Peter Low

2015 may prove a significant year in the long struggle to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a review conference of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). And the matter has again been placed before the International Court of Justice.

In December I was in Vienna, attending a large intergovernmental conference hosted by the Austrian government, and the associated “civil society” event organized by ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). I was impressed by a new energy in this debate: hundreds of NGO people, often young, are working to abolish nuclear weapons; most of the 158 government delegations that attended have similar hopes; and various influential nations (e.g Austria, Mexico and Norway) are putting pressure on the nuclear-armed states. The US and UK delegations were very much on the defensive. New Zealand put on a good showing, asking by what definition “security” is enhanced by their bombs. Russia and France were conspicuously absent (I went as a delegate of a French NGO).

One crucial change has been the re-framing of the discourse. Whereas these weapons have usually been discussed in terms of (unprovable) deterrence doctrines or the need to prevent proliferation to “rogue states”, the focus shifted in 2013-14 to the humanitarian aspects of the question – the vast and indiscriminate suffering that could (undisputably) be caused by estimated 16000 warheads in existence. There is even talk also of the wider consequences – on environment, infrastructure, food security, climate, development, social cohesion and the global economy. Even 100 small nuclear explosions could result in global famine. In view of this, the international community is disputing the justifications used by the nuclear states, and insisting more strongly that these weapons reduce the security of everyone. The international Red Cross, which since 2010 has taken a strong line, is now saying out loud that no emergency services can cope with nuclear explosions.

But didn’t the “balance of terror” keep us safe through the Cold War? Actually, evidence of accidents, flashpoints and close calls shows that there were several times when humankind was lucky to escape a nuclear exchange between 1960 and 1990. But aren’t there fewer warheads now? True, yet we face increased dangers: more nuclear states (nine currently known), more widespread fissile materials and knowledge of bomb-making, more ruthless terrorist groups keen to obtain them, and greater risks of cyber-attack on weapons-systems.

Besides, the old risks of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or intentional use of nuclear weapons persist, due to the vulnerability of control networks to human error, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, and their ongoing modernization Even if the probability of disaster remains low, the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation mean that the risks are unacceptable. And they increase over time. So the only proper solution is abolition – and the path to that end is outlawing and stigmatization.

Doesn’t international law ban them already? No, to quote one expert: “It strangles the beast from many directions, but it does not strike at its heart.” Outlawing them will require a new legal instrument, similar to those in place already for chemical and biological weapons. Many in Vienna favour a nuclear weapons convention, and hope that a timeline for this will emerge from the forthcoming NPT review (April-May in New York). Will the “Permanent Five” cooperate with progress to such an agreement? Or will they be called “rogue nations” for their failure to honour the NPT clause requiring them to negotiate the elimination of their weapons? Perhaps we need to be patient: they have ignored that clause for only 45 years!

A different approach is being taking by the Marshall Islands, apparently unwilling to wait for a new convention. In a breath-taking move, this mini-state (north of the Solomons, formerly a victim of US nuclear tests) has lodged nine lawsuits in the International Court of Justice, targeting the nine nuclear nations and alleging that they have breached existing law, especially the law of treaties. I sincerely hope these cases get past the procedural stages this year.

You can sign an abolitionist petition at

The ICAN website is

You can follow the NPT review also on www.baselpeaceoffice, or or

To follow the Marshall Islands case, visit


About kevinclements2012

Short CV Professor Kevin P Clements. I am the Foundation Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies and Director of the New Zealand Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin New Zealand and Secretary General of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy. Prior to taking up these positions I was the Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Foundation Director of the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, Brisbane Australia . I went to Queensland from International Alert where I was Secretary General from January 1999 to September 2003. International Alert is one of the world’s largest NGOs working on conflict transformation. It pioneered innovative policy and practical approaches to conflict prevention and transformation in Africa ,Eurasia and Asia . It has also made a major contribution to the mainstreaming of conflict prevention within European Foreign and Development Ministries, the EU and a variety of UN institutions. During his time there I was on the Board of the European Centre for Conflict Prevention and past President of the European Peace Building Liaison Office in Brussels. Prior to becoming Secretary General of International Alert I was the Vernon and Minnie Lynch Chair of Conflict Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University Fairfax Virginia USA 1994-2000 and Director of the Institute from 1994-1999. My career has been a combination of academic analysis and practice in the areas of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. I was, for example, formerly Director of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva and Head of the Peace Research Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra .Prior to this I was Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Coordinator of Peace Studies at Canterbury University, Christchurch New Zealand . My first academic position was as a lecturer in Sociology at Hong Kong University . I took up this position from a Post Doctoral Fellowship at Oxford University where I worked on development issues with Paul Streeten and others. I have been an advisor to the New Zealand, Australian , British , Swedish and Dutch governments on conflict prevention , peace, defence and security issues and advised the German Government and the OECD on States and Violence. I was, a member of the New Zealand Government’s Defence Committee of Enquiry in 1985 and I currently conducting Problem Solving Workshops in North East Asia with high level participants from Japan, China and Korea. Iwas President of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) from 1994-1998, President of the IPRA Foundation from 1995-2000 and Secretary General of the Asia Pacific Peace Research Association. I was Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association 2008-2010. I got my B.A, B.A Hon ( First Class) and Ph.D in Sociology from Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand. and held a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Oxford from 1970-1971. I have been a regular consultant to a variety of non governmental and intergovernmental organisations on disarmament, arms control, conflict resolution, development and regional security issues and I have written or edited 7 books and over 160 chapters /articles on conflict transformation, peacebuilding, preventive diplomacy and development with a specific focus on the Asia Pacific region. Research Expertise 1. Peace Research Theory- Conflict and Conflict Resolution Theory . Preventive Diplomacy , Development and Peacebuilding 2. International and Regional Regimes-APEC, ASEAN, the ARF, ECOWAS 3. Political Sociology-International Organisations. Multilateral/bilateral negotiating processes. 4. Fragile States, Legitimacy and Political Hybridity 5. Alternative Defence and Security Policies-Peace and Security in the Asia-Pacific region. 6. The politics and ethics of international humanitarian intervention 7. Altruism and Compassion In my spare time I like to paint with acrylics or pastels, go to the theatre, listen to classical music, visit art galleries etc!
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