Now Is Humanity’s Climactic Moment: An Interview with Jayantha Dhanapala

Jayantha Dhanapala is a leading international advocate for global peace and the reduction of nuclear arms. In a long diplomatic career serving both his native Sri Lanka and the United Nations, he has been forcefully engaged in easing nuclear tensions and strengthening treaties that commit nations to a nuclear-weapons-free future.

Dhanapala won wide recognition for his efforts as president of the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, crafting a landmark decision that indefinitely extended the treaty’s non-proliferation aims and renewed hope for the prospects of peace.

Ambassador Dhanapala began his diplomatic career by entering his nation’s foreign service in the 1960s. He later spent a decade in senior management roles at the United Nations. There, his work included an appointment as under-secretary general in 1997 to reestablish the Department of Disarmament, where he piloted the UN’s efforts to reduce proliferation of land mines, conventional weapons, and weapons of mass destruction.

In 2007 Dhanapala was elected president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which assemble influential global scholars and public figures in hopes of reducing armed conflict and seeking cooperative solutions. Pugwash takes its name from the Nova Scotia village where the first meeting was held in 1957, a gathering initiated by Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and others worried about the threat of thermonuclear weapons.

Recently Dhanapala spoke with Reflections by phone from Sri Lanka. The interview was conducted by guest contributing editor Tyler Wigg-Stevenson and editor Ray Waddle. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

REFLECTIONS The mood around the nuclear issue looks very mixed right now. There’s renewed optimism about the prospects for nuclear disarmament, and there’s also deep worry about new threats of proliferation. Some call this a pivotal moment for a “disarmament reawakening.” What accounts for the urgency now?

DHANAPALA After the winter of discontent under the Bush/Cheney administration, I thought we were moving, with regard to nuclear disarmament, into a springtime of hope with the onset of the Obama presidency and the two op-ed articles in The Wall Street Journal by Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn, and Perry. However, my optimism has now been tempered by the emergence of what has been called “anti- nuclear-nuclearism.” That is, there are people who are posturing about being anti-nuclear but still say that they have to retain nuclear weapons because of Iran, DPRK (North Korea), and terrorist groups who might acquire nuclear weapons.

But we cannot maintain an apartheid system of nuclear “haves” and nuclear “have-nots” without spawning a whole new group of wannabes, people who aspire to nuclear weapons because they’re seen as a secure weapon to have in a very insecure world – and because they are a status symbol. We now have eight nuclear weapons states, five of them within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), three of them outside, and if you count DPRK, that makes it nine. And there will be proliferation, whether we like it or not, because some countries advocate for themselves the right to have these weapons. The only solution is total abolition of nuclear weapons.

We have still 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Of those, 95 percent are held by the United States and the Russian Federation. There is a lobby working very intensively in the Pentagon to insist that the United States needs to retain nuclear weapons.

REFLECTIONS Is there no international momentum against the bomb?

DHANAPALA We do need to energize global public opinion around this subject. There has been complacency since the end of the Cold War. Global public opinion, as The New York Times once said, is the other superpower. We have achieved great things through public opinion. We have a mine-ban convention (treaty). We have a cluster-bombs convention. We can also have a nuclear-weapons convention. Of the three weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons have been delegitimized and outlawed, chemical weapons have been delegitimized and outlawed.

The only category of weapons of mass destruction not outlawed are nuclear weapons – 25,000 of them, more than 10,000 on launch-ready status, which means that in only 15 minutes they can wipe out whole cities and kill millions of people.

This is a weapon like no other. And it has to be eliminated by international law. Once it is eliminated, the likelihood then of it spreading to terrorist groups will be zero because we would have a very tightly controlled system for verification.

REFLECTIONS You can imagine the deep psychological resistance in the United States to relinquishing these weapons after so many decades. How would you persuade us that it’s the only way? Can Americans feel safe without its nuclear arsenal?

DHANAPALA The United States has already a huge advantage in conventional weapons. Today, 45 percent of the $1.339 trillion that is globally spent per year on arms is spent by the United States. So the U.S. already enjoys tremendous superiority in conventional weapons. It does not need the nuclear weapons in order to ensure that it is secure in a very dangerous world. You don’t need the nuclear weapon because this weapon only has to be used once by a terrorist group, and even the great United States has no infallible way of defending itself.

REFLECTIONS Do you see reasons for optimism despite this very sobering assessment?

