Breakthrough: How to claim back our future

Speech by WFC Founder Jakob von Uexkull
at the IPB World Congress 2016

In the early 1990s a former British government adviser called Sir Peregrine Worsthorne reviewed the Cold War period and his own role in it and was horrified. He realised how easily war could have broken out in Europe in the 1980s through a misunderstanding while the Soviet Union was already dis-integrating. As NATO Policy was to respond to a perceived conventional Soviet attack with nuclear weapons, he envisaged a scenario where President Reagan would have consulted his friend PM Thatcher about starting a nuclear war and she would have asked him, as her advisor, and he would have adviced her to go ahead.

Considering the consequences a few years later, he wrote: “How could we ever have believed anything so preposterous?” He concluded that future historians – if there were any – would have regarded those responsible for such a decision as worse criminals than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.

A few years later the International Court of Justice was asked for its opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons under international law. It concluded that they were illegal except when the survival of the nation was at stake, but added that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects…”

The Court’s Vice-President, Judge Christopher Weeramantry, realized that the nuclear powers would use the escape clause of a threat to national survival to ignore the judgement and he published a powerful dissent, concluding that nuclear weapons are illegal under any circumstances.  He noted that the Christian Leteran Council of 1139 had ruled that even cross-bows were “too deadly and odious to God” to be used in warfare, while Islam prohibited even such measures as the application of poison on arrows and swords. In the Hindu Ramayana book, King Rama was told of the availability of a hyper-destructive weapon which could ravage the environment and decimate the enemy population. However, he was adviced that such weapons should not be used as they went beyond the purpose of war and he complied with that advice.

Judge Weeramantry argued that nuclear bombs are not weapons but instruments of terror which offend the basic principles of international law and have forced humanity to live with the “possibility of their life snuffed out in an instant… along with all they cherish, in a war to which their nation may not even be a party.” He perceived the nuclear threat as “a blanket of doom over the thoughts of children in particular” – a perception which those who grew up in or had children growing up during the Cold War in Europe can verify.

Fast forward twenty years. Where are we now? What have we achieved since even Margaret Thatcher’s advisor concluded that the use of nuclear weapons would be a worse crime than those of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined?

Britain again has a female Prime Minister who recently announced that she would be prepared to press the nuclear button and kill over 100.000 men, women and children – a gross under-estimate , as one British Trident nuclear submarine has the fire-power to kill over 2 million. There was no outrage, no outcry at her declared willingness to commit unprecedented mass murder. On the contrary, it was the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who was viciously attacked in the media and even by MPs from his own party, for stating that he would not launch a nuclear war under any circumstances.

To illustrate the immoral madness of this ruling global order, compare the praise she received for her declared willingness to murder millions with what would happen to someone who declared his willingness to commit a terrorist act likely to kill ten people. He would no doubt be locked up at once.

Or compare her statement to this one: “I’m prepared to rip of the heads of 200 people in order to save peace and calm in the republic.” – a quote from the West’s late ally in the so-called war against terror, one of the world’s most vicious dictators, President Karimov of Uzbekistan.

Our opinion leaders will of course say that these cannot be compared as the British PM would only commit mass murder to preserve “freedom”.

But there is no conceivable scenario invasion – including one of a NATO member state or an ISIS 9/11 type attack on London – in which the launch of even one British nuclear missile would not immeasurably escalate any such conflict – and make the UK an international outcast for many years!

If we seriously want to reclaim our future (and not just calm our conscience), it is time that we – the peace and disarmament community – respond forcefully to this nuclear madness.

As Winston Churchill said, in a crisis it is not enough to do your best. You have to do what is necessary!

Looking back over the past 25 years, at the opportunities we had and where we are now, I do not think we in the peace movement have even done our best! Our rivalries, our failures to agree and act on priorities are legendary. “Mergers between NGOs are few and far between” wrote one critic. Nowhere is this truer than in the peace movement.

One result of this petty (and often personal) infighting is that the funding for many peace and disarmament groups has dried up – because donors do not like to fund conflicts and do not understand them.

