MELBOURNE — Australian Tim Wright is the Director for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global grassroots movement for the total elimination of nuclear weapons through a legally binding, verifiable Nuclear Weapons Convention.
Wright, a 26-year-old law graduate, was employed by ICAN in New York in 2010 to implement its global strategy in the lead-up to, and during, the historic Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. He was instrumental in coordinating the first day of action for a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, with more than 80 demonstrations taking place in 30 countries.
SmartPlanet catches up with Wright to get an update on the campaign.
SmartPlanet: Please tell us more about ICAN’s mission and who your supporters are.
Tim Wright: Our campaign’s central objective is a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Last year we helped to persuade more than 130 governments to call for negotiations to begin on such a treaty at the United Nations (UN). We expect work to start within the next few years. Most governments support a treaty to ban nuclear weapons — 145 out of 193 UN-represented countries — along with the Red Cross and UN Secretary-General. There are already treaties that outlaw other weapons that the international community has deemed inhumane such as chemical weapons, land mines, biological weapons and cluster bombs. At the height of the Cold War there were more than 70,000 nuclear weapons. Today there are about 20,000, but that’s still 20,000 too many.
SP: Earlier this month Australia begun a dialogue with India about the sale of uranium. If a deal goes through, what will the repercussions be?
TW: It will be a major blow to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of uranium — the raw material for generating nuclear power and producing nuclear weapons. Until this month, our government had a policy not to sell it to countries like India that aren’t part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now Australia is essentially saying that the NPT doesn’t matter. This is a huge disappointment. If the deal goes ahead, it will help to fuel the arms race in South Asia.
SP: Last month ICAN reported that Australia has been secretly urging the U.S. Government to bolster its nuclear forces and make explicit its willingness to use nuclear weapons in our defence. How did your team uncover this information?
TW: We obtained previously top-secret documents, via the Freedom of Information Act, that showed that Australia had appeared before a congressional committee in the US in late 2009. At the same time, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was advocating for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, which is more than a little hypocritical.
SP: In May ICAN revealed that the Australian Government has $135 million invested in overseas companies which produce nuclear weapons. Can you elaborate further on this?
TW: These companies (based in the United Kingdom, France, United States and India) have been contracted by governments to build nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles including nuclear-capable missiles, bombers and submarines. And Australia invests in these companies through the Future Fund, the Government’s superannuation fund. Currently the Australian Government refuses to divest itself of these stocks even though they’ve divested from producers of landmines and cluster bombs. They say it’s legitimate for some countries to possess nuclear weapons. We of course reject that position, given the grave humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, regardless of who possesses them. However, the Greens political party have introduced legislation to ban the Future Fund from investing in nuclear weapons.
SP: How real is the threat of a nuclear war?
TW: Today there are more countries with nuclear weapons, and the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation is much greater than most people would think. The relationship between India and Pakistan, both nuclear weapon possessors, is highly volatile, and Israel and Iran have made provocative statements towards each other. Another issue is that there are 2,000 weapons in the U.S. and Russia that are maintained on hair-trigger alert –- ready to be used within minutes. In addition to the risk of deliberate use is the risk of accidental use. There have been dozens of documented accidents involving nuclear weapons.
SP: What can we do to get closer to achieving a global treaty on nuclear disarmament?
TW: We need to look at financial vested interests in maintaining nuclear weapons. Governments spend about $105 billion every year on maintaining and modernising their nuclear forces. Much of this goes to private enterprises. We need to discourage banks and other financial institutions from investing in companies that are involved in such work. Divestment is something that anyone can work on — encouraging people to invest their superannuation in funds that refuse to support nuclear weapons production. People can also take part in our Bombs No More community campaign, transforming images of nuclear bombs into something peaceful. We call it citizen disarmament.
SP: What’s next for ICAN?
TW: We hope that negotiations on the treaty to ban nuclear weapons will begin in the next few years. Most governments feel the time has come for this to happen. Early next year we plan to publish a list of 300 banks in 30 countries that provide loans to nuclear weapons producers. We are also about to employ four campaigners in the Middle East to help build support for a nuclear-free zone there.
Nuclear weapons facts:
- The total destructive capacity of all nuclear weapons in the world is equivalent to 150,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
- Four countries have done away with their nuclear weapons altogether — South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
- 185 countries have made a legal undertaking never to acquire nuclear weapons.
- Russia and the United States possess 95% of all nuclear weapons; the rest are owned by seven countries — the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran is suspected of seeking nuclear weapons.
- Australia had a nuclear weapons program in 1960s but it abandoned that when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was being negotiated.
- The United States spends $61 billion on its nuclear weapons every year.