An agenda for disarmament

Print edition : November 25, 2000

Rebecca Johnson served time in a British prison in the 1980s for picketing cruise missile installations at Greenham Common in the U.K. That campaign is now regarded as a turning point in the anti-nuclear movement. She has since been associated wit h the Acronym Institute in London, an advocacy group whose advice is often sought by governments and non-governmental organisations involved in the global disarmament dialogue. In New Delhi to participate in the anti-nuclear convention, she shared with < B>Sukumar Muralidharan her perceptions of the current status of the disarmament campaign.

You were recently associated in an active advocacy role with the NPT Review Conference, at the end of which you gave a fairly upbeat assessment. On what basis did you arrive at this assessment?


The unconditional extension of the NPT in 1995 was regarded by the Nuclear Weapons States (NWSs) as giving them a kind of permission to retain their nuclear weapons indefinitely. I was personally involved with the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) and with vari ous NGOs in an effort to clarify what kind of steps we thought the NWSs should be taking. We argued for a strategy which was largely taken up by the NAC, which was to have a subsidiary body to look at certain kinds of pragmatic steps that would act as be nchmarks towards disarmament. The NAC went into the Review Conference (RevCon) pushing for those steps. This was not a wishy-washy "ultimate goal" kind of language. It was much stronger. And the NAC held firm and managed to put a lot of pressure on the N WSs, who ended up for different reasons trying to negotiate with the NAC. What came out was a set of 13 steps towards nuclear disarmament. I do not exaggerate what has been achieved and I know that diplomatic agreements can be very limited. But we need t he diplomatic agreements - the "in principle" kind of agreements - for movements to work towards disarmament. But in addition to the unequivocal undertaking, there are steps like dealing with tactical nuclear weapons and diminishing the role of nucle ar weapons. Then there is language about examining concepts like no first use, on which we can push them. There is language about transparency and again we can push them for things like a nuclear weapons register, because there is already a conventional weapons register and we think we can demand transparency on all nuclear weapons holdings and their alert status.

So you would say that the agenda is now fixed and does not allow for any further retreat?

Some countries (among the NWSs) in hindsight recognised that they had given away too much. But what I would stress is that you can go only so far with diplomacy. It is like saying you have a law, but then you have to have the enforcement agency. In my vi ew, civil society and the NGOs have to be the enforcement agency, together with the non-nuclear weapons states. We have got as far as we can with diplomacy.

What essentially is the future of the CTBT since the U.S. Senate has rejected it and now there are only the purely voluntary moratoria declared by various countries that remain as restraint measures?

There have been moratoria before - in the 1950s and early 1960s, for instance - and during all that time the governments were doing research and planning. And then the first country that withdrew from the moratorium suddenly came out with a huge number o f tests which had built up in the pipeline. Similarly, when the Soviet Union declared a moratorium in 1985, it was an important gesture. But when they restarted, they did so with a vengeance. Moratoria are important gestures at a time when you cannot get a treaty. But when you have completed a treaty, to rely on moratoria seems a bit absurd.

But now we are forced to rely on moratoria because the CTBT has no prospect of entry into force in the near future.

And I think with its nuclear tests, India unfortunately played into the hands of the far-right Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

Do you think India's tests really made that critical difference in the Senate?

I do not think so in the final analysis. I think the Democrats did not strategise enough and do their homework, whereas the Republicans did.

Has there been a shift in the climate of the disarmament dialogue after the CTBT was negotiated? Since then you have had the NATO expansion, the likelihood of an NMD deployment and various other moves that seem to reverse the disarmament momentum.

The defence contractors' lobby has played a major role in driving the expansion of NATO. There has been some very good academic work done on this. They have also been driving NMD and I think the U.S. really needs to address this problem. You see the arms industry in the U.S. has been on a fluffy cushion for years during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War was really a horrible shock to them and so they moved very swiftly to shore up their own domestic customers and also to make sure that they would be able to sell hi-tech arms abroad. So if you look at arms export figures, the U.S. accounts for more than half now, since the Russians have fallen away. Britain takes second place - more than France - which is shocking and it is happening under a Labour Party government with an "ethical" policy.

Those of us who were pushing for a CTBT realised around 1996 that we could not have a treaty as an end in itself, but rather as one in a series of steps that would lead to disarmament. But partly because of the Republican resurgence in the U.S. which han ded over so much to the defence industry, none of the opportunities of the end of the Cold War were seized and in fact there was a rollback. So then the CTBT was exposed as a treaty on its own, so that to both disarmament advocates and haters, the flaws of that treaty became clearer.

Now the Conference on Disarmament (C.D.) too is deadlocked after finishing the CTBT negotiations. Again it is partly because of conflicting priorities between the NWSs.

First of all, Israel was a delay since the U.S. had not worked through with them on the fissban. Then Pakistan became a major problem because after the testing they wanted to produce as much fissile material as they could. And then in early-1999 when Cli nton gave the go-ahead for some research and funding for NMD, China said: hold on, we did give the go-ahead for the fissban because we thought it was in the international community's interests, but if there is going to be an NMD we have to really think a bout the size of our arsenal. They started saying that outer space issues were at least as important in their consideration. The main difficulty now is about political priorities and it is centred on which way the U.S. goes.

Is another phase of activism in the anti-nuclear movement foretold by the imminent decision on NMD deployment?

I am not sure at this point. It is interesting that the foreign affairs select committee in Britain did a study which ended up dealing with the impact of the NMD. When the study was published, The Guardian quoted a senior U.K. Foreign Office Minister as saying that it was a very difficult issue for Britain, since if the U.S. asked for an upgradation of its radar facilities, it would be difficult to refuse. But he said that this would not be easy, since it could well become a nightmare - almost like Gre enham Common was in the 1980s. Now it is very interesting to see Greenham Common being invoked by a British Minister, knowing that the U.S. hated what happened there. Either the British government thinks that the NMD issue has the potential to set off an other big upsurge like Greenham Common, or it wants the Americans to think that way.

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