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Hope for a Nuclear Thaw

Interview with Jayantha Dhanapala

Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka was UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs from 1998-2003 and president of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. He was a member of the 1996 Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, which released a groundbreaking report in 2006.

SGI Quarterly: You've said in the past that you are optimistic about prospects for nuclear disarmament. Do you still feel that way?

Jayantha Dhanapala: This year we observe the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. I think that the move for the abolition of nuclear weapons is analogous to the move for the abolition of slavery, and we will succeed eventually.

In our lifetime we've also seen the dismantling of apartheid and of international communism. These situations, which seemed unchangeable, in fact did yield to change.

Now it's true that we've been through a very long, dark winter of discontent. We've seen the wonderful opportunity of the end of the Cold War being dissipated and no meaningful nuclear disarmament take place. The 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was a disaster. The outcome document of the 60th UN General Assembly which was held at summit level did not contain any reference to disarmament, because there was no agreement. So that was perhaps the low point.

New Developments

Since then, we've seen a very important article by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn appearing in The Wall Street Journal on January 4 this year. This was a major, revolutionary change for people who have held very important positions in the U.S. government and remain very influential in U.S. society. They were calling for nuclear disarmament; they felt that nuclear deterrence was no longer a valid policy to pursue. This was followed shortly thereafter in the same newspaper by an article from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who asked for a joint enterprise between the nonnuclear weapon states and nuclear states to get rid of nuclear arms.

The other development is that we have a report from the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Hans Blix, that came out in June 2006 with major proposals for the outlawing of all weapons of mass destruction.

We have already outlawed biological and chemical weapons, but nuclear weapons are held by eight (nine, if you count North Korea) countries, and the rest of the world is being denied possession of them on the basis that nuclear proliferation is a bad thing. Now, nuclear proliferation is certainly not good, but if you have those countries that have nuclear weapons arrogating the right to retain their weapons for themselves alone, while others are denied possession, then you are almost certainly stimulating other countries into wanting to have them.

Students at a ceremony to receive a deactivated Soviet nuclear missile at a war museum in Kecel, Hungary  [ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images]

On the other hand the more countries that acquire nuclear weapons, the more you will have the danger of a leakage to terrorist groups and of the actual use of these weapons of terror. We have the evidence of the [Pakistani nuclear scientist] A. Q. Khan network supplying material and technology to states who wanted it on the black market. You will have other leakages taking place, because not everybody has as careful custody of their nuclear materials and technology as they should. Research shows that the penalties meted out to the only three people who were punished by law in the A. Q. Khan network were comparable to what a corrupt businessman or a spammer on the Internet would receive. The world is not taking proliferation seriously.

Nonproliferation and disarmament are two faces of the same coin. That is why it's so important to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. If there were no weapons, they could not proliferate.

Now we have a unique opportunity because four of the five nuclear weapon states under the NPT are undergoing changes at the summit level. We have a new president of France, and a new prime minister of Britain. Next year we'll have a new president of Russia as well as the U.S.

Here's an opportunity to move away from having nuclear weapons as valid currency in the world of power, and moving to eliminating all weapons of mass destruction.

Shifting Paradigms

SGIQ: What kind of paradigm shift do you see underlying the dramatic change that we've seen in people like George Shultz and Henry Kissinger?

JD: I think there are two aspects to this. One is the normal rethinking of positions and attitudes you held at certain stages of your career. We've seen this happen with Robert McNamara who today argues very strongly against nuclear weapons, having been head of the Pentagon and responsible for the Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine of the Cold War. You have a number of other people who have been in very responsible positions in the military in different countries now in retirement going through a process of reconsideration of their views.

But I also think that, on the part of Kissinger, Nunn, Shultz and Perry, there's an understanding that the world has changed radically from the Cold War.

Additionally, with climate change there's a new emphasis on nuclear energy as a so-called clean source of energy. But there is a very thin margin between the uses of nuclear power for peaceful purposes and non-peaceful purposes. Once you enrich uranium, you could always bring it up to weapons-grade uranium. Ultimately it's a question of the intentions of countries, and it's very difficult for any international organization, however skilled their verification methods may be, to ascertain that intentions are in fact peaceful rather than non-peaceful.

