Test yourself: What Canadian has worked longest at the United Nations?
Answer. William Epstein. (But you only get five points for answering correctly since probably every Canadian knows that.) Here's our interview with that forceful personality anybody

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1985-11-01 12:00:00

Epstein: Anybody in all history! Nobody else in all history was involved in an official capacity in disarmament work as long as I have been. Over thirty-five years I just celebrated my fortieth anniversary at the U.N. I'm emeritus now, retired on grounds of statutory senility. I've been there since before the beginning, since Preparatory Commission days.

CANDIS: How do you see the U.N.'s future?

Epstein: It's indispensable. It's going to continue because there's nothing to replace it with. But under the Reagan administration it's going to get slowly cut down in size. They can't abandon it because of the Security Council. The Security Council can take decisions that are binding. The General Assembly can't. They aren't bothered any more about the General Assembly. They get outvoted all the time and they don't care. But they care about the Security Council.

CANDIS: I understand that you're in town his time to participate in planning a legal conference to try getting nuclear weapons declared illegal. Do you have hopes for the success of that?

Epstein: It's not easy. Look, when all five nuclear powers, representing about half the population of the world, oppose it -- how on earth are you going to make it happen? Nobody can legislate it.

CANDIS: David Matas, the organizer of this effort, says the World Court takes the opinion of legal experts into account as real criteria for deciding whether something is legal or not.

Epstein: Oh, it takes that into account, but that isn't nearly as influential as actions, the postures, the behavior of the five nuclear powers. The others are "persuasive:: the opinions of scholars, General Assembly Resolutions. The General Assembly has decided on many occasions that the use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the Charter and a crime against humanity. But that's not binding; it's persuasive. And when they keep on passing resolutions that they should ban it, I think that's evidence that it is not yet banned . And if you go to the International Court of Justice they have to declare international law as it is, not as they would like it to be.

CANDIS: So lets say somebody uses a nuclear weapon today. It could be taken to the World Court and found not illegal?

Epstein: In theory, yes. In fact, any nation or any international organization can ask for an advisory opinion from the World Court. Why haven't they done it? Because they're fearful that they'd get a negative response - that it's not illegal in international law.

CANDIS: Amazing! Well now what do you think about Canada's position in the effort to get a Comprehensive Test Ban? Doug Roche has been making very good statements.

Epstein: Yes, but he knows Canadian policy is not to embarrass the Americans or to push too hard on anything they don't like, so there are limits to what he can do. He's making good speeches; he's a very dedicated man, but it takes a lot more than speeches to get anything done. I believe frankly that so long as Reagan is in office, there's no hope of any real progress in disarmament. So the thing to do now is to prepare for substantial progress after the Reagan administration. I'm sure that even if Bush is his successor, he will be somewhat more flexible than Reagan. And if you get a Democratic administration, look what Gary Hart and Mondale were proposing -- a six-month moratorium, with resumption of negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban. And Kennedy has been even stronger for a Comprehensive Test Ban and a Freeze. But until there's a new administration, we aren't going to get anywhere. Neither the Russians or the Americans have shown any serious disposition to agree in the Geneva

talks on outer space and nuclear weapons, or in the Vienna talks on reduction of conventional forces. They've both got to come to understand that their own security depends on how secure the other side feels. Each one is still trying to gain an advantage out of the negotiations, to get one up on the other. This is endless . And SDI just makes it so much worse: We're going to have two arms races -- one for defensive and a renewed arms race for offensive.

Of course, with their moratorium on testing, the Russians have taken an initiative, even though they are way behind the Americans in their development of nuclear weapons. They are worried about American technology, so it's in their interest to stop these things. The U. S. doesn't even test the sincerity of the Soviet Union. They could say, "All right, let's negotiate and see what we can come up with." If they're not even prepared to do that, it puts their own sincerity into question.

CANDIS: Haven't the Soviets offered more concessions than the Americans?

Epstein: Oh, they're been much smarter about gaining the support of public opinion in the non-aligned world. They keep coming up with proposals that the Americans keep rejecting. The Americans come up with very few proposals and those that they do are overly advantageous to themselves.

CANDIS: Do you consider the Soviets in sincere?

Epstein: Nobody in the world knows whether they're sincere or not. The Americans reject their offers out of hand, so how can we find out?

CANDIS: You are Chairman of a prestigious peace organization Canadian Pugwash which recently held a conference in Brazil. Did anything new come up there?

