06 August 2018

Can we turn the Doomsday Clock
back from two minutes to midnight?

Patrick Comerford

President, Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND).

Hiroshima Day commemoration,

6 August 2018,

Irish CND’s Hiroshima Memorial Cherry Tree,

Merrion Square, Dublin

Deputy Lord Mayor, Guests, Friends,

We are living in fear-filled and awesome times. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this year, the Doomsday Clock now stands at two minutes to midnight.

According to Dr Rachel Bronson, President and CEO, these are ‘perilous and chaotic’ times, and 2017 was ‘a year in which many of the risks foreshadowed in our last Clock statement came into full relief.’

In setting the clock at two minutes to midnight, she says ‘reckless language in the nuclear realm heats up already dangerous situations.’

We all know who she is talking about when she says, ‘minimising evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies.’

She says ‘major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals.’

And the Bulletin warns that the momentum toward this new reality is increasing.

But her annual address was not without both hope and challenge. She says, ‘It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now.’

What can we do?

Where are the signs of hope?

The other landmark we passed since we were here last year that we ought to should marked with some pride in Ireland was at the beginning of last month: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in Moscow, London and Washington 50 years ago, on 1 July 1968.

The NPT process was launched 60 years ago in 1958 by Frank Aiken, then the Irish Minister for External Affairs, and it remains one of the singular achievements of Irish diplomacy, of Irish foreign policy, of Irish engagement internationally – not just saying something, but doing something about the cloud of fear we all live under, that threatening nuclear or mushroom cloud that hangs over the whole world.

The hope 50 years ago was that this treaty would stop the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, eventually achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

The treaty came into force in 1970, and it was extended permanently in 1995. Over time, more countries have adhered to the NPT than any other arms treaty, a testament to the treaty’s significance.

When the NPT was first proposed, the fear was we would have 25 to 30 nuclear weapon states within 20 years. Instead, 50 years later, only nine states are believed to have nuclear weapons today.

Of course, we know the NPT cannot stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It has, to a degree, stopped horizontal proliferation, but the five big nuclear states still have 22,000 warheads in their stockpiles, they show no signs of wanting to get rid of their nuclear armouries, and progress on nuclear disarmament has been limited.

And five UN member states remain outside the ambit of the NPT: India, Israel, and Pakistan have their own nuclear weapons, South Sudan still has to sign up, and North Korea has withdrawn.

But this treaty remains the most successful arms control treaty today, and it is one of the greatest achievements of Irish diplomacy. At the height of Cold War fears, Frank Aiken braved critics and went to Moscow, at the invitation of the Soviet government, to sign the treaty.

It was a small step, but it was a brave step, and it shows what one small country can do. The Doomsday Clock then stood at Seven Minutes to Midnight – we all had five more minutes of breathing space than we have today

Today, Ireland, once again is to the forefront, promoting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty. This is the first legally-binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, and its goal is their total elimination.

It was passed on 7 July 2017. In order to come into effect, it now needs the signature and ratification of at least 50 countries.

For the nations that are party to it, this treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to these activities. For a nuclear-armed state joining the treaty, it provides for a time-bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons programme.

The treaty was signed by Ireland on 20 September 2017, and legislation to ratify the treaty and give effect to its provisions under Irish law is being prepared by the Disarmament Section in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Despite opposition from NATO member states to the treaty, Ireland was one of the strongest proponents of the new treaty during last year’s negotiations.

The government is committed to early ratification, and, despite Brexit consuming so much of the Department’s time and resources, I hope this treaty can be ratified by Ireland before the end of the year.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons shifts the goalposts. Once this treaty enters into force, there will be a clear international prohibition on acquiring, stockpiling and sharing nuclear weapons, which was a major short-falling in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

And hopefully, as has been the case with other Weapons of Mass Destruction, this treaty is going to establish a stigmatisation effect in relation to nuclear weapons even among states that are not party to the treaty.

There are signs of this already in some NATO states, and we have already seen the impact of the Ottawa Convention on landmines.

Already, 14 states have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and this is quite good going in less than a year.

We may be living just two minutes from midnight. But there is still time to push the clock back.

As Dr Rachel Bronson says, ‘It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now.’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND)

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