SUE WAREHAM. Roadmaps on the two biggest threats ready to go

Our security lies in our capacity to work together for the common good, rather than in weapons that terrify other humans. Roadmaps to address our two biggest threats, nuclear weapons and climate change, are ready to go. We’re not waiting for a vaccine, but simply for governments, including our own, to learn that increasingly alarming warnings require urgent action.

Calls by scientists and others have been made for climate action to play a key role in the post-COVID-lockdown world that is slowly coming into view. These calls are critically important; no responsible government can ignore them. After warnings in recent years about the risk of a global pandemic, we should have learnt that risks don’t go away simply by being ignored.

However there is another call to action on a profound risk to humanity that has received less attention – the need to get rid of the 14,000 nuclear weapons in existence. This risk has been highlighted again with President Trump’s discussions on 15 May with his senior officials of a possible resumption of US nuclear testing, a dangerous move that would break a nuclear test moratorium which has been honoured for over two decades by all nations except North Korea.

In addition, an important high-level meeting, the 5-yearly Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was scheduled to take place at the UN in New York from 27 April to 22 May, has been postponed for the obvious reason until early 2021.

The NPT entered into force exactly half a century ago, in 1970, and has played a very significant role in preventing the rapid spread of nuclear weapons; currently there are just 9 nuclear-armed states. At the quarter-century mark, in 1995, it was extended indefinitely, with member states reaffirming their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, a goal that is central to the Treaty and yet remains unfulfilled. That failure lies at the heart of growing tensions, between the countries with the weapons and those without, that have marked the 5-yearly NPT Review Conferences since 1995. Far from disarming, the nuclear-armed states are updating their arsenals.

The US, followed by Russia, abandoned the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February last year, with mutual accusations of violations. In 2018 Trump pulled out of the nuclear accord with Iran. The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the last remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, is due to expire next February, with no renewal in sight.

The landscape is bleak, with one exception. In July 2017, the UN adopted a new treaty to supplement and reinforce the NPT, to stigmatize the weapons and to ramp up global pressure for disarmament – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Unlike the NPT, the TPNW rejects any distinction between the nuclear haves and have nots. The same rules apply to all nations, and the rule is zero tolerance of the world’s worst weapons. Australia boycotted the whole process, arguing that the security needs of the nuclear armed states need special consideration – a bit like special pleading for those planning genocide. Entry into force of the TPNW was expected this year but, like everything else, is now delayed.

The driver for negotiating the TPNW was the overwhelming scientific evidence of catastrophic harm that humanity would face with any use of nuclear weapons, and the knowledge that the risk is increasing. In January this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, closer to global catastrophe than at any other time, including during the Cold War.

Against this background, the 2020 NPT Review Conference promised some heated discussions. Its postponement has spared, for now, the diplomats of the nuclear-armed states and complicit allies such as Australia some Olympic-standard verbal gymnastics in arguing, in effect, for the status quo. Australian governments consistently affirm our reliance on US nuclear weapons for “deterrence”.

Australia’s stance should be considered in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biological weapons have long since been stigmatised and prohibited under international law in all circumstances, by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The notion of deliberately letting loose an infectious agent on other humans is repugnant. Even keeping a stockpile “just in case”, with which to “deter”, is both prohibited and repugnant. And yet Australia’s policy, and that of every other nuclear-armed or US umbrella state, explicitly allows for the stockpiling and use of weapons that are far more destructive than a viral pandemic, and equally indiscriminate and morally objectionable.

Our “security” has been interpreted as our capacity to sufficiently terrify other humans rather than our capacity to work together for the common good. Coronavirus reminds us that another way – cooperation rather than confrontation – is not only possible but also in our own interests. Unlike COVID-19, there would be no recovery from a nuclear war, just as there would be no turning back from runaway climate change.

We have reasons to hope. Catastrophic events seem impossible until they happen, but so too does cooperation in a seemingly hostile world. And unlike COVID-19, roadmaps for getting rid of nuclear weapons and for addressing climate change are ready to go. We’re not waiting for a vaccine, but simply for governments, including our own, to learn that consistent, authoritative, increasingly alarming warnings require urgent action.

Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia), and a board member in Australia of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. MAPW FB @MAPWAustralia, Twitter: @MAPW_Australia. ICAN FB ICAN Australia, Twitter @ican_australia.

This article was published in the Canberra Times on 26 May 2020.


Sue Wareham has spoken and written widely on peace and disarmament issues. She is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) , a board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and a board member of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Australia. Dr Wareham is a former Canberra GP.

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6 Responses to SUE WAREHAM. Roadmaps on the two biggest threats ready to go

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you Dr Wareham for a clear description of the present reality. Now we have to take small steps individually and together so our human species survives. Wars now must be prevented with the practical means we have available and this means politics. My focus is on the NPT review in New York in 2021. The information is online and we can all read the statements of the States present. I like NZ policy and expect a professional presentation. I anticipate Australia will speak as directed by the US and there will be minimal coverage in the media and certainly not in the Murdock press. The US election will be over. Canberra is looking to link closer to NZ so let’s give peace a go.

  2. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    The world also ought to work together to end the refugee crisis. It’s really an unnecessary crisis. If the State of Israel can guarantee accommodating any refugee that has a Jewish heritage, why can’t the rest of the world guarantee accommodating any non-Jewish refugee?

    It’s ironical that today, only Jewish refugees can be assured of a place of refuge.

  3. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Dear Sue
    As of course you are aware, there are not too many platforms on which medical and climate scientists can alert the public regarding the ultimate nuclear and climate perils.
    Earlier this year the following message could hardly be communicated anywhere in the media: “Last call on the existential threat to life on Earth” (by Dr Helen Caldicott and Dr Andrew Glikson): “With a fleet of some 13890 nuclear weapons 1869 of which on high alert, the portents of extinction of humanity and much of nature have reached a new peak, as signified by the resetting of the clock of the atomic scientists to 100 seconds to midnight. As the world’s powers hold a gun at life on Earth, to be triggered at any time by accident or design, no one on Earth is safe” and ” With the accelerated transfer of more than 910 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the onset of the industrial age, at more than 36.8 billion tons per year, and a likely rise of more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, the most rapid rise since 56 million years ago, the natural world and humanity are on a course toward a mass extinction of species, manifested by global droughts, heat waves, fires, storms and cyclones.”

  4. Avatar KA-SING CHUA says:

    About time Australian Government and Opposition wake up to sign up and verify the TPNW of UN. It is so futile that we keep expanding our military expenditure. We should have the vision and courage to support the abolition of all nuclear weapons and put the money not in warfare but into humanity and healthcare of our people. The best defending weapon a country can have is like Switzerland by staying neutral and independent and be at peace with all nations. Australia is well placed to bring the West and East together through dialogue, mediation, peaceful diplomacy without gunboat confrontation. That was how our great diplomats in the past have helped to shape the formation, the great peace charters and constitution of United Nations. So have some vision for our nation. Best wishes.

    • Avatar Hans Rijsdijk says:

      I wouldn’t hold my breath about Australian moral courage and vision in these matters. The past has proved that this not apply to Australia (left or right) often enough.

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