COMMENT    by Alison Williams

The Gift of Time: the case for abolishing nuclear weapons now

Jonathan Schell, American university teacher and campaigning journalist, was in the UK this month on a tour organised by Abolition 2000, the World Court Project and the publishers of his new book, The Gift of Time. He spoke to a London audience, including several of us from WDC/CND, on November 12th with a wonderful spirit of optimism.

He contrasted the Cold War situation with that of the present, emphasising what he called “the paradox of the present moment”: never before has the world had such an opportunity to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all — and never before has there been such public apathy concerning the nuclear danger.

In the Cold War years, any city in the world could have been destroyed by one hydrogen bomb and a boat full of them — a Trident submarine — could have destroyed a continent. The whole of life was in jeopardy. We were prepared to kill hundreds of millions of uninvolved people and other living things: morally, that is quite unacceptable, but it was accepted at a very deep level, from the beginning. Einstein co-operated “in case Hitler got it first”; it was used against Japan to save Allied lives; arsenals were built up “to stop someone worse.” Jonathan Schell had never accepted those justifications but escape from them was “almost in principle impossible”. That was “the most demoralising aspect of that time”. The opportunities for action then were limited, though honourable efforts were made. The Cold War produced a fear which made political solution impossible. With mutual lack of trust, the same fear which inspired action against nuclear weapons prevented the action succeeding. Our species was in “a suicidal trap with no exit.”

And how have things changed? He feels we are now in a much safer situation than during the Cold War and warned against striving to maintain “an artificial level of fear”, even though the arsenals still exist. The primary danger now is of proliferation. India and Pakistan, who have already engaged in three “hot” wars, now have nuclear weapons. The former Soviet arsenal is deteriorating at a rapid rate; and there is a real danger of nuclear weapons getting into non-state, terrorist hands. He lives near the World Trade Center in New York City, an ever-present reminder of that threat.

But the moral equation has changed. Americans now say they’ll keep nuclear weapons “as a hedge, in case things go wrong in Russia”. Having nuclear weapons is “normal”. But there are political and military implications they must respond to now that the Non-Proliferation Treaty has — he said — “finally broken down”. We are moving to a single-standard world and the world must make the choice; a deeper and more fateful choice than when the Baruch Plan to prevent atomic energy being used for destructive purposes was rejected back in 1946.

The opportunities for action in present circumstances are revolutionary. It’s as if we’ve been down a dark mineshaft for ages and suddenly seen a chink of light through a crack above. How can we get that understanding across — that we could now have a world without nuclear weapons? He feels the instincts of Clinton and Blair would support that objective but that they are “reactive” politicians and will not take the necessary action until they see strong public support for it. “So it’s a job for citizens.” Jonathan Schell does not favour street demonstrations or confronting politicians directly, but going to community groups in our own areas. “If we can have the argument, we can win it,” and he thinks public dialogue is the most important thing. His new book consists largely of interviews (with Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, some Cold War generals and others) in this spirit of dialogue. We don’t need to present a uniform front, or single set of answers. “Silence is the killer.”

In speaking to people we should put hope (not fear) first: “we’ve been fatalistic so long it’s hard to start hoping again” — but we must, and with reason. Work at getting the nuclear issue onto the agenda of all groups because all constructive purposes are threatened by nuclear weapons. Get representatives of groups onto a Nuclear Abolition Congress and maintain “sustaining and sustained activity”, local to global, until the task is achieved.

We should not try to “think the unthinkable” but get on and “do the do-able”. He doesn’t want to see yet another noble defeat for the anti-nuclear cause. He wants to win this time, and he really thinks we can.

† Granta Books, ISBN 1 86207 230 2 (£9·99)

The Hague Appeal for Peace

I attended a one-day planning conference in London on November 8th and returned with renewed inspiration to contribute something from Merton to this visionary international initiative. The day was coordinated by Bruce Kent and we were lucky enough to hear Jonathan Schell as keynote speaker “Abolishing Weapons, Abolishing War” (he had just stepped off his aeroplane and claimed he was jet-lagged — but you wouldn’t have known it!) and Cora Weiss who is leading the Hague Appeal in the US.

“The goal of the Hague Appeal for Peace is to plant the seeds for the delegitimization of war in the new century. The Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st century will define a culture of peace to replace the culture of war and violence which has defined the 20th century.

“Dreams come true and change does happen, but only with the organised support of civil society.”

Cora Weiss showed how the May 11−15 non-governmental conference at the Hague next year can become truly a working conference feeding ideas into a draft document which can inform the inter-governmental centennial conference of experts on May 17th immediately — and (perhaps more importantly) go home with each of the attendees for implementation at grass-roots level in local communities throughout the world. Huge efforts are being made to bring people — especially young people — from conflict situations all over the world.

Children from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, for example, will sit round a table together with Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu. For the first time they will have the opportunity to map out a better future for their generation.

