Planet Earth: the Latest Weapon of War by Rosalie Bertell

conclusion of last month’s review by Muriel Wood

This book seeks to define the notion of security. Global consumption of resources is exceeding the Earth’s restorative capacity by at least 33%. If we are not to resort to the use of force and violence to reduce populations and limit consumption, we must reduce the perceived need for population increase by making people feel safe, secure and adequately provided for.

A new concept of security needs to be devised which puts Earth and its inhabitants first. Warfare reflects a value system which places the acquisition of wealth and its protection above the preservation of life, but wealth is useless if we have destroyed the support system upon which all living things depend. Security can be achieved only through the responsible stewardship of the Earth, and this requires a shift in focus from the belief that military force is a necessary evil. The core belief being challenged today is that military power provides security. Ms Bertell lists four emergency steps that could be taken to phase out the military, and goes into detailed analysis of the practicalities behind these sweeping proposals, acknowledging the many difficulties. Enough reliable data already exists to monitor a freeze on global military spending. If an agreed proportion of each country’s budget were to be paid into the UN an international peace-keeping force could be created.

Non-violent ways of ending conflict are now gaining momentum, with the banning of chemical and biological weapons and nuclear weapons in outer space. However these efforts simply narrow the scope of war rather than eliminate it.

One of the most effective citizens’ initiatives recently has been the global ban on landmines, a model of co-operation between non-governmental and governmental organisations. A second successful initiative was the World Court Project which obliged the judges to take into account the dictates of public conscience. (Over a hundred million people worldwide sent in a declaration of conscience requesting the World Court for an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons.)

The Canberra Commission was set up by the Australian Government to define practical steps towards a nuclear-free world, and over the last few years several resolutions relating to the elimination of nuclear weapons and the setting-up of a Nuclear Weapons Convention have been passed at the General Assembly of the UN.

Long-term demilitarisation requires a change in the way scientific research is funded and several mechanisms for controlling and redirecting research are suggested. The importance of grass-roots activism is stressed (Hague Peace Conference, Seattle, etc). It is reasonable to believe that the energy for change is increasing and that it is being promoted by a significant coalition of NGOs in developed countries and governmental organisations in developing countries.

Ms Bertell also explores the concept of ‘ecological security’ and describes the efforts made in preparation for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to produce an ‘Earth Charter’ which would articulate expected human behaviour towards Earth and all living things. At the time this proved to be an over-ambitious project, but a modified text has since been circulating between member states of the UN and may become the foundation on which international law on the environment is built. Agreement on international environmental law would have direct implications for the military, and would form the basis for free, just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful human societies.

The peace movement has concentrated on reducing the risk of nuclear war; it has not carried out careful monitoring of the impact on Earth of military research, nor has it made an analysis of the use of the environment as a military weapon. The environmental movement has focused on the impact of civil society and multinationals on damage to the Earth but not on the impact of war. Both movements need to work more closely together. For example, weather and climate change have been blamed on El Nino but noone explains why El Nino is suddenly so frequent and extreme. There is certainly evidence of atmospheric instability, and of the danger of plans which may destabilize it further.

There is a growing awareness of the problems and an important infrastructure is being built through the dedicated leaders in the global sector and hard-working volunteers in the community. The message of this book is that local problems and local solutions are of immense importance. Networking and coalition-building are the way ahead. War needs to be abolished and the time is ripe for that to happen.

Nuclear Weapons, Uncertainty and the Law

a new paper by George Farebrother

Many WDC/CND members will have written to the Government about the legality of Trident and received a response along these lines: “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is governed by the same laws of war as determine the legality of any other form of weapon not specifically prohibited under international law” and/or “hypothetical speculation about such circumstances serves no useful purpose”.

George Farebrother of the World Court Project has produced a useful discussion paper on the best way to tackle this stone-walling technique and put the onus of proof onto the Government to show that Trident could be used lawfully.

Firstly, the argument in this country is about Trident with its 100-kiloton warheads and current load of three warheads in each UK missile, not nuclear weapons in general, and we therefore do not need to address the ‘inherent’ characteristics of other nuclear weapons as such.

In spite of Government reluctance to entertain hypotheses, its own submissions to the International Court of Justice contain references to possible legal use:

“Modern nuclear weapons are capable of precise targeting and many are designed for use against military structures of quite small size” (UK written statement on the WHO request to the ICJ).

“Let me take an example. A State or group of States is faced with invasion by overwhelming enemy forces. That State or that group of States is certainly entitled to defend itself. If all the other means at their disposal are insufficient, then how can it be said that the use of a nuclear weapon must be disproportionate?” (Sir Nicholas Lyell, Attorney General, evidence to ICJ, Nov. 1995)

“...if the nuclear power aggressor was threatening the territorial integrity of a non-nuclear victim state, let’s take it, the example of China being a nuclear power threatening New Zealand... I submit that it would be consistent with international law, including humanitarian laws applicable to armed conflict, for another nuclear power to use nuclear force...” (Duncan Menzies QC, Advocate Deputy for the Crown during the Lord Advocate’s Reference proceedings arising from the Greenock case, Nov. 2000).

George suggests that we ask whether the MoD would endorse this example given by Duncan Menzies QC of how Trident might be used lawfully.

Probability analysis and risk assessment are accepted tools these days for anyone dealing with public health and safety issues (a small risk of disaster weighs more heavily than a moderate risk of a minor problem).

The ICJ recognised that “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to disrupt all civilisation and the entire ecosystem of the planet.” It would therefore be interesting to know how the Government can be so certain that the risk of law-breaking arising from the threat or use of Trident is almost zero, i.e. virtually no risk of nuclear escalation, serious damage to neutral states or disproportionate civilian damage, no question of missing the target due to variation in the weather, minor faults in the guidance system, blemishes on the delivery vehicle etc....

Normal rules of Risk Assessment demand that the possibility of a Trident missile being launched by accident or miscalculation must be effectively excluded over the whole lifetime of the system. It is not sufficient to claim that such a possibility is remote. We must be convinced there is no room for human error. Unless this is true, the deployment of Trident amounts to recklessness.

Sir Nicholas Lyell told the ICJ that the principle of proportionality requires “a balance to be struck between the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated and the level of collateral civilian casualties and damage foreseen”. Has any assessment been carried out by the Government of the effects of a 100-kiloton Trident warhead detonation on a civilian population living near a military target? Otherwise, how can a judgement be made between military advantage and collateral damage?

George suggests that we ask three further questions:

“Why does the Government decline to disclose the legal criteria governing the possible use of Trident?”

“Can the Government confirm that under no circumstances would Trident ever be threatened, let alone used, against a civilian population?”


“Will the Government recognise that the legality of the threat or use of Trident is open to serious doubt and therefore deserves the fullest public scrutiny?”

A copy of the full paper is available from Joanna, on request.

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