Epstein: One discovery I got out of it was that most Europeans are convinced that Star Wars hasn't got a hope in the world of ever succeeding and they don't like it. They don't want to annoy the Reagan administration, and if there is money to be spent on research, maybe some of it will spill over to their people. So they say, "All right, let's go with Reagan, even though we're quite sure that some following administration will abandon it." The fact that they are all very, very clear about this -- that was a new angle to me. Every president since Eisenhower has been looking for some substitute for deterrence -- the threat of mutual destruction. Every president has been looking for some good defence against nuclear weapons. There is no defence. Every one of them was forced to abandon it. Lyndon Johnson went further than anybody else. He was the one who promoted the "ABM" -- anti-ballistic missile. First of all, it was going to protect cities and populations.

CANDIS: A primitive version of Star Wars.

Epstein: It was the same basic idea. Then he found it wouldn't work to protect cities and populations. So he said, all right, we could use it to protect our missile silos. Then he backed down even further and admitted it may not protect those from the Russians but just claimed that it would be able to protect them from the Chinese, who had only a small, primitive nuclear capability. Eventually Nixon abandoned even that view when he accepted the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. So everybody's considered and abandoned it except Reagan. As soon as you get a Democratic administration they will abandon it. And possibly even the succeeding Republican one will -- because the thing just isn't workable.

The ABM Treaty was a condition for the SALT I agreement. There wouldn't have been a SALT I agreement without the ABM Treaty because nobody is going to stop building offensive missiles or put limitations on them if the other side is busy building defensive ones. And that's why these current negotiations must fail if the Americans don't abandon or postpone or change the whole concept of SDI. Because obviously if the Americans go for SDI the Russians are going to say, "We're going to build up our offensive capability in order to overwhelm your defence. It follows, as two plus two equals four: If one side or both sides are going for a big defense, the other side is going to build its offense. You could easily build a quarter of a million dummies. The Russians could put 30 nuclear war heads on one SS-18 instead of the present 10. And the Americans could do likewise. So the Russians could, within a decade or less, have 30,000 missile deliverable warheads instead of 10,000. The Americans could do the same. SDI won't work, yet it will result in an all-out nuclear arms race in both offensive and defensive weapons. And it will prevent any progress in disarmament or arms control. Even if it's a miraculously 90 or 95 percent successful, the United States would be destroyed, because 5 percent or 10 percent of the missiles would still get through. But the terrible part for Canada is that, if they build even this leaky kind of missile defense, this means that cruise missiles and bombers -- air-breathing ones, not ballistic missiles - will become important again. So Canada is going to have to go ahead with its North Warning System. And then the Soviet Union can put in 'salvage fuses' in their incoming warheads.

CANDIS: What are they?

Epstein: Salvage fuses are devices that, if hit by anti-ballistic weapons, will automatically produce a nuclear explosion. And they'll be coming over the Arctic in Canada. What do we want all this for? We ought to be opposing it.

CANDIS: Well, you aren't alone on this point, of course. But I have heard that the tensions within NATO will increase so it will destroy NATO.

Epstein: Well, it will certainly weaken it. I don't know whether it would destroy it. I don't know of one single NATO government that really likes it -- even those like the British and the Germans who are somewhat going along with it, but only for research.

CANDIS: Another alternative that is being considered by many people now is to neutralize a major part of Europe.

Epstein: No, I don't believe that. That comes up periodically. I've been hearing about what they call the "neutralization" or "Finlandization" of Europe for years and years. I just don't see it. I don't think the Western European countries have much alternative but to be allied to the United States. The big question is whether the United States might withdraw into its own shell and let Europe fend for itself. That's what the Europeans are scared of. That's why so many European governments want the Americans to put Pershings and cruise missiles there -- so the Americans will be involved if they are attacked.

CANDIS: Would that worry you if the Americans retreated to the United States?

Epstein: Of course it would. Yeah.

CANDIS: Really! I thought you were going to say Of course it wouldn't.

Epstein: No, I'm one of those who believe in the NATO alliance, provided it isn't subservient to the United States. I think there's got to be some sort of balance between East and West. I'm sure NATO helps provide that balance, as the Warsaw Treaty does for them. I think the thing to do is start using this balance between East and West to cut down drastically. First you've got to halt the nuclear arms race. Then you've got to have drastic reductions. Then you've got to have conventional, balanced reductions. You've certainly got to get rid of all these tactical nuclear weapons because those are the most dangerous things in Europe. If there's any danger at all of your being overrun, you've got to use them or lose them. That could trigger a nuclear war. I don't think the Russians or the Americans really believe the Russians are going to attack Western Europe. But a nuclear war could happen as a result of minor incidents.