Another consequence is our failure to get serious media coverage. On environmental issues, the journalists know who to call for another perspective (e.g. Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth). On Human Rights, there is Amnesty and Human Right Watch. On economic issues, there is the New Economics Foundation. But who is trusted on peace and disarmament issues?

We need to learn from the great historical civil society victories. The abolition of slavery, the women’s and civil right campaigns were mass movements led by respected and inspiring leaders who were trusted to set and agree action priorities. They succeeded because they launched moral crusaders, confronting very powerful interests with the simple message: no more.

Lifelong Canadian disarmament campaigner Douglas Roche has also made the comparison with these other great social movements and notes, “At first, the idea is dismissed by the powerful, then when the idea starts to take hold, it is vigorously objected to until, by persistence, the idea enters the norm of public thinking and laws start to be changed.” Countries should ensure they end up on the right side of history by adopting laws that strengthen and speed up the global effort to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Faced with the daily threat of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, this is not the time for small steps. In a crisis, large steps are often easier as they can inspire and mobilise. Large steps can happen very fast and unexpectedly when the ground has been prepared, as here in Berlin in 1989.

One exciting possible technical big step is the Pugwash research into undersea sensing, communications and robotics which may show that the Trident nuclear submarines can be detected under water and are therefore vulnerable and useless as deterrents…

A moral breakthrough against the nuclear madness requires that we all – as individuals and organisations – challenge its defenders whenever and wherever they are.

Facebook and Twitter will not win this battle for us. As the Tunisian activists later told the CEO of Google, while social media were helpful in launching their revolution, they could not occupy the institutions of the dictatorship by phone…

We will need to revive non-violent direct action – and be ready for the consequences – and here we can learn from and join with the global justice movements, which previous speakers this morning have represented. We also need new allies for our new action agenda and I suggest we start a dialogue with the military, who are the huge and effective organization not subject to ne-liberal cost-benefit-analysis and whose disaster – relief experiences can provide many of the skills needed to overcome the real security threats no facing us.

We should encourage them to fight today’s urgent wars against climate change and poverty which will be much more fulfilling (and less deadly). Military budgets and strategies can be shifted with public pressure to respond to these new security emergencies, including the climate / nuclear nexus which the WFC presented here yesterday. Military resources can play a crucial role in helping build the global renewable energy infrastructure which will provide jobs and livelihoods in the Global South, as well as assisting with re-forestation, food and water security and sanitation projects.

A new real security alliance between civil society and the military would quickly become unstoppable.

Dear friends, we cannot continue with our business as usual. We are moving backwards, even here in Germany where the 2009 Coalition Government agreement included the goal of removing US nuclear bombs from Germany, but this demand was dropped by the current coalition, despite being overwhelmingly supported by the German people, because there was not enough pressure from us. Another priority must be nuclear divestment, banning the direct and indirect funding and production of all goods facilitating nuclear war by finance and business.

In this context it may interest you that the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which last year became so successful that even the fossil fuel industry now calls for a carbon price in order to get planning security, was launched by two people. In December 2014 we gave the Alternative Nobel Prize to the US climate activist Bill McKibben and to Alan Rusbridger, then editor of the Guardian, now also the largest quality global online newssite. They met for the first time and their meeting led to the launch of this global divestment campaign. There is enormous potential for the disarmament movement to pursue a divestment campaign targeting nuclear weapons. The effect of such divestment policies should not be underestimated. They contribute to stigmatising nuclear weapons and address the financial streams tied up in their production. The World Future Council has produced with IPB and PNND the guide ‘Move the Nuclear Weapons Money’ to engage legislators on a range of initiatives, including nuclear weapons divestment.

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch once wrote that the price of human free will is the risk that the great historical moment meets too small a human race – one not ready for the challenge. There can be no doubt that we are now at a unique historical moment, when our actions and failures to act will have huge consequences very far into the future. Each one of us therefore needs to decide if we are ready to do what is necessary to meet this challenge.

“How wonderful it is” wrote Anne Frank in her diary, “that you do not have to wait a single moment before you can begin to build a better world.” Thank you!