COMMENT by Chris Myant

Kofi Annan has been spelling it out. Mary Robinson, one of those people who preserves the moral purpose which ought always to be at the heart of high politics, has talked in detail about it. But who in British political circles has been prepared to put their reputation where their principles ought to be?

The debate about the kind of goals we should be setting ourselves for the new Millennium remains half-hearted.

Yet the 50-year commemoration last year of the signing in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should have set the scene for a much more exciting vision: the vision of a global compact of shared values in which human rights embrace not only political and civil liberties but also the right to be free of poverty, free of war and violence.

The development of such a vision is hesitant. Whether Pinochet will be subjected to the law we do not know at the time of writing. But the fact that he has had to appear before a court is a significant step forward. It has brought to public debate the way in which international law has advanced in recent years, while the practice of world governance lags way behind. This is not a matter of disputes over particular international crises or civil wars, nor a matter of the policy options to be adopted at any one moment or changed at another.

As we move toward a symbolic moment in modern history, the ending of this present millennium, we need to assert a vision of how world politics can be focused on some basic priorities, standards and practices.

Luckily we have in the person of Mary Robinson as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights someone who is prepared to try to put some practical flesh on the bones of such a vision. She has spoken eloquently of “my growing sense of the potential of the United Nations if it really committed itself to converting the rhetoric of human rights language into a practical reality for the millions who so desperately need it”. The UN, like others, she suggested, had lost the plot in abandoning any focus on the protection and promotion of human rights as a core institutional value. And, of course, by saying the UN she means governments across the world. If the responsibility lies with governments then, as she says so directly, “the responsibility lies with us all”.

It is so easy to dismiss the UN and its various Declarations and Conventions as well-intentioned but failures. They have been the casualties of the Cold War — trapped in the argument between those who hypocritically championed only political freedoms or those who equally hypocritically championed only social or economic rights.

Now the core meaning of the Declaration can once again be asserted. The plot can be rediscovered: civil and political rights can only be nurtured in a context of social and economic justice while social justice cannot be founded on the abuse of political and individual freedoms. Peace, freedom and justice can only flourish together.

The challenge for those of us who care for the future of humanity is to find ways of making this simple statement the founding stone for a positive vision of the future which embraces and mobilises the hopes and aspirations of people across the globe, mobilises them in a way which makes for real, lasting and practical change in world governance and international affairs in the next 50 years.

From Hiroshima to Harare

Caroline Gilbert of the Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament will be visiting us on Tuesday March 23rd to talk about her recent visit to the 50th Anniversary of the World Council of Churches in Zimbabwe. This was the culmination of a 3-year CCND campaign to raise awareness of the nuclear issue in the official hierarchies of the World Christian Churches.

She writes: “The aim of the World Council of Churches is to bring the separated churches of the Christian faith in all their variety closer together in friendship, mutual understanding and eventually unity. It has always had a strong witness on questions of peace and justice as part of this.” But nuclear questions did not feature on any part of the official agenda in Harare, and so it was Caroline’s mission to infiltrate the unofficial portions of the proceedings. Caroline is a lively speaker and she has a fascinating tale to tell. Please publicise this event and come and support the meeting, which will take place at the Community Centre, St. George’s Rd, at 8pm on the 23rd of March.

The 90th Birthday of Professor Joseph Rotblat

Several hundred people, including a dozen people from Wimbledon, made their way to the Royal Society on November 9th to celebrate the 90th birthday of Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat by hearing five eminent speakers give their reasons for supporting the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Each of the ‘Permanent Five’ member of the UN Security Council (the original nuclear weapons states) was represented, and for those of us accustomed to an Anglocentric view of the arguments it was a fascinating opportunity to gain a different perspective, and a reminder that nuclear weapons elimination is a global problem.

The august surroundings of the Royal Academy were also a reminder that nuclear disarmament is essentially an intellectual problem, capable of intellectual solution, if the politicians of the world could be persuaded to take the first steps in this direction.

The effort of concentrating on four hours of high-powered academic argument was exhausting to those of us unaccustomed to it; Professor Rotblat himself remained alert and courteously interested throughout — and then made an off-the-cuff speech of thanks at the end! But it was a salutary corrective to the simplistic rubbish that is still trundled out so often as a knee-jerk response to any mention of nuclear disarmament.

It is not possible to do justice to the entire proceedings in a short article, but the paper delivered by Field Marshal Lord Carver (former UK Chief of Staff) was particularly interesting to our domestic campaigning because he tackled the most eminent nuclear disarmament critics Sir Michael Quinlan and Lord Chalfont head-on: “Important critics that one must answer seriously”. Both believe that nuclear weapons remain a general deterrent to war and that their use against non-nuclear states could be justified if “collateral effects” were minimised.

