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The Most Important Moral Issue of Our Time
by David Krieger

There are many reasons to oppose nuclear weapons. They are illegal, undemocratic, hugely expensive, and they undermine rather than increase security. But by far the most important reason to oppose these weapons is that they are profoundly immoral.

Above all, the issue of nuclear weapons in our world is a deeply moral issue, and for the religious

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community to engage this issue is essential; for the religious community to ignore this issue is shameful.

I have long believed that our country would become serious about providing leadership for the elimination of nuclear weapons in the world only when the churches, synagogues and mosques became serious about demanding such leadership.

The abolition of nuclear weapons is the most important issue of our time. I do not say this lightly. I know how many other important life and death issues there are in our world. I say it because nuclear weapons have the capacity to end all human life on our planet and most other forms of life. This puts them in a class by themselves.

Although I refer to nuclear weapons, I don't believe that these are really weapons. They are instruments of mass annihilation. They incinerate, vaporize and destroy indiscriminately. They are instruments of portable holocaust. They destroy equally soldiers and civilians; men, women and children; the aged and the newly born; the healthy and the infirm.

Nuclear weapons hold all Creation hostage. In an instant they could destroy this city or any city. In minutes they could leave civilization, with all its great accomplishments, in ruins. These cruel and inhumane devices hold life itself in the balance.

There is no moral justification for nuclear weapons. None. As General Lee Butler, a former commander in chief of the US Strategic Command, has said: "We cannot at once keep sacred the miracle of existence and hold sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it."

That nuclear weapons are an absolute evil was the conclusion of the President of the International Court of Justice, Mohammed Bedjaoui, after the Court was asked to rule on the illegality of these weapons.

I think that it is a reasonable conclusion - the only conclusion a sane person could reach. I would add that our reliance on these evil instruments debases our humanity and insults our Creator.

Albert Einstein was once asked his opinion as to what weapons would be used in a third world war. He replied that he didn't know, but that if there was a third world war a fourth world war would probably be fought with sticks and stones. His response was perhaps overly optimistic.

Controlling and eliminating these weapons is a responsibility that falls to those of us now living. It is a responsibility we are currently failing to meet.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War there are still some 36,000 nuclear weapons in the world, mostly in the arsenals of the US and Russia. Some 5,000 of these weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched on warning and subject to accident or miscalculation.

Today arms control is in crisis. The US Senate recently failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the first treaty voted down by the Senate since the Treaty of Versailles. Congress has also announced its intention to deploy a National Missile Defense "as soon as technologically feasible." This would abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of arms control. The Russian Duma has not yet ratified START II, which was signed in 1993.

Efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons are also in crisis. There is above all the issue of Russian "loose nukes." There is no assuredness that these weapons are under control. There is also the new nuclear arms race in South Asia. There is also the issue of Israel possessing nuclear arms -- with the implicit agreement of the Western nuclear weapons states -- in their volatile region of the world.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is also in crisis. This will become more prominent when the five year Review Conference for the treaty is held this spring. Most non-nuclear weapons states believe that the nuclear weapons states have failed to meet their obligations for good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. More than 180 states have met their obligations not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. The five nuclear weapons states, however, have failed to meet their obligations for good faith efforts to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

The US government continues to consider nuclear weapons to be "essential" to its security. NATO has referred to nuclear weapons as a "cornerstone" of its security policy.

Russia recently proposed that the US and Russia go beyond the START II agreement and reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,500 weapons each. The US declined saying that it was only prepared to go down to 2,000 to 2,500 weapons each. Such is the insanity of our time.

Confronting this insanity are four efforts I will describe briefly.

The New Agenda Coalition is a group of middle power states - including Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and South Africa -- calling for an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapons states for the speedy and total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. UN Resolutions of the New Agenda Coalition have passed the General Assembly by large margins in 1998 and 1999, despite lobbying by the US, UK and France to oppose these resolutions.

A representative of the New Agenda Coalition recently stated at a meeting at the Carter Center: "A US initiative today can achieve nuclear disarmament. It will require a self-denying ordnance, which accepts that the five nuclear weapons states will have no nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. By 2005 the United States will already have lost the possibility of such an initiative." I agree with this assessment. The doors of opportunity, created a decade ago by the end of the Cold War, will not stay open much longer.

The Middle Powers Initiative is a coalition of eight prominent international non-governmental organizations that are supporting the role of middle power states in seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Middle Powers Initiative recently collaborated with the Carter Center in bringing together representatives of the New Agenda Coalition with high-level US policymakers and representatives of civil society. It was an important dialogue. Jimmy Carter took a strong moral position on the issue of nuclear disarmament, and you should be hearing more from him in the near future.

Abolition 2000 is a global network of more than 1,400 diverse civil society organizations from 91 countries on six continents. The primary goal of Abolition 2000 is a negotiated treaty calling for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons within a timebound framework. One of the current efforts of Abolition 2000 is to expand its network to over 2000 organizations by the time of the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference this spring. You can find out more about Abolition 2000 at www.abolition2000.org

A final effort I will discuss is the establishment of a US campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has hosted a series of meetings with key US leaders in the area of nuclear disarmament. These include former military, political, and diplomatic leaders, among them General Lee Butler, Senator Alan Cranston, and Ambassador Jonathan Dean.

I believe that we have worked out a good plan for a Campaign to Alert America, but we currently lack the resources to push this campaign ahead at the level that it requires. We are doing the best we can, but we are not doing enough. We need your help, and the help of religious groups all over this country.

I will conclude with five steps that the leaders of the nuclear weapons states could take now to end the nuclear threat to humanity. These are steps that we must demand of our political leaders. These are steps that we must help our political leaders to have the vision to see and the courage to act upon.

1. Commence good faith negotiations to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention requiring the phased elimination of nuclear weapons, with provisions for effective verification and enforcement.

2. De-alert all nuclear weapons and de-couple all nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles.

3. Declare policies of No First Use of nuclear weapons against other nuclear weapons states and policies of No Use against non-nuclear weapons states.

4. Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and reaffirm commitments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

5. Reallocate resources from the tens of billions of dollars currently being spent for maintaining nuclear arsenals to improving human health, education and welfare throughout the world.

The future is in our hands. I urge you to join hands and take a strong moral stand for humanity and for all Creation. We do it for the children, for each other, and for the future. The effort to abolish nuclear weapons is an effort to protect the miracle that we all share, the miracle of life.

Each of us is a source of hope. Will you turn to the persons next to you, and tell them, "You give me hope," and express to them your commitment to accept your share of responsibility for saving humanity and our beautiful planet.

Together we will change the world!