Nuclear Weapons Abolition: Yes, We Can!

This is an expanded and footnoted version of the article which appears in the Oct-Dec 2009 print edition of Peace Magazine.

By Phyllis Creighton | 2009-10-01 12:00:00

Hope for freeing the world from nuclear weapons is rising. A growing chorus of leaders has been speaking out for abolition, the January 2007 call of four prominent US Cold Warriors in the Wall Street Journal (repeated in 2008 [1]) being echoed by Mikhail Gorbachev, four UK former foreign secretaries, Italian, German, and Polish statesmen including Lech Walesa. With US Senator Barack Obama announcing in Berlin in July 2008, during his electoral campaign, his goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and affirming US commitment to seek it upon his election and in major speeches in 2009 (in Prague, April 5, and Cairo, June 4), prospects have soared. We must take advantage of this stunning turn from Bush administration policies. The time to push hard for abolition is now. On August 6, the black day of the first atomic bombing, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba in his annual address caught the rising spirit when he told the 40,000 gathered in its Peace Park, “We refer to ourselves, the great global majority, as the Obamajority.” Calling on the rest of the world to join forces to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2020, he asserted “We have the power…Together, we can abolish nuclear weapons. Yes, we can.” Right now, with a climate of renewed optimism and collaboration, we have the best chance in decades to make significant progress.

Many initiatives are building political momentum and public engagement. The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a body of high-level diplomats and seven associated research centres launched by Australia and Japan in July 2008 to reinvigorate the nuclear reduction drive, began its work by October. That month UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon put forward a five-point plan calling for negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention or a series of mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by credible verification, to fulfil the obligations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and for the convening of a disarmament summit, a plan he reiterated in the Guardian on 3 Aug. 2009. The expert panel’s draft fissile material cut-off treaty made public on 11 May 2009 brings a step closer another one of Obama’s stated goals. Mayors for Peace (MfP), with its 3,047 member cities (many in the US), is engaged in a 2020 Vision Campaign initiated in 2003. Akiba, its leader, insists there is no scientific or technical reason why nuclear weapons cannot be abolished by 2020. MfP’s August 2009 Nagasaki Appeal, reiterating its “Cities Are Not Targets!” demand, calls on states parties to the NPT to adopt the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol at the NPT Review Conference in May 2010 and to ensure that multilateral negotiations for a nuclear-free world then commence directly in the Conference on Disarmament or are launched by the UN General Assembly in 2010. We can take heart, also, that Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) include more and more of the world, from Antarctica (1959), Outer Space, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South East Asia, Africa (15 July 2009 [2]), to Central Asia (March 2009).The entire Southern Hemisphere is now covered! By banning possession, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons, NWFZ treaties delegitimize the whole nuclear edifice, doctrines, and strategies.

Working towards disarmament negotiations, the Middle Powers Initiative -- a project founded in 1998, co-sponsored by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the International Peace Bureau (IPB), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), and Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE), and housed in the Global Security Institute (GSI) -- is the inspiration of former MP and Senator Doug Roche, once Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament, and the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (of which VOW is a member). Over the past three years, the MPI’s six forums focused on Article VI of the NPT, which gather diplomats and civil society leaders, have fostered knowledge and collaboration to advance disarmament. In December 2008, in Paris, 100 international leaders, relying on a new 21-country poll showing that global public opinion favours an international agreement for eliminating all nuclear weapons, launched Global Zero (GZ), with a sign-on declaration on its website. The UK government immediately announced its support of the goal and the European Union forwarded a similar call to the UN. GZ plans to hold a Global Zero summit of 500 political, military, business, and civic leaders in January 2010. Abolition 2000, a global coalition of over 2,000 organizations that was founded in 1995, continues to build public support and to campaign. The Fourth International Decade for Disarmament, declared by the UN to run from 2010 to 2020, must bring all this work to fruition.

Nuclear arms reduction is underway. President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev agreed on July 6 to negotiate a new START treaty by December 5 (the expiry date of the current one) and to cut their respective nuclear arsenals to1,500-1,675 strategic warheads and 500-1,100 delivery vehicles (from the 2,200 and1,600, respectively, under a 2002 pact). Since the US and Russia hold 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, they must set the pace. The timeline for the reductions is, however, seven years (2016) and the agreement does not affect reserves and non-strategic warheads, nor require dismantling of the warheads being retired. The risk of accidental launch remains. As well, weapons reduction to 1,000 is widely held to be necessary to draw in reductions by the other nuclear weapons states (NWS), whose combined arsenals hold about 1,000 warheads. If the retired warheads are not put into reserve, the Russian stockpile will be reduced by 14 per cent, the US by 10 per cent, according to the Federation of American Scientists. [3] Obama’s agenda also includes securing US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, convening a Global Summit on nuclear weapons security and proliferation in Washington in March 2010, and strengthening the NPT.