So in a situation like this, many people are coming to the conclusion that there is a need for a total ban on nuclear weapons. The U.S. does not need nuclear weapons; it has overwhelming conventional weapons superiority today. Also there is no great power rivalry between the United States and any other state. China has clearly indicated that it wants to have peaceful ascendancy to its economic rise. They also want to have outer space free from any weaponization.

These are, I think, the considerations that are operating today, and one hopes that they will come into some kind of prominence in policy-making, particularly after the change of leadership in the U.S. next year.

At the same time there are negative trends: the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that is being developed by the U.S.--the first nuclear weapon developed after a long time. There is the missile defense program that is continuing in the teeth of Russian opposition.

So there is the emphasis in some part of the political spectrum on re-nuclearizing international politics; on the other hand there are the Kissingers and others who are saying it's time we took a fresh look at the political validity of nuclear weapons. These are no longer necessary, so why don't we get rid of them, because the longer you have them, the greater the chance that they will fall into the terrorists' hands and also the greater the chance they will be used. And we know that one modern nuclear weapon being detonated will be several thousand times worse than a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki, and it will leave genetic effects and ecological effects that are damaging not only to the human race but also to the ecology that supports human existence.

The Power of Public Opinion

SGIQ: What can be done to re-engage public opinion with this issue?

JD: At the height of the Cold War we had a demonstration of well over a million people in New York walking to protest against nuclear weapons. But after the Cold War ended, there was a strong perception that the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons had receded into the background, and people were encouraged to feel rather complacent about them.

Now this is no longer possible, and after 9/11 people were reminded that, had weapons of mass destruction been used by the terrorists, the damage would have been catastrophic. We cannot take that risk any longer with nuclear weapons. There is that growing awareness, I believe, both at the state level and at the public level. We need to encourage global public opinion. Civil society has been described as "the other superpower," and I believe it's capable of the same influence that a conventional superpower wields in international affairs, if it's united. We need therefore to mobilize international public opinion to apply pressure on their leadership.

An antinuclear rally in California, U.S.A., in 1982, at the height of the Cold War   [©Neal Preston/CORBIS]

The Central Asian countries, in the face of opposition from the three Western nuclear states--France, the U.K. and the U.S.--decided they want a nuclear weapons-free zone. They signed a treaty in September of last year in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, the site of many, many Russian nuclear weapons tests in the days of the Soviet Union. So you have countries moving from the conventional nuclear postures of the past into a new kind of thinking. But at the same time, you have a residual element of the old thinking, and that was evident when the U.K. government decided that it wants to renew its Trident nuclear weapons system. There was a large volume of opinion which opposed this, and I'm told by a number of friends in the U.K. that while they have lost the battle, they are confident of winning the war on this issue of the U.K. abandoning its nuclear posture.

It's in the national security interests of every country not to be on the precipice of a nuclear catastrophe whether caused by a nation state or a terrorist group.

The Moral Norm

SGIQ: What personal sources of hope do you draw on to sustain yourself in work that many people would find daunting?

JD: Culturally, I cannot but be influenced by the fact that I've grown up in a predominantly Buddhist country where the message of the Buddha and, in my own lifetime, the message of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the example of Nelson Mandela have been inspiring examples of the need for optimism and hope in international relations and for a better future for humankind. And I believe, as I said earlier, that there are parallels with the success of the abolition of slavery. Slavery still exists in various parts of the world in a modern odious form, but the norm has been clearly established that slavery is wrong and it's immoral and illegal. And what we need to do is to delegitimize nuclear weapons as well.

People say very glibly that nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented, that the knowledge will always be there. Sure, the knowledge is there for even the manufacture of biological weapons and chemical weapons, but once we establish a norm, it makes it easier to pursue the elimination of a pernicious evil than if it continues to exist in the hands of some people, while we tell others it's wrong for you to possess the same weapon that we have.

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