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Since this article was written there has been positive movement -- see the statement,
Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
from August 14, 1996, for many details!


By Kevin Sanders

War & Peace Digest, April/May 1996, Vol.4, No.1

          Still almost unnoticed outside Australia, an unprecedented and dramatic new initiative follows hard on the heels of the historic proceedings in the World Court seeking an opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons.

          At those hearings late last year, Australia went a good deal further than any of the more than 40 nations presenting arguments to the court. Australia's then-Attorney General, Gareth Evans, asserted that the use, threat of use, development, deployment and even possession of nuclear weapons was illegal. He also announced that Australia would set up an international commission in its capital, Canberra, to prepare a report for presentation to the U.N. and all disarmament agencies on practical steps to rid the world of nuclear bombs. This is the first time a national government has attempted such an immense and urgent global undertaking.

          The Canberra Commission, as it has become known, was launched in late January, 1996, when the sixteen members met to set the agenda. Future meetings are planned for New York in April, Europe in June, and a final meeting back in Canberra in August.

          The commission includes, among others, physicist Joseph Rotblat, the Nobel Peace Prize winner; former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; Russian nuclear scientist, Roald Sagdeev; General George Butler, former head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command; Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, and Maj Britt Theorin, former Swedish disarmament minister (and the only woman on the panel, a source of some criticism).

          Speaking recently at the U.N. to the Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) Disarmament Committee, Richard Butler, Australian ambassador and chairman of the Canberra Commission, delighted his audience by announcing that the panel had decided that the goal would be zero nuclear weapons. "There is a large school of thought that zero is not possible, or unthinkable or even undesirable," Butler admitted. However, he explained, the Commission concluded finally that there was no other way than to seek the complete abolition of all nuclear weapons.

          "We have learned some important lessons about proliferation in the past fifty years," he explained." So long as any state has even one nuclear weapon, it is inevitable that other states -- or even non-state actors -- will try to get them." He acknowledged that there would be hard political questions on how this can achieved, and these, he said, the Commission would address in detail. "There is a special moment in time available to us now -- and a special necessity," said Butler, explaining the urgency that had lead the Australian government to begin the work. He pointed to the end of the Cold War, the recent extension of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and "the horrible shock" that followed the resumption of testing by China and France. Another concern, he said, was the danger of the "leakage" or dissemination of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union.

          "If the problem of nuclear weapons is not attended to now," he said, "it is not going to get any easier; it's going to get a whole lot harder." Butler warned, "We are possibly on the edge of second great age of nuclear proliferation of the nuclear age. The first was the situation that lead to the NPT in 1968 to halt the threat of up to 20 nuclear weapons states emerging. Now, to prevent a post-Cold War proliferation of nuclear materials and technology, we must formally move to zero nuclear weapons." The audience at the U.N. cheered when Butler said that zero weapons also meant zero nuclear testing either by explosion or computer simulation.

          The Commission has begun considering the steps required to develop the necessary verification and control mechanisms and new legal obligations to move toward zero nuclear weapons while maintaining stable deterrence as the weapons are being dismantled and destroyed.


          While the Canberra Commission takes the notion of nuclear abolition into a whole new realm, it is linked to a growing, global "Abolition 2000" movement that is rapidly gaining momentum. Activists are rallying around two important documents. A Citizen's Pledge to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, initiated by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, has been signed by 34 Nobel Laureates and more than 300 citizen groups. Many of these individuals and groups, and others, also embrace the Call for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, issued by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. This key document does not call for abolition by the year 2000, but rather that the nations of the world "enter immediately into negotiations to abolish nuclear weapons" -- pledging to complete a treaty by the dawn of the next century.

          Members of an Abolition 2000 caucus in the U.S. have attended strategy meetings recently in Philadelphia, in Edinburgh, Scotland, and at the so-called "Abolition Summit" in Las Vegas in early April. The activists keep in touch largely through the Internet. For more information contact Karina Wood at Peace Action in Washington, D.C. at 202-862-9740, or the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, CA, 805-965-2794. The International Physicians have published a 175-page book, "Abolition 2000: Handbook for a World Without Nuclear Weapons." It is available from IPPNW at 126 Rogers St., Cambridge, MA 02142, phone 617-878-5050, or fax 202-328-2582...

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