On 16-17 February, CND celebrated its fiftieth birthday in style; holding a “Global Summit for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World” at London's dramatic glass-walled City Hall (courtesy of mayor Ken Livingstone, who opened the conference).
The most striking aspect of the gathering was its resolute focus on the future.
Despite its being a birthday event, there was no massive exhibition detailing CND's turbulent and fascinating history, no panel of long-experienced activists drawing lessons from five decades of campaigning, no new film documenting the development of the nuclear disarmament movement. (And, of course, the history of CND was written three years ago by CND chair Kate Hudson Now More Than Ever, reviewed in PN2466).
Instead of looking backwards, the global summit concentrated with laser-like intensity on the requirements for creating a nuclear-weapons-free world.
The conference was slightly uncomfortably divided in two, with an open, activist strand hearing excellent speeches from a range of activists and leading figures, and a semi-private, expert strand, with round-table discussion of the technicalities of nuclear abolition. (A small number of activists were permitted to attend and speak at the expert strand.)
The expert strand was attended by an extraordinary range of high-level individuals from around the world (not all of whom got a chance to speak, sadly), who met under something akin to Chatham House rules, meaning that no one could be identified or quoted without their permission.
Peace News did gain permission to quote ambassador Thomas Graham, chair of the US Bipartisan Security Group, and for 30 years a senior US arms control negotiator.
Ambassador Graham said, in a discussion about what a nuclear- weapons-free world would look like: “If nuclear weapons were verifiably and completely eliminated, we [the United States] would, relatively speaking, be much stronger militarily than we are today.”
Which put a lot of the rest of the discussion into an interesting context.
On the Damascus road?
There was a sense of excitement at the conference. Partly that came from a British Defence Secretary telling the UN Conference on Disarmament that Britain desired a world without nuclear weapons (though not just yet), and pledging Aldermaston as a “disarmament laboratory” (though, for the moment, mainly for building new bombs).
Yes, Des Browne told the world on 5 February that Britain has “a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons”, and that what was needed was “a transparent, sustainable and credible plan for multilateral nuclear disarmament”.
The minister acknowledged that in the absence of progress on disarmament - “forward planning, commitment and action toward multilateral nuclear disarmament” by the nuclear weapon states, this could lead to the crumbling of the non-proliferation system.
A real St Paul-type conversion? The was much scepticism.
However, there was a sense that history was changing course, a feeling reinforced by the participation in the conference of ambassador Graham, who chairs a nuclear abolitionist group of senior Republicans and Democrats many of whom could fairly be described as cold war hawks, for example, Henry Kissinger, another member of the Bipartisan Security Group or “the Hoover process”. Hearing from the South From another perspective we heard from authentic voices from the Global South, ambassador Abdul Minty, South Africa's representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and formerly an Aldermaston marcher (1959), from Achin Vanaik of the Indian Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, and from Zia Mian, Pakistani physicist and disarmament campaigner.
In one of the most highly- charged moments of the summit, ambassador Minty revealed that South Africa (which abandoned its nuclear weapons unilaterally and is militantly in favour of nuclear disarmament) is, like Iran, seeking a uranium enrichment capability.
The atmosphere in the hall grew tense.
The feeling of the conference seemed to be that the struggle against nuclear weapons is also a struggle against nuclear power, but that those seeking nuclear abolition should try not to divide over this issue.
In an “expert” session, Zia Mian illustrated the enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons- usable materials (highly-enriched uranium and plutonium - much of it “civilian”) existing today, and the ease with which nuclear power facilities can be used for military purposes.
Even if all stockpiles and all relevant equipment could be eliminated, it only took a rich and powerful state three years to build the first nuclear bomb, so “breakout” would (from a technical point of view) take no longer in the future.
Conference co-organiser Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute (and Faslane 365) called the participants “activist experts and expert activists”.
The speaker list was breathtaking. Apart from those already mentioned, we heard: Pierre Villard of the French Mouvement de la Paix, Hiroshi Taka of Japan's Gensuikyo, Jacki Cabasso of Mayors for Peace, Sian Jones of Aldermaston Women's Pace Camp(aign), Bianca Jagger of the World Future Council, Angus Robertson (SNP MP), Caroline Lucas (Green MEP), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour MP) Professor Ken Booth (Aberystwyth University), and Ambassador Sergio Duarte, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.
Finally, to encourage us, CND vice-president Bruce Kent invoked sites surrounding the river Thames, on which we were looking out.
The Tower of London, which we could see, used to be a torture chamber, but now torture was abolished; the HMS Belfast (upriver, just out of sight) used to be a warship, but now was a museum; further up the river was Hammersmith, where William Morris wrote his vision of the future, News from Nowhere.
Visions can come true. Bruce Kent says so.