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 Making the world safe from nuclear weapons - Interview with Ambassador Richard Butler
by Monte Leach

Australian Ambassador to the UN, Richard Butler, tells how the Canberra Commission's work is establishing a practical program for eliminating world-wide nuclear weapons development and testing.   

Richard Butler is the Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations. For the past 25 years, he has worked on nuclear disarmament issues, both as an academic and diplomat. He was Australiaís first Ambassador for Disarmament in the mid-1980s, and led the Australian delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Most recently, he was Chairman of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Share International: Could you talk a bit about the Canberra Commission? What was its mandate?

Ambassador Richard Butler: The Commission was formed at the end of 1995 by the Australian Government. The Government saw that there was a very important opportunity at the end of the Cold War, and with the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to bring back to the centre of the international agenda the important issue of nuclear disarmament, which for some time had been somewhat sidelined. The Government invited 17 experts from throughout the world to serve in an independent capacity. The mandate was to produce a report that would emphasize practical steps to bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons, steps that would be consistent with security, and might have a good chance of being adopted by the nuclear weapon states and other concerned nations.

The report was completed in August 1996. It was presented to the UN General Assembly, and to the Secretary General, and will be presented to the upcoming Conference on Disarmament. It sets out a practical program of nuclear disarmament. We expect that it will be a significant contribution to the debate, and hopefully to action towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.

SI: Is that what the report calls for?

RB: Yes. It discusses at length the problems of nuclear weapons and comes to the conclusion that the only safe way of dealing with these problems is actually to eliminate nuclear weapons. The Commission believes that as long as any nuclear weapons exist, there will be unacceptable dangers to the world. Just as importantly, as long as any nuclear weapons exist, it seems very clear to the Commission that states that donít have them would themselves want to acquire them. There would always be the motive of proliferation. The conclusion was that the goal should be zero [nuclear weapons]. The main body of the report discusses the practical steps that could be taken to achieve that goal.

SI: What are the initial steps that your Commission recommends?

RB: First and foremost, the Commission says that the five nuclear weapon states have to reach an agreement at the highest political level, under which they commit themselves to the elimination of nuclear weapons. And as a sign that that agreement is more than just words, the Commission recommends what is called "immediate steps", some of them so immediate that they could in fact be taken in 24 hours, such as taking all nuclear forces off alert. That could be done straightaway. Next, warheads could be removed from their delivery vehicles and stored away from those vehicles in a safe place. That could be initiated immediately as well.

Another recommended step is to end nuclear weapons testing. That recommendation is under way. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly and already has more than 100 signatures.

SI: Is Indiaís refusal to sign going to affect the Test Ban Treaty?

RB: It would be far better if India signed it, and I donít rule out that at some future time it will do so. But it doesnít harm the political and moral norm that has now been set down on paper and signed by more than 100 countries. That action makes it now virtually unthinkable that anyone would ever test again.

SI: What other recommendations did the Commission make?

RB: The Commission recommends a no-first-use agreement among nuclear weapon states, and a non-use agreement by nuclear states in relation to non-nuclear states. The report also recommends the initiation, without delay, of the next round of bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia, possibly in a START III agreement. Beyond that, there are intermediate-term and longer-term steps, which altogether should lead to a world with progressively fewer, and ultimately no, nuclear weapons, under circumstances where those agreements could be verified.

SI: Have you had any initial response from governments on this?

RB: Yes we have, and that initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. It has exceeded my expectations. Experts in the field have thoroughly endorsed the approach that the Canberra Commission sets out, some saying that it is the last best hope, that this is what we really ought to do.

SI: What has the response been from the US and Russia?

RB: They havenít as yet given a detailed response. But I think itís immensely significant that neither of them has stepped up straight away and said: "We donít want to do this, this is unrealistic." On the contrary, they have been saying that this is an immensely interesting report and theyíll be giving it very careful and positive study.

SI: What does the report say about proliferation to terrorist organizations, "rogue" states, organized crime?

RB: The report makes very clear that as a world without nuclear weapons is developed, there will need to be very definite and clear measures supplied by all states with respect to exports of materials, materials control, common action against non-state acquisition of nuclear weapons, terrorist groups, and so on. Thatís an important part of the report.

SI: It has been said that the key to disarmament between the Soviet Union and the US was not so much the reduction of weapons but the lessening of tensions which led to that. Is there any consideration of ways to build trust among nations?

RB: Yes, there is. Itís not a principal part of what the report deals with because the mandate was to look at the more technical issues. But itís made very clear that necessary for the maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons is a political climate conducive to that. Confidence-building measures are certainly important.

SI: Some people might think abolition of nuclear weapons is a Ďpie in the skyí idea. How do you respond to people who think itís just impossible, so why even try?

RB: Itís a view that has to be paid attention to. But I would say very firmly that if something is right, the fact that it will be hard to achieve is a poor reason for not trying it. It should be a spur to applying the greatest amount of intelligence and commitment that we can, because itís the right thing to do.

In forming the Canberra Commission, the Australian Government made the judgement that this was the right time to have a shot at this, and the reaction thatís been given to the report already suggests that their judgement was dead right, that this was the right thing to have done at the right time.

 From the  April 1997 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005