CANDIS: Do you think there would be any real temptation for the Russians to attack Western Europe if NATO were not there?

Epstein: No, but they could subject the Europeans to substantially more political pressure than if NATO holds together.

CANDIS: You mentioned something earlier about the Americans trying to get nuclear weapons back into Canada.

Epstein: Oh, there's no real evidence of it yet. But I suspect that's the scenario. When the North Warning System and the cruise missiles and the bombers become more important we're likely to get a repetition of what happened in the early '60s -- pressure from the United States to put nuclear weapons into Canada. They have got these contingency plans now, you know, to put them in our seaports. There may even be contingency plans to put American nuclear forces on our soil again in any time of crisis. We have to be vigilant. It took us 21 years to get rid of the nuclear weapons we let into Canada in 1963. Let's not get sucked in once again.

CANDIS: Do you think Canada could become a nuclear weapon free zone and still remain part of NORAD?

Epstein: No, because the nuclear weapon free zone means not only that nuclear weapons are not stationed, deployed, or tested here, or used against Canada. It also means that nobody (including the Americans) has the right to put them here under any circumstances. But if there's a real crisis or war, it doesn't matter if we declare ourselves to be a nuclear free zone or not, my guess is that the Americans would just put them here and use Canada as a battlefield. That's one of the reasons I think Canada should be a lot more active in promoting disarmament, and a test ban and a freeze. Otherwise Canada, willy nilly, will be made a base for American nuclear weapons in a war or a real crisis.

CANDIS: What if Canada decided to get out of NORAD?

Epstein: Well, I suspect that in a time of crisis it doesn't matter all that much whether Canada stays in NORAD or not. The Americans will act as if we were in NORAD.

CANDIS: Do you see any movement in Canada? What are the trends?

Epstein: You know, it's difficult. I was one of those who opposed Trudeau strongly on the testing of the cruise. I was active. I don't go out and march and I'm not part of what you'd call the peace movement, but I do regard myself as a bit of an expert. I've spent nearly all my adult life in this business. And I thought testing cruise missiles was wrong, dangerous, and something we should not be doing. When Trudeau came to the conclusion that the international situation was getting dangerous, he started this peace initiative of his. And I swung right around to support him because that was very important. He was doing an end run. I'd been working on him for a long time. He put forward the strategy of suffocation, which I feel very proud of having quite a bit to do with. He put forward the peace initiative and I think I had something to do with

his "getting religion." And then he put forward the idea for having the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, something Ignatieff and I had been working for for 8-10 years. So that was fine. We were all delighted when Joe Clark became Minister of External Affairs and they appointed Doug Roche as Ambassador for Disarmament and Stephen Lewis as representative to the United Nations. But then we became less happy. Mulroney isn't interested in antagonizing the Reagan administration, so we're not going to make much progress. But we've got to keep on working. H.G. Wells said, "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe." It's truer now than when he said it. Education and information are the only way -- and they're not sufficient unless you go to work on your Members of Parliament. It's much more important for people to go to work on them than to contact Cabinet Ministers and Prime Ministers.

CANDIS: How are you working on the government now?

Epstein: You know about my big initiative: I'm trying to talk the Canadian government into having Mulroney propose a special session on international security when he goes down to the U.N.

CANDIS: Yes I heard that some time ago. Where have you got with that?

Epstein: Nowhere, because the government officials always kill it. I got the Canadian Pugwash Conference to support it at Banff. I raised it at the Group of 78 meeting last fall. I raised it at the group that Doug Roche called in Ottawa on the 40th birthday of the U.N. Everybody likes it but the bureaucrats wouldn't buy it.

CANDIS: Wel why? What reason do they give?

Epstein: One, there's no guarantee that it will succeed. They want guarantees. Two, it's going to irritate the Americans, and they don't think Mulroney should do anything that will irritate them. The Americans and Russians are both against a special session on international security because they know they're going to be blamed.

CANDIS: So it won't happen.

Epstein: Well, somebody else might take it up. But if Canada puts it forward, it's important. But if a tiny country . . .

CANDIS: Yes I see. So what recourse is left?