Lord Carver said that he used to hold these views himself but that what has made him change his mind is the comparative risk theory of Professor Michael McGwire of Cambridge. We should not be attempting to compare the situation as it is today with one which might arise if miraculously all nuclear weapons were to disappear tomorrow. We should try to compare realistic future scenarios.

If on the one hand there is no serious attempt to eliminate nuclear weapons, in 20−50 years’ time there will probably be many more undeclared nuclear weapons states with all the attendant risks. On the other hand if serious steps were taken by the USA and Russia to disarm in verified stages along the lines recommended by the Canberra Commission, the risks of nuclear weapons elimination become less than the risks of retention. Genuine commitment by these two major nuclear weapons states would be a formidable confidence-building measure for the rest of the world. Risks would be entailed but they would be smaller risks.

Lord Carver was very scathing about UK nuclear weapons which he finds useless and absurd, as we are already covered by the US nuclear umbrella and have been dependent on the US for our defence at least since 1940. He derided the ‘second centre of decision’ argument — “would we commit suicide for the sake of Europe when we are not even prepared to join its currency? I ask you!” Even Sir Michael Quinlan has said that he wouldn’t advise a government to get nuclear weapons now. “The only reason why we have nuclear weapons is that we already have them. So let’s get rid of them now and take the lead in making the world a safer place — as Joseph Rotblat has been trying to do for half a century!”

Professor Rotblat himself referred to the Canberra Commission where “seventeen political and academic prima donnas” were able to come to unanimous agreement in recommending a programme for nuclear disarmament, and regretted that despite this “powerful and elegant statement” the mindset of the Cold War has survived among the nuclear weapons states. However, he feels that the concept of a nuclear-free world is no longer “an alien idea confined to fringe groups” — “we have won the intellectual and moral argument” — “Security based on a balance of terror will erode the ethical basis of civilisation.” The moral objectives must be at the forefront of our campaigning.

He has no time for defeatism and “mutterings that we should give up” every time the initiative appears to have been lost. “The path is a tortuous one, not a linear one. Progress is achieved by two steps forwards and one step backwards.” He received a standing ovation. [Thanks to Alison Williams for her notes].

The Hague Appeal for Peace

We intend that everyone in Merton should know about the May conference in the Hague when thousands of ordinary people from all around the world will gather to celebrate the centenary of the 1899 Peace Conference by constructing an agenda for the 21st century where war between nation states will not be the automatic means of settling disputes.

Some groups at the Hague will be working on building a ‘culture of peace’, especially through education, and we are now working jointly with our colleagues in the other supporting groups in Merton to put the finishing touches to an ambitious competition for young people. Children are free to interpret the theme of ‘Peace’ in either its widest or most personal sense, and are invited to contribute entries in prose, poetry, painting or other creative media. The first mailing will go out to schools very shortly.

We are immensely privileged to have the support of famous authors Raymond Briggs, Paul Geraghty and Michael Rosen to lead our panel of judges, and we are grateful for the outstanding generosity of Fielders bookshop in agreeing to donate £200-worth of vouchers as individual prizes for the children.

Fliers and full competition details will be sent with the next Newsletter, but meanwhile please get in touch as soon as possible if you have contacts with particular schools, or other youth groups.

Appeal for money

We feel that with so much preliminary work having been done, and so much in the way of support having been achieved so far, that we can have every expectation that this ambitious project will be an outstanding success. All we need now is a PRIZE FUND so that really generous prizes can be offered to the schools of the winners. Fielders will sell us books for school libraries at cost price (a 40% saving). Schools are desperately busy places and teachers are hard-pressed. The prospect of material reward might make them look twice at our publicity. Please will you consider whether you are in a position to make a personal contribution to this worthy cause?

Iraq — the Silent Holocaust

Felicity Arbuthnot, writer and journalist, spoke to a packed meeting on February 9th about the effects of sanctions on the people of Iraq.

Discussion was enlivened by contributions from expatriate Iraqis of different political persuasions, and touched upon the evils of the régime of Saddam Hussein, but Felicity was there principally to highlight the appalling human suffering that continues under the UN policy of sanction, recently made worse by bombing raids. She has visited Iraq fourteen times and has an intimate first-hand knowledge of conditions in clinics and hospitals.

She has seen a child population suffering a catastrophic increase in the incidence of cancers and congenital deformities as the result of the use of a depleted-uranium coating on shells in the Gulf War — material that was used because it was ultra-hard with no thought to the long-term consequences. It is the ultimate irony that these children can receive no treatment for their malignancies — because radiation therapies are vetoed under UN sanction provisions. All medicines are in desperately short supply and much of the equipment in what were formerly world-class hospitals is deteriorating beyond repair.

“Iraqi children form the most traumatised child population in the world” according to child psychologists. Felicity said that we are not “teaching Saddam” anything, “we are teaching the distraught mothers of dying children” if we continue to support the UN policy of sanctions.

There is a vigil against the sanctions every Monday outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall 5·30–7·00pm.

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