On Sunday morning, May 3rd, Buddhists from Japan beat hand drums and uttered a moving chant for peace, outside United Nations headquarters in New York. Holding tall purple banners with Japanese lettering and dressed in bright yellow robes, they signaled the gathering of citizen groups from around the world for the UN Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Official proceeding will begin on Monday.
The Japanese drummers remind us that nuclear weapons are not just an abstraction, but a frightful weapon that was used to such devastating effect in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and still threatens life on earth. Unlike the previous NPT review conference five years ago, this one offers some hope that progress can be made. The recent START agreement between Washington and Moscow was a sign that movement is possible. But NGO analysts are concerned that the nuclear states will again refuse to commit to serious disarmament – even if this leads to proliferation and mounting nuclear danger. A resurgent nuclear power industry, promoted as a green energy source, increases the nuclear problems that loom ahead.
Thousands of civil society representatives at the conference will be pushing for complete nuclear disarmament, not just “non-proliferation” with all its uneven application and propaganda abuse. Everyone at the UN is well aware that states like Israel, Pakistan, India (and South Africa under apartheid) have been allowed to develop nuclear weapons with no punitive action by the “international community,” while others like Iran, Iraq and North Korea have been subject to punitive sanctions and even invasion. Washington's interests usually decide.
The most serious violators of the Non-Proliferation Treaty are not the “rogue” nuclear states, but the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council – the United States and Russia first and foremost, but also China, the UK and France. The treaty, which came into force in 1970, requires the nuclear powers to take steps to disarm. This was the bargain the heavyweights made with non-nuclear states forty years ago. But they have done little since then to fulfill their promise and their actions today suggest they do not intend to disarm this time around either.
On Sunday afternoon, thousands of anti-nuclear activists marched across Manhattan to publicize their cause. Signs were held aloft in many languages, while drums, flutes and chants filled the air. Okinawans were there to remind us of the military bases that have made their island a lynchpin of the US nuclear weapons arsenal for many decades – bases that the island's people urgently want removed. Among the marchers were the the Buddhist drummers from Japan, drumming the shame of of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These citizens are insisting that at last the nuclear powers act responsibly and take the path towards a world free of the threat of nuclear annihilation.