DHANAPALA One encouraging trend is that after eight years of negative developments by the Bush/Cheney administration, the Obama administration has announced a desire to resubmit a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for ratification by the Senate. And I hope the Senate will ratify it. If the United States does so, the other eight countries which have so far not done so, including India and Pakistan, will definitely follow the example of the only surviving superpower in the world, and we will have that treaty in full force.

Also, we have the announcement that the U.S. would now enter into serious negotiations with the Russian Federation with regard to concluding new treaties that would replace the treaties that are expiring in December 2009 and in 2012. That hopefully will mean there will be a considerable reduction in the existing arsenals. Henry Kissinger is reported to have already undertaken a secret mission to Moscow in order to sound out the Russian Federation with regard to going down to 1,000 nuclear weapons each. If that is true, this is good news, even though it is not getting down to zero.

The third reason for optimism is the growing movements internationally for the campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. We have the Pugwash Conferences, which I am privileged to lead. More recently, the Global Zero Campaign held its inaugural meeting in Paris in December, subscribing to the view of going down to zero. Many other groups are campaigning for a nuclear weapons convention. But these movements need to be more widespread and more acceptable to international public opinion in order to put the pressure on governments to follow the way in which people think.

REFLECTIONS The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is widely known as the bedrock for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. But many of us are not familiar with the intricacies of it, especially the indefinite extension that was achieved at the 1995 NPT Review Conference, which you oversaw as president. Many people might think the indefinite extension was a foregone conclusion, yet that’s not true. How was indefinite extension achieved?

DHANAPALA The indefinite extension in 1995 gave the NPT a new lease on life that would never have been possible if not for the fact that the nuclear weapons states gave us certain commitments which they have regrettably not fulfilled. Remember that in 1968, when the NPT was signed, there was already a bargain struck, an unequal bargain. The nuclear weapons states wanted the non-nuclear weapons states to renounce legally any acquisition of nuclear weapons and subject themselves to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification that the peaceful uses of nuclear energy would not be diverted into non-peaceful uses. In return, under Article VI, the nuclear weapons states undertook to negotiate genuinely toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, and they never did so.

Article VI remains a dead letter. Yet the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has an Advisory Opinion that says the nuclear weapons states are required under international law to engage meaningfully in good-faith negotiations on the elimination of nuclear weapons and bring those negotiations to a conclusion. So there is a great sense of dissatisfaction amongst the non-nuclear weapons states – dissatisfaction which at some point is going to break out into the open and cause serious damage to the treaty.

REFLECTIONS Has the treaty otherwise succeeded?

DHANAPALA Admittedly there have been leakages as far as the obligations of the non-nuclear weapons states are concerned. We had the problem with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We have the DPRK, which quit the NPT and has conducted testing of its own. We hope that through diplomacy the DPRK will renounce its nuclear weapons and come back. Libya was found to be developing nuclear weapons, but fortunately skillful negotiations with the European Union and the UK in particular kept them within the NPT after abandoning their nuclear weapon development. Now we have some uncertainty about Iran and its program, which hopefully again will be the subject of diplomatic negotiations.

But the good news is that we’ve had many countries like South Africa, which had seven nuclear devices, destroy them and come into the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state. We’ve also had several other countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, which were reportedly threshold states, come into the NPT. So the NPT has been largely successful in its non-proliferation dimension.

Where it has not been successful is in regard to Article VI. This double bargain, the bargain at the birth of the treaty not being fulfilled, leads to tension and deep dissatisfaction. There is another factor – the Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation deal conferred on India, a country outside the NPT, a country that has been a persistent critic of the NPT, with benefits that are even denied to non-nuclear weapons states within the NPT.

REFLECTIONS What are your hopes as we approach the 2010 review conference? What would yield a successful result? What are the consequences if we don’t change course?

DHANAPALA At a minimum we need the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and we need the manifest beginnings of negotiations between the Russian Federation and the U.S., with deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals. Thirdly, I believe the beginning of negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty should take place in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which has been stalemated for more than 10 years. Beyond that, we hope the Obama administration should state that it would like to move towards a nuclear-weapons-free world as the Hoover Plan has stipulated.

We need no longer to have this fork-tongued kind of dialogue that goes on, with a mismatch between the policy ideas being described and the actual, practical action being taken by the nuclear weapons states. Things are clotting up unless dramatic decisions are taken. Otherwise I would see the NPT non-nuclear weapons states wanting to move into amendments of the treaty, and that would entail convening an amendment conference or actually breaking out to become proliferant states. Just imagine if the Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation treaty was replicated with Israel. I would see the Arab states leaving the NPT en masse.