Epstein: The only recourse that Canada really has is to, one, make the United Nations work more actively than it's doing now and, two, really work seriously, a lot more seriously for a Comprehensive Test Ban, for a freeze, for pushing the Americans to abide by the Nonproliferation Treaty.

We should act like some of the neutral, non-aligned countries such as Mexico and Sweden, who are pushing hard to get the Americans to negotiate seriously with the Russians. At the same time, we should push the Russians to be a lot more accommodating on verification.

CANDIS: If you had your way, what would you do to strengthen the U. N.?

Epstein: The single most important thing that would strengthen the United Nations would be to have a United Nations Satellite Monitoring Agency. There are three reasons. First, it would help the Security Council manage crises: They could be alerted to happenings very quickly and get their own information instead of just relying on scattered press reports or reports from the big powers. Second, it would help their peacekeeping operations. They could detect any activities that might jeopardize their peacekeeping. Third, it would help, if the time came, verification of arms control agreements. In the same way, American satellites are helping preserve peace now in the Sinai.

Third, the nuclear powers should live up to their obligations. The United States and the Soviet Union both use Article 51 to suit their purposes. Article 51 says that each country is entitled to rely on individual or collective self-defence in response to an "armed attack" until the Security Council takes action. Each country has been using this as an excuse for intervening wherever it wanted, anywhere in the world. That's one thing that ought to be remedied.

All nations should really re-dedicate themselves to measure up to the standards laid down by the Charter. Very few countries do -- even Canada, which is one of the best countries in the U.N. Under Article VI of the Non-proliferation Treaty it says "each country undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith for a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament."

Canada's bound to do that and we haven't pursued cessation of the nuclear arms race, which means the Comprehensive Test Ban and a freeze. That's the way you end the nuclear arms race! And that's to come before drastic reductions, which the Americans call for. And yet we support the drastic reductions first. If the U.N. is to work you've got to live up to your obligations under international treaties, and the U.N. Charter is an international treaty. There's an old, old legal maxim: Pactus sunt servanda -- "Treaties must be abided by." And not many countries are abiding by them.

CANDIS: Do you entertain visions of changing the structure of the U. N.? Are you one of the World Federalists?

Epstein: Well, look, the idea of 'one nation, one vote' is a little anachronistic. A tiny nation with a population of 20,000 could have the same vote in the General Assembly as the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan. I mean, it's a little bit not right. But General Assembly resolutions are recommendatory, not binding. They have persuasive moral and political force but no binding, legal force. It doesn't matter that much. I can't visualize any country saying they are going to give up their sovereign right to vote, so I don't see any change in the structure. I don't think you even have to. You can make the thing work more effectively by making everybody a little more conscious of their obligations to behave in accordance with the Charter. You see, all the structural changes in the world won't make any real difference. Assume the General Assembly decisions were binding: So what? That isn't going to change anything. And assuming you have weighted voting: So what? There's no way you can compel the two superpowers or any great power to behave the way the United Nations says. You can't get South Africa, or Iran, Iraq to abide by it. Innumerable countries don't live up to their obligations.

But this understanding of common security, or the rule of law, is a slow, difficult matter. Just changing the structural voting pattern isn't going to have any effect. What you need is the political will and desire to abide by the Charter to make this a better world. I don't see any desire on the part of the big powers to disarm. And so the developing countries, the poor countries are building up their armaments too. They don't seem to be any more interested in arms control and disarmament than the big powers, but they can't destroy our world like the big powers can.

CANDIS: And that may come in time too.

Epstein: Well, if the big powers keep insisting 'We need nuclear weapons for our security, for deterrence', how are you going to prevent other countries with grave, acute political problems and military insecurities from saying, 'We need them too'? If the nuclear powers don't halt and then reverse the nuclear arms race, then eventually it's going to spread. If they don't live up to the Nonproliferation Treaty, then its future is in doubt.

CANDIS: When you're speaking to the Canadian peace movement about priorities what's your focus?

Epstein: The single most important thing Canadians can do is to work on Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers. Wire them. But go to work on your own M.P.s because they can change things. You know, the Conservative Party has got an overwhelming majority. There are a lot of new Conservative Members of Parliament who are not what you'd call the most ardent supporters of the United Nations or disarmament. Well, go to work on them because I am absolutely convinced that if we can mobilize public opinion, people can generate the necessary political will within each country to make the governments live up to their obligations, and to make a more sensible, decent, rational, and sane world. That's the most important thing Canadians can do.

Peace Magazine November 1985

Peace Magazine November 1985, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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