The actual conference will be uniquely valuable, but of equal importance is the international planning process disseminating these ideas throughout ‘civil society’ worldwide. Jonathan Schell reminded us that 80% of people want nuclear weapons abolition all over the world. Public support for our position is “a mile wide but only an inch deep”. We must make it three or four inches deep “so that it gets built into the life of society”. The Hague conference will provide the context for debate about peace among the huge range of pre-existing community groups with social concern on their agenda — environmental, church, feminist, labour groups etc. “Getting rid of nuclear weapons is clearing the garbage out of the way before dealing with the real problems of the next century such as the environment, human rights etc.” The most encouraging thing about this meeting was the opportunity to hear about the host of activities planned in other countries and the unusually high representation of young people both on the platform and in the audience.

We already have endorsements of our Merton Hague Appeal from Merton UNA, Merton FoE, Wimbledon Quaker Meeting and Trinity Church Mansel Road. We shall have our first local planning meeting at the Community Centre on January 12th.

Joanna Bazley

Rotblat’s 90th Birthday

Several hundred people made their way to the Royal Society on November 7th to celebrate the 90th birthday of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Joseph Rotblat by hearing five eminent speakers, one from each of the original nuclear weapons states, give their reasons for supporting the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Full report by Alison Williams in the next issue.

Peace is for Life

Message Day — Friday 18th December

Please ensure that the Government is swamped with telephone calls and Christmas cards, all with the message “Peace is for life, not just for Christmas”.

Contact addresses:

Rt. Hon. Tony Blair MP

10 Downing St, SW1A 2AA
Tel: 0171-270-3000

Rt. Hon. George Robertson MP

Ministry of Defence
Whitehall, SW1A 2HB
Tel: 0171-218-2111

Rt. Hon. Robin Cook MP

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office
King Charles St, SW1A 2AL
Tel: 0171-270-2059

Alternatively, come to the Peace Table on Saturday 5th December, when we shall be selling ready-stamped cards at 50p each for you to write your message on the spot!

Edmund Ceci

It was with great sadness that we learned of the death of Edmund Ceci, a loyal supporter of Wimbledon Disarmament Coalition and so many other community groups. Edmund was a well-known and respected man who devoted most of his life to public service.

He was first elected to Merton & Morden Council in 1956, later became leader of the Labour Group, and in 1984 was made an Honorary Alderman of the Borough. He was a dedicated worker for several local charities, including Oxfam, Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Equally stalwart in his support for our annual Fête of the Earth, Edmund would stand all day in the shopping centre, complete with sandwich board, displaying posters and distributing leaflets inviting people to attend the Fête. His contribution was unique and he will be greatly missed.

Maisie Carter

The Nuclear Legacy: the Environmental Impact

Visiting speaker Eddy Taylor introduced our meeting on November 10th with a survey of the growth of the nuclear industry since World War II. Nuclear power was “the friendly face of nuclear weapons” which made the whole nuclear industry more acceptable. It was seen as the solution to postwar coal and oil shortages and all the environmental problems associated with fossil fuels.

He outlined the science behind nuclear fission, nuclear fusion and E=mc² with admirable clarity, and took us on a brief tour through the world of reprocessing, fast breeders, advanced gas-cooled and pressurised water reactors. Nuclear energy is expensive: nuclear-generated electricity costs 5½p per kilowatt-hour to produce, while coal and gas generation cost only 3½p and 2½p per kilowatt-hour respectively.

Electricity bills carry a 10% levy to subsidise future nuclear decommissioning, with the problem of nuclear waste disposal remaining unsolved. Coal and gas are both finite resources which contribute to global warming via CO2, so the future belongs to a policy of energy efficiency coupled with the renewable energy sources (wind, wave energy, biomass and solar power). These have only limited and local environmental impact and are an infinite resource. Although expensive at the moment the price is coming down — all that is needed is the political will!

This was a stimulating and informative evening and it was good to see such a large audience who contributed to a lively discussion. Eddy Taylor was warmly thanked and presented with a pot of daffodil bulbs as an augury of spring sunshine to come.

Joanna Bazley


Two members of the group attended a meeting in the House of Commons, called by George Galloway, MP, with the aim of building support for the campaign to remove the threat of bombing and to lift sanctions. The packed meeting was appalled by the information given by the speakers, some of whom had visited Iraq several times, which detailed the tremendous suffering inflicted on the people of Iraq by eight years of sanctions following the Gulf War.

The Gulf War has left the country absolutely devastated. We were told that so much of the infrastructure has been destroyed that the mass of the people are reduced to drinking water from the Euphrates, which is brown with human sewage. Over 100,000 people were killed in the war and at least a million more, most of them children, have died since. Children are continuing to die at the rate of at least five thousand a month. The country is polluted with radiation from the depleted uranium shells used in the bombardment and this is undoubtedly responsible for the cancer epidemic which again is claiming children as its victims.

Even though the threat of bombing has been alleviated for the present, British and US forces are still poised, “ready, willing and able to strike”, to quote Tony Blair. All speakers were agreed that the threat of war remains and there was an urgent call to alert people to the dangers.

To this end we hope to invite Felicity Arbuthnot, writer and journalist who has visited Iraq several times, to speak at a public meeting in February. Please ‘phone Maisie on 540–0572 for more information and postcards which can be sent to Tony Blair about the effects of sanctions on the children of Iraq. Please write to Roger Casale MP, expressing your concern about the children being killed in our name, and remind him about the government’s ethical foreign policy.

Maisie Carter

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