Of serious concern, however, is Russian opposition to significant arsenal cuts unless the US abandons Bush plans for missile defence in Eastern Europe and the absence of US concessions -- Obama agreed only to further discussions. Is MPI’s Alice Slater right in thinking that “essentially we have come full circle to the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit at Reykjavik” when abolition negotiations foundered on Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative to dominate space? [4] Obama faces strong foes in the Pentagon, weapons labs, and Congress – the military-industrial complex is entrenched. The US Nuclear Posture Review to be released in December will, if pro-nuclear advocates get their way, centre on extended deterrence to counter threats to the US and its allies, and retention for the foreseeable future of nuclear weapons, which could be modernized through laboratory testing. [5] Development of the US global missile defence system is, in fact, proceeding, with recent reportedly successful tests of an airborne laser interceptor. Missiles and radar are already deployed in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, Greenland, Britain, Norway, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. With the US Global Strike Command activated on August 7, and its Missile Defense Agency accelerating the pace of full spectrum missile shield development (air, sea, land, cyber, and space), the US is heading for military domination of the planet and in outer space, as set out in Vision for 2020. With a US missile shield, Russia or China could be left at the mercy of a nuclear first strike -- and threat of global catastrophe looms. [6]

At this critical juncture, we Canadian peace activists need to redouble our efforts. We are at a crossroads. Many more countries – possibly 30 – and non-state actors will acquire nuclear weapons if nuclear disarmament stalls. A two-class system is unsustainable. The NWS cannot claim nuclear arsenals are essential for their security, retain first-strike policies (as NATO, the US, and Russia do), and modernize their nuclear weapons, yet expect other nations not to join the nuclear club. We must not forget that, as Jonathan Schell observes, “The birth of nuclear weapons in 1945 opened a wide, unobstructed path to the end of the world.” And the danger from them is “universal, everlasting, unlimited, and immune to defenses.” [7] For political ambitions, in the name of “security” and “defence” nuclear armed submarines cruise the seas silently, to launch the day our world would come to an end. Moreover, use of a small number of nuclear weapons, for example in a conflict between India and Pakistan – say, 100 Hiroshima-size bombs (0.03% of the explosive power of the current total nuclear arsenal) -- would cause severe climatic consequences, cooling and darkening for a decade or more, slashed food production, and starvation of possibly a billion people across the globe. [8] A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought. Nor, given the risk of computer glitch or human error, should we still face the threat from the US and Russia of several thousand targeted missiles on launch-on-warning, ready to devastate our cities, or theirs, in less than 30 minutes.

We need to tell the public, governments, and disarmament negotiators that nuclear weapons are “immoral and unworthy of civilization,” as GSI’s Rhianna Tyson urges. [9] Accepting nuclear deterrence means allowing the intent, and prospects for, the incineration of millions of people. UK Professor Mary Kaldor advises us to reframe the issue of nuclear weapons as a humanitarian one – a crime against humanity -- and to change the mind-set of politicians. [10] Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki! The goal must be to eliminate them: “Going down to zero is imperative.” [11] Abolition 2000 says it will take an enormous grassroots effort. Here’s an agenda for action:

We must achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. It is an essential step on the way of peace VOW has always pursued in the conviction that we must put an end to war. Catch the spirit! Yes, we can!


[1] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “Toward a nuclear-free world,” Wall Street Journal, 15 Jan. 2008, p.A13
[2] Ernie Regehr, “Africa as a nuclear-weapon-free zone, CIGI blog, 21 Aug. 2009, accessed 31 August at
[3] Hans N. Kristensen, “START Follow-on: what sort of agreement,” accessed 30 Aug. 2009 at
[4] Alice Slater, “US plans for missile defense sabotage nuclear disarmament talks with Russia,” accessed 30 Aug. 2009 at
[5] Douglas Roche, “Obama needs friends on nuclear weapons,” Embassy Magazine, 19 Aug. 2009, accessed 20 August at:
[6] Rick Rozoff, “Showdown with Russia and China: US advances first strike global missile system,” Global Research, 19 Aug. 2009, accessed 31 August at
[7] Jonathan Schell, The seventh decade: the new shape of the nuclear danger (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2007), pp.1, 34-35
[8] Malcolm Fraser, Gustav Nossal, Barry Jones, Peter Gration, John Sanderson, and Tilman Ruff, “Imagine there’s no bomb,” Theage, 8 April 2009, accessed 31 Aug. 2009 at
[9] Disarmament Times, spring 2009, p.7
[10] Mary Kaldor, “Dismantling the global nuclear infrastructure,” Opendemocracy, 11 Aug. 2009, accessed 31 Aug. 2009 at
[11] Peter Weiss, cited in John Burroughs’s letter from the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, 20 July 2009

Phyllis Creighton is a Toronto activist.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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