territory. It speaks for itself that the Netherlands should do the same in relation to the nuclear weapons housed at the Volkel airbase. Meanwhile, as far as nuclear disarmament is concerned, it's a clear case of seeing is believing.

Harry van Bommel and Krista van Velzen are members of Parliament for the SP and, respectively, spokesman on foreign affairs and spokeswoman on defence.

This article was first published on 14th April 2009 in the regional daily newspaper the Friesch Dagblad.

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