Let us remember: This is the most destructive weapon invented by mankind. Its very existence on earth is a crime against humanity. All the religions of the world would oppose the use of this weapon. Its very existence predicates a possible use, either by accident or by design. And if these weapons lie around, the time will come sooner than later when a terrorist group will acquire one of these weapons and use it without any compunction. And that will be the death knell of humanity as it now exists. This is a weapon with the capacity to cause major ecological impact, kill millions of people, destroy cities, and have lasting genetic effects. The nuclear winter thesis has been proven over and over again by scientific evidence. This is a weapon like no other. And it has to be eliminated by international law. Once it is eliminated, the likelihood then of it spreading to terrorist groups will be zero because we would have a very tightly controlled system for verification, as we have now with regard to chemical weapons and so many other weapons. And that will give confidence to everybody.

REFLECTIONS What role does religion play in these debates? Are religious organizations helpful or destructive in these deliberations – or irrelevant? Do they have potential as brokers of peace?

DHANAPALA They do. I do not think they have fulfilled their potential. Among the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) movements, faith-based organizations have been very helpful. They have taken positions against nuclear weapons. But they have not been sufficiently influential with regard to the nuclear weapons states. I believe nuclear weapons states and military-industrial complexes in nuclear weapons states have a momentum of their own that not even religious organizations as powerful as the Vatican, for example, are able to neutralize.

But that does not mean that we must not continue to encourage them to persist. Numerous organizations, Pax Christi and others, have adopted strong anti-nuclear postures, and I welcomed their participation when I was Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Affairs in the United Nations. I think the NGOs in general, whether or not they are influenced by religious philosophies, have been very much influenced by humanist philosophies and that includes Pugwash, where the words of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, the “Remember Your Humanity” manifesto, continue to be relevant.

REFLECTIONS You’ve often connected nuclear proliferation to the fuel crisis. That is, as fossil fuels decline, more and more countries will be tempted to adopt nuclear power, and ramifications will follow because of the nuclear materials generated by all those nuclear plants. Are current treaties strong enough to monitor a landscape where more and more countries have nuclear power?

DHANAPALA Article IV of the NPT guarantees to non-nuclear weapons states the inalienable right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. And that use is subject to safeguards that the IAEA supervises. Unfortunately because of the experience we had with Iraq, we found that the safeguards were not sufficient proof that a country was not using nuclear energy for non-peaceful purposes. So an Additional Protocol was negotiated and adopted by many countries with more sophisticated safeguards.

Unfortunately this is still not being regarded as sufficiently secure, and this is why we have difficulties with regard to Iran. Now what Iran is doing with regard to the enrichment of uranium is not specifically forbidden by the NPT, but because of the lack of trust with Iran there is a fear that this might be a prelude to the development of nuclear weapons. We have to find a way around this.

There are reportedly about 40 countries in the queue to having nuclear reactors for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. As for me and my country, I’m not a believer in nuclear energy. I would prefer the use of other sources of renewable energy – wind power, solar power, thermal power, and so on. But, of course, every country has the right to make a choice of its own. We need more discussion around the scientific possibilities of developing proliferation-resistant technology, so that you don’t have reactors that could produce highly enriched uranium. Instead, you could have low-enriched uranium reactors. That’s another way to get around this difficulty.

There are innumerable opportunities for us to find ways out of this dilemma so that it’s not a situation where you have to say, if you develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy, you will become, ipso facto, a nuclear weapons state.

REFLECTIONS You just turned 70–congratulations to you – and you have spent more than half of your life in diplomatic service. What have been the greatest lessons from your experiences?

DHANAPALA I had an experience as a boy of 18, visiting the United States to participate in a World Youth Forum, organized by the New York Herald-Tribune. This was a defining experience in my life: I believe that having a dialogue amongst people from different nations is vital to achieving international peace and understanding. I returned to my own country to go to university, with the objective of going into the diplomatic service. I felt very strongly that diplomacy was a bridge-builder among nation-states in order to defuse situations. I felt we were in fact the first line of defense of peace, and therefore there was a particular moral obligation on diplomats to ensure that while they pursued their national interests internationally, they also pursued certain higher objectives of the human community. So I believe very strongly in the ideas of the UN Charter, I believe very strongly in the web of treaties that help to achieve disarmament and control and regulate the way in which armaments are used. I must say I have derived great satisfaction from being a diplomat both for my own country as well as for ten years with the United Nations. It was a very morally fulfilling experience, and it is something I would recommend to anyone who wants to enter public service.

