7 May 2010, No. 5

Time to turn in the platinum card of nuclear weapons
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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During the final day of general debate, several delegations called for a change in thinking about security and nuclear weapons. Many governments highlighted the fallacies of relying on nuclear weapons for security and called for the reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines. Yesterday, Mexico’s Ambassador Heller noted that it is paradoxical that in the post-Cold War world, some states rely on weapons that threaten humanity to ensure their security. He argued that states should undertake a profound review of military doctrines, noting that nuclear weapon doctrines create false assumptions that security depends specifically on possibility of obtaining them.

The representative of the Holy See pointed out that nuclear weapons “are no longer just for deterrence but have become entrenched in the military doctrines of the major powers.” And Singapore’s Ambassador Menon noted, “Some NWS consider the possession of nuclear weapons essential to maintaining their self-image of their place in the world and not just a military necessity..... we need to find ways to convince all states that nuclear weapons reduce rather than increase their security, and do not enhance prestige.”

Many civil society representatives will be heartened to hear these strong condemnations against the false conception that nuclear weapons provide security. This afternoon, when NGO representatives deliver presentations to the official plenary (at 3:00 PM in Conference Room 4, North Lawn Building), there will be statements addressing concepts of nuclear deterrence and security doctrines, among many other topics. But it is not just people in the conference rooms that have something to say about security and nuclear weapons.

In his chapter in Reaching Critical Will’s book Beyond arms control: challenges and choices for nuclear disarmament, Michael Veiluva of the Western States Legal Foundation argues that the “political, ideological, and even theological attributes attached to nuclear weapons” and the resulting perceptions of their role and value is a critical component in any decision to obtain and retain them. As the “platinum credit card of state power, influence, and nationalistic pride,” he argues that nuclear weapons are “endowed with more complex and significant political attributes that combine to create units of international exchange as well as conflict.”

This perception of power inevitably attracts others. But part of the value of nuclear weapons is that they offer admittance into a very exclusive club. Newcomers challenge the privileged status afforded by nuclear weapons; thus the concept of proliferation in the mainstream debate tends to characterize some nuclear weapons as a problem while turning a blind eye to others.

It is difficult but imperative to force an examination of the assumptions and language surrounding nuclear weapons and their role in maintaining security. Carol Cohn notes that part of the difficulty arises because assumptions in established discourses are treated as “objective reality” rather than as beliefs stemming from personal identities, values, or position. As the Holy See’s representative said yesterday, “Now is the time to profoundly rethink and change our perception of nuclear weapons.” This will need to happen inside and outside of the conference rooms, at all levels of society, from seasoned government officials to children in the schoolyard—but it is already happening, as evidenced by the sheer volume of general debate statements highlighting this problem and the civil society determination to tackle it.

To starts both the Swiss and Holy See delegations have recommended this week, nuclear weapons must be considered in the context international humanitarian law; and, as John Borrie of UNIDIR recommended in his chapter in Beyond arms control, “Both governments and civil society should develop a discourse that draws attention to the impact of development, production, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons rather than accepting untested claims or assumptions favour intertia.”


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