It’s striking that the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons — arguably the most pressing issue humankind faces — has slipped so far off the political agenda it rarely merits a mention.
Apart from the annual August 6 anniversary of Hiroshima — acknowledged briefly in the media last week, including in a powerful documentary on CBC Newsworld — the issue seems to suffer the fate of subjects the media just doesn’t consider hot enough to cover.
Of course, the issue of nuclear weapons does get a lot of attention — when it comes to keeping them out of the hands of Iran, North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Few subjects consume more oxygen in the public arena these days than Iran’s nuclear ambitions — even after the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus of all 16 U.S. government spy agencies, reported last fall that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and hasn’t revived it since.
That would be zero nuclear weapons for Iran. Meanwhile, well out of the spotlight, are more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, including thousands on hair-trigger alert, in the hands of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan. But then what possible risk could they pose?
So while there’s a lot of energy for blocking the nuclear ambitions of enemies, what’s fallen into virtual oblivion in the West is the goal of disarming ourselves as well.
That’s a curious development. As everyone knows, a serious nuclear exchange — even one triggered accidentally — could wipe out the world. Hence no one actually argues in favour of nuclear weapons. Rather we simply ignore them, even as we go on living with them.
Peace advocates Anatol Rapoport and Leonard Johnson (a retired Canadian general) compare our society to the cells of a body in the process of committing suicide. All the cells keep operating normally, each doing its own job, even as the person writes a suicide note, puts a gun in his mouth and prepares to pull the trigger.
This public obliviousness has allowed the Bush administration, with its disdain for disarmament, to keep expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even openly defying the decades-old ban against weapons in space.
But, with a new U.S. administration next year, this should be the time for an organized disarmament push from the rest of the world. What’s needed is some leadership — something Canada used to provide.
In the late 1990s, Canada played a pivotal role in a group of middle power countries trying to break the deadlock at disarmament talks in Geneva. In 2002, Canada became the first NATO country to vote for the group’s pro-disarmament resolution, despite strong opposition from the United States. Other NATO countries later followed Canada’s lead.
A group of disarmament experts, led by former Canadian disarmament ambassador Douglas Roche, met in Ottawa last February in an effort to push the Harper government to resume that sort of leadership role — to no avail, or even media interest.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has stepped up to the plate, announcing last June the establishment of a nuclear disarmament commission, to be chaired by former Australian prime minister Gareth Evans.
Sadly, Canada lacks that sort of leadership at the moment. But is it too much to expect we could perhaps fall in line behind Australia?
Or we could just keep on doing what we’re doing, even as the suicide note is being written, with the gun in the mouth and the hand on the trigger.