Ask anyone if they can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and as polls indicate, most will say they can. This is true even in countries that possess nuclear weapons according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, a new civil society initiative dedicated to the hope of a nuclear free world.
However, governments that possess nuclear weapons send a different signal. Their policies and expenditures say that “well...perhaps someday...but certainly not in our lifetimes”.
Still a coalition of some 2,000 organisations that want to abolish nuclear weapons met in Geneva on 16 September 2011. The programme included a panel of civil society representatives hosted by the World Council of Churches (WCC) to examine prospects for nuclear disarmament.
It is clear that after years of little progress, support for abolishing nuclear weapons is growing. At the United Nations, 133 countries are now in favour of a Nuclear Weapon Convention, reported Alyn Ware, a New Zealander who mobilises parliamentarians in various countries.
“Success with other arms treaties and the absurdity of keeping nuclear arsenals in a world more inter-connected and inter-dependent than ever, help to account for the trend”, Ware said. A convention banning nuclear weapons is the main goal of ICAN.
International humanitarian law to challenge nuclear weapons
Increasing attention is being given to the illegality of nuclear weapons. “We have the International Criminal Court,” Tim Wright of ICAN Australia told the audience at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. “We need to remind our leaders that if they were to use a nuclear weapon, they would find themselves there.”
Wright urged civil society groups to challenge nuclear weapons on the basis of international humanitarian law, to divest from companies involved in the production of nuclear armaments, and to challenge the nuclear-weapon states directly because they have legal obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament, but are modernizing their arsenals instead.
“Fewer but newer” is how panellist Jackie Cabasso of US-based Western States Legal Foundation described the problem of modernisation. In the US recently more than $200 billion was pledged to upgrade and expand the US nuclear complex. The funds were agreed in order to win bi-partisan support for last year’s New START treaty between the US and Russia. That bargaining turned a modest arms reduction treaty into a costly “anti-disarmament” measure, she said.
Panellist Alice Slater of Nuclear Age Peace Foundation focused on the costs and consequences of nuclear energy. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, this year call into question the 500 nuclear reactors in 30 countries and 60 more plants are under construction. Every one of these nuclear reactors is “a bomb factory”, Slater said.
She lauded the recent decisions by governments in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain to give up their nuclear power plants. Slater noted that it would take 3.8 million windmills to meet half of the world’s energy needs. “Given the fact the there are 7.3 million cars manufactured each year, it is feasible to build that many windmills”, she said.
Mayors of 100 cities in Japan are now advocating that Northeast Asia become a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ), said Akira Kawasaki of Peace Boat, a Japanese non-governmental organisation. “NWFZs are a model of security that is nuclear-weapon-free,” he said, especially for regions like Northeast Asia and the Middle East where there is chronic insecurity. Six other regions of the world are already protected by such zones.
Regina Habel, a scientist from Germany, said that ballistic missiles are proliferating for the same reasons as nuclear weapons. One common rationale that countries use for both is, “Mine are good. Yours are bad,” Habel said. If one country increases the range, manoeuvrability or stealth capability of its missiles, its adversaries may well try to do the same.
Also, with missiles as with nuclear arms, the biggest military power, the US, is the main 'driver'. Yet there is no comprehensive treaty controlling missiles, Habel noted. Habel represents an international association of engineers and scientists opposed to nuclear weapons.
The WCC advocates the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and pursues concrete steps toward that goal with member churches in six continents.
* WCC project, 'Churches engaged for nuclear arms control' - http://www.oikoumene.org/en/programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-a... 
* International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons - http://www.icanw.org/ 
* Abolition 2000: Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons - http://www.abolition2000.org/ 
© Jonathan Frerichs is WCC programme executive for peace building and disarmament, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.