There are, of course, difficulties. You lead a very nomadic life where you don’t stay in one place long enough to acquire a permanent set of friends. You don’t have your children educated in one place; they perhaps have their education disrupted somewhat. But they gain in other ways, and so you do find the plusses overcoming the minuses.

My conviction deep down is that the human family is one, and we have to maintain our fundamental unity, especially given the crises we face today – climate change, the financial crisis, international terrorism – where we have to cooperate. The highly integrated political and economic system that we have today in contrast to what existed centuries ago only enhances the bonds of the human family. We need to work together at this very climactic moment in human history so that globalization will enhance human solidarity rather than disrupt it.

REFLECTIONS Our readership is mostly clergy and lay people in the Christian tradition. What advice might you have for them?

DHANAPALA Civil society has greater potential than it realizes, and I think this is the moment to act according to your Christian conscience and try to ensure that the governments that you elect reflect what is in fact the Christian ethic. Loving your neighbor as yourself would involve, for example, a greater concern about the bottom billion in the world. Loving your neighbor as yourself would also ensure that your security does not result in the insecurity of others. Therefore when you build a nuclear weapon, you don’t challenge others to also build nuclear weapons as a deterrent for their protection. And that the best way is peaceful coexistence – and discussion – so that we have a more civilized order, with the UN Charter as the basis of rule of law internationally rather than the rule of the jungle.

I don’t think the people at large who subscribe to the Christian ethic, or those in other counties – Islam or Buddhist or Hindu countries – want any kind of hostile relationship with each other or the elimination of entire populations, which nuclear weapons are capable of. We have to find other ways of living with each other rather than have this eye- for-an-eye, which, as Gandhi said, will make us all blind eventually.

REFLECTIONS What specific steps can individuals take?

DHANAPALA Individuals must speak out much more forcefully and get involved in policy-making at the grassroots. They must ensure that their representatives in legislative bodies reflect what they think, and demand that the policies of the parties reflect this situation. You have to ensure that the lobbying groups – the military-industrial complex, for instance, which General Eisenhower himself, despite being a military man, railed against in his final address as president – don’t use arms as a means of making money. Because if you look at the arms merchants of the world, they largely come from the developed, Western countries. You only have to look at the yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute to realize how many countries profit from the arms trade. We have to ensure that there are other ways to achieve healthy commerce between countries rather than through arms, which only kill people.

We have to have people boycotting arms companies. Remember the anti-apartheid campaign, how effective it was when countries withdrew investments in South African companies. That was a way in which the South African government was forced to abandon apartheid. Apartheid was seen then as one of those immutable systems. Today the nuclear weapon is also seen as something unlikely to disappear, but we can work together on citizens’ action, boycotting the investments in the arms merchants companies. We can make an impact together and ensure that they convert their industries from arms to something much more beneficial to the human condition.

REFLECTIONS UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a nuclear-weapons-ban treaty. Is such a treaty plausible?

DHANAPALA In the past, the elimination of nuclear weapons was regarded as utopian – pie in the sky, as Margaret Thatcher put it. But we are not trying to dis-invent nuclear weapons. We are trying to outlaw them. As we saw with biological weapons and chemical weapons, it is possible to outlaw nuclear weapons. When you delegitimize these weapons, you make them completely taboo as far as the international community is concerned. On the agenda of the UN at the moment is a draft of a nuclear weapons convention on which many people have worked, submitted by Costa Rica and Malaysia. That is what Ban Ki-moon referred to in his October speech in New York, where he went much further than any UN secretary-general had ever done, by proposing a five-point plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons. With such a convention negotiated in the Conference on Disarmament we will get a treaty that the international community can coalesce around.

We are not going to eliminate nuclear weapons overnight. We all know that. Chemical weapons, although there is a convention banning their manufacture, their use, their stockpiling, have not altogether been reduced, because existing stockpiles are only gradually being destroyed. It will take some time and some money to destroy these weapons. In the same way, nuclear weapons arsenals are not going to disappear overnight with the signing of a nuclear weapons ban convention.

But what is significant is, when you sign a nuclear weapons convention, you demonstrate your legal commitment to eliminate these weapons. The implementation may take time, and is subject to verification, but you have the confidence that it is going to be done. But if you merely say, “This is our intention,” and say it in very broad, generalized terms as many countries keep doing all of the time while retaining nuclear weapon arsenals, it doesn’t mean anything.