Possessing nuclear weapons is madness

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Former Nobel Prize laureate Demond Tutu says squandering billions of dollars on nuclear weapons, particularly after Fukushima, is madness.

Eliminating nuclear weapons is the democratic wish of the  world’s people. Yet no nuclear-armed country currently appears to be  preparing for a future without these terrifying devices. In fact, all  are squandering  billions of dollars on modernization of their nuclear forces, making a  mockery of United Nations disarmament pledges. If we allow this madness  to continue, the eventual use of these instruments of terror seems all  but inevitable.

The nuclear power crisis at Japan’s Fukushima power plant has served as a dreadful reminder that events thought unlikely can and do  happen. It has taken a tragedy of great proportions to prompt some  leaders to act to avoid similar calamities at nuclear reactors elsewhere  in the world. But it must not take another Hiroshima or Nagasaki – or an even greater disaster – before they finally wake up and recognize the urgent necessity of nuclear disarmament.

This week, the foreign ministers of five nuclear-armed countries – the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China – will  meet in Paris to discuss progress in implementing the  nuclear-disarmament commitments that they made at last year’s Nuclear  Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. It will be a test of  their resolve to transform the vision of a future free of nuclear arms  into reality.

If they are serious about preventing the spread of these monstrous weapons – and averting their use – they will work energetically and expeditiously to eliminate them completely. One standard  must apply to all countries: zero. Nuclear arms are wicked, regardless  of who possesses them. The unspeakable human suffering that they inflict  is the same whatever flag they may bear. So long as these weapons  exist, the threat of their use – either by accident or through an act of sheer madness – will remain.

We must not tolerate a system of nuclear apartheid, in which it is   considered legitimate for some states to possess nuclear arms but   patently unacceptable for others to seek to acquire them. Such a double   standard is no basis for peace and security  in the world. The NPT is  not a license for the five original nuclear  powers to cling to these  weapons indefinitely. The International Court  of Justice has affirmed  that they are legally obliged to negotiate in  good faith for the  complete elimination of their nuclear forces.

The New START  agreement between the US and Russia, while a step in  the  right  direction, will only skim the surface off the former Cold War   foes’  bloated nuclear arsenals – which account for 95% of the global   total.  Furthermore, these and other countries’ modernization activities   cannot  be reconciled with their professed support for a world free of   nuclear  weapons.

It is deeply troubling that the US has allocated $185  billion to   augment its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, on top  of the   ordinary annual nuclear-weapons budget of more than $50  billion. Just as   unsettling is the Pentagon’s push for the development  of nuclear-armed   drones – H-bombs deliverable by remote control.

Russia, too, has unveiled a massive nuclear-weapons modernization  plan,  which includes the deployment of various new delivery systems.  British  politicians, meanwhile, are seeking to renew their navy’s aging  fleet of  Trident submarines – at  an estimated cost of £76 billion  ($121 billion). In doing so, they are  passing up an historic  opportunity to take the lead on nuclear  disarmament.

Every dollar invested in bolstering a country’s nuclear arsenal is a  diversion of resources from its schools, hospitals, and other social  services, and a  theft from the millions around the globe who go hungry  or are denied  access to basic medicines. Instead of investing in  weapons of mass  annihilation, governments must allocate resources  towards meeting human  needs.

The only obstacle we face in abolishing nuclear weapons is a lack of  political will, which can – and must – be  overcome. Two-thirds of UN  member states have called for a  nuclear-weapons convention similar to  existing treaties banning other  categories of particularly inhumane and  indiscriminate weapons, from biological and chemical arms to  anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions. Such a treaty is  feasible and must be urgently pursued.

It is true that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, but that does  not  mean that nuclear disarmament is an impossible dream. My own  country,  South Africa, gave up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990’s,  realizing it  was better off without these weapons. Around the same  time, the newly  independent states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine  voluntarily relinquished their nuclear arms, and then joined the NPT.  Other countries have abandoned  nuclear-weapons programs, recognizing  that nothing good could possibly  come from them. Global stockpiles have  dropped from 68,000 warheads at  the height of the Cold War to 20,000  today.

In time, every government will come to accept the basic inhumanity of  threatening to obliterate entire cities with nuclear weapons. They will  work to achieve a world in which such weapons are no more – where the rule of law, not the rule of force, reigns supreme, and cooperation  is seen as the best guarantor of international peace. But such a world  will be possible only if people everywhere rise up and challenge the nuclear madness.

Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and supporter of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (

(This story was published in Truth Out on Sunday July 3, 2011, under the title 'Ending nuclear evil'.)

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