19 February 2005

Selling non-proliferation on the streets of Norwich

By Marguerite Finn

Visitors to Norwich City Centre yesterday may have seen the veteran peace campaigner, Bruce Kent, engaging members of the public and persuading them to sign a petition calling for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

Bruce - formerly a Catholic priest and currently Vice-President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - has been active in this cause since 1958. He is 76 now and his visit to Norwich is part of a 2-month, nation-wide tour taking in 21 cities. The tour is organised by CND and Bruce will be meeting Mayors and local dignitaries and inviting them to become 'Mayors for Peace' in time for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York in May. The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bringing 100 Mayors from around the world to the Conference calling for immediate negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. We can be proud that the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Joyce Divers, is one of a growing number of Mayors for Peace.

The petitions collected by Bruce will be taken to the NPT Conference to signal the British peoples' desire for nuclear disarmament.

What drives a 76 year old man, in the depths of Winter, to embark on such a gruelling campaign ? Why should he - or we - care so much?

Let us look at the history of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a cornerstone of international security. It aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to states that do not already possess them and obliges existing Nuclear Weapon States to negotiate, at an early date, the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

When the Treaty became law in 1970 it was signed by 5 nuclear powers: US, Britain, Russia, France and China. Despite this, nuclear weapons proliferated - first in Israel, then India and Pakistan and recently in North Korea. When the NPT was reviewed in 2000, a six-point Plan of Action for progress in nuclear disarmament was agreed.

Unfortunately, since 9/11 the US now regards this plan as 'history' and 'incompatible' with the new "War on Terror". It is feared that they - possibly supported by Britain - will not re-affirm their "unequivocal undertaking" to pursue total nuclear disarmament, which is the key part of Article V1 of the original Treaty. Without this undertaking, the nuclear arms race could escalate out of control.

This is what concerns Bruce Kent and drives him on to the chilly streets of our cities. It should concern all of us. We are facing a new, unpredictable and largely invisible enemy - terrorism - against which nuclear weapons are useless. Terrorists are stateless adversaries without the infrastructure to build/house nuclear weapons systems. Nuclear proliferation and escalation is already happening and the Non-Proliferation Treaty remains the only internationally accepted barrier - however imperfect - to further incidences. In 2002, in flagrant breach of the spirit of the NPT, the US administration launched its Nuclear Posture Review, calling for new types of nuclear weapons to be built and proposing new roles for their use.

The dangers inherent in this policy cannot be overstated. In the first place it sends a signal to nuclear and non-nuclear states alike: 'Smarten up - Proliferate'! Secondly, 'low-yield' nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional warfare making nuclear war more "thinkable." Regardless of what they are called, they are still nuclear bombs and the designing, building and testing of them directly contravenes the Non-Proliferation Treaty. A third danger lies in President Bush's decision to merge the forces carrying out nuclear and conventional global strikes - by allowing an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry either a nuclear or a conventional warhead and to put in place a new computerised planning and command structure that would make it faster and easier to launch a nuclear attack. In a crisis, it would be impossible for countries to distinguish what kind of weapon a plane, or missile was carrying, thus increasing the possibility of escalation.

So, where does Britain stand with regard to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons? Apart from 110 US nuclear weapons stationed at Lakenheath, Britain has its own Trident Nuclear Submarines. Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, recently announced that the decision on whether to replace or upgrade Trident would be taken during the next Parliament. That decision-making process has almost certainly begun, as evidenced by the huge new building programme at AWE Aldermaston.

That is why Bruce Kent wants people to sign the petition for the abolition of nuclear weapons and why it is so important that both the US and UK honour their pledges to the Non-Proliferation Treaty - because, without Britain and America on board, the Treaty is doomed - and so, possibly, are we.

I am grateful to Norwich CND for their input.