Zero Nuclear Weapons

Public Forum
November 13 and 14, 2009
Toronto, Canada

Arousing and Sustaining Political Will

By Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C.

Address to Zero Nuclear Weapons Forum

Toronto, November 14, 2009

When surveyed public opinion shows that more than three-quarters of the people of the world want the elimination of nuclear weapons through an enforceable agreement...

When the International Court of Justice in 1996 unanimously ruled that states must "conclude negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control"...

When all 187 states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2000 unanimously made an "unequivocal undertaking" to the total elimination of nuclear weapons via a program of 13 Practical Steps...

When 126 states two weeks ago voted at the U.N. First Committee for a start to "multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a Nuclear Weapons Convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination"...

When U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls for states to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention " backed by a strong system of verification, as has long been proposed at the United Nations"...

When the Prime Minister of India, which shuns the NPT on the grounds of its discriminatory nature, pledges his country's participation in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention "to eliminate nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework"...

When 3,241 mayors in 134 countries, belonging to Mayors for Peace, back the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol calling for the adoption of a legally-binding document banning all nuclear weapons by 2020, the 50th anniversary of the NPT and the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings; and all this is supported by the European Parliament and the 700 world-wide members of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament...

When the Nobel laureate International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, mobilizing physicians in 62 countries, promote the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to mobilize civil society to demand a nuclear-weapon-free world through the negotiation and adoption of a Nuclear Weapons Convention...?

When 100 former heads of state, former foreign ministers, former defense ministers, former national security advisors, and more than 20 former top military commanders leaders from around the world formed the new Global Zero organization to plan for the phased, verified elimination of nuclear weapons, starting with deep reductions in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, to be followed by multilateral negotiations among all nuclear powers for an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons-"Global Zero"...

When U.S. President Barack Obama in his Prague speech of April, 2009 stated his "commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" and then convened an unprecedented Summit of the U.N. Security Council to move the diplomatic process forward...

...Well, in the face of all this evidence of high-level actions, one might well ask: Why aren't we seeing the speedy elimination of nuclear weapons taking place? Why is the chain of events I have related not turning the tide of societal standards against these instruments of mass murder, which the former president of the International Court of Justice called "the ultimate evil"?

The answer, as far as I can see, is that the sheer horror of nuclear weapons, and the catastrophic economic, environmental and human costs of their use have not yet penetrated the public consciousness. While it's hard to find anyone who actually thinks using nuclear weapons is a good idea, the subject seems remote from daily concerns. Nuclear disarmament campaigners are frequently relegated to the sidelines of society's concerns.

In contrast, the campaign to stop, or at least slow down, global warming is a centre-piece of world attention. A parade of celebrities, reports, and green civil society actions have pierced the old media skepticism, and now society as a whole is running with the issue, with recalcitrant politicians figuring how to catch up. The public, having absorbed the evidence of climate change, is demanding action.

But with nuclear weapons, the public attitude is still clouded with various attributes of human behaviour: denial, ignorance, apathy, and what the renowned psychiatrist Robert Lifton calls "psychic numbing." We shut out of our minds that which is too horrible to contemplate.

To fully understand why the human psyche responds or doesn't respond to data requires the insights of a psychiatrist, which I do not possess. My knowledge is more elemental and gained from my public career: politicians only move when they feel the heat from the street. This truism begs the question because to generate heat on politicians, people themselves have to be moved - and that's what we're discussing in this session. So how do we move people?

I offer three points, in no way exhaustive, to start the discussion:

  1. Nuclear disarmament campaigners must first of all have confidence in ourselves, knowing that we are on the right side of history and that historical momentum towards the abolition of nuclear weapons is indeed building up. The list of elements I reviewed shows clearly that societal attitudes are changing even though moving to a nuclear weapons free world represents a tectonic shift in how the world operates. The very powerful are being asked to give up that which makes them very powerful and this has never been done before in the history of the world. We ourselves cannot become passive, or grow tired or discouraged at the size of the mountain of obstacles before us. Those who campaigned against slavery, colonialism and apartheid never lost their determination that one day they would prevail.
  2. We must remember that public opposition to nuclear war, which has remained steadfast since 1945, has already on numerous occasions caused governments to step back from the brink. As the nuclear historian Lawrence Wittner states, "Evidence exists that public pressure has prevented nuclear war." In other words, we are not facing a situation in which, in calling for nuclear disarmament, we would be going against public opinion. True, the military-industrial complex has hypnotized governments and the public that arms build-ups are necessary, and so the arms merchants need constantly to be exposed. Sleep-walking is undoubtedly a characteristic of our time, but once awakened from present lethargy, the public roar will galvanize politicians.
  3. We must simplify our message. For too long, governments have bamboozled the public with the jargon and esoterics of the minutiae of faltering steps. What we need is a single-focused idea to get rid of all nuclear weapons in a safe and secure way. That's the beauty of a Nuclear Weapons Convention: it provides a legal basis for phasing in concrete steps with a visible intent to reach zero nuclear weapons in a defined time period. The public can easily understand this clear notion. The positive response shown by the 376 recipients of the Order of Canada who have endorsed a Nuclear Weapons Convention as a comprehensive means for negotiating nuclear disarmament calls out for Canadian government action.

It is our job as campaigners to energize the public. We must constantly appeal to the conscience of humanity to take steps to ban that which would destroy all life on the planet. There is a global conscience and we must - through art, films, books, the Internet and all forms of modern communication - reflect, inspire, deepen and utilize the feelings within all civilizations that the threat of mass killings cannot be tolerated.

The time has come to wake up the government of Canada. This conference could well inspire the government to action by the simple act of generating 5,000 letters to the Prime Minister calling for Canada to support a Nuclear Weapons Convention. If 5,000 letters is not enough, then 10,000.

Most of all, let a renewed Canadian campaign of public action to save the world from nuclear horror begin today. We must believe in our own capacity to effect change.