Friday, April 30th, 2010: Reality and Hope
By Misha Byrne
Day One in New York. We’re here for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Who’s ‘we’? Close to a hundred students, and at least 1,000 other peace activists.
While the NPT RevCon doesn’t begin until Monday (and none of us will get in the UN door without first successfully navigating registration that will likely take several hours waiting to complete), many have come early for a two-day peace conference (Friday and Saturday) in the Riverside Church, a building rich with activist history, including speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr amongst others.
The bulk of the conference will take place tomorrow (with workshops, plenaries and a keynote speech from Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon), and so today’s opening session was framed more as a call to reality than a pat on the back.
Certainly, there’s a sense of expectancy in the room as we look around and see people from around the world who have descended on New York. (The French, in particular, seem to have taken up ICAN enthusiastically, with a large, logo-emblazoned contingent!) Excitement, too, in anticipation of Ban Ki-moon’s speech tomorrow, since overt support and endorsement from the Secretary General is relatively unusual. By Sunday, it’s expected that up to 15,000 people will take to the streets in a rally calling on all nations to abolish nuclear weapons.
However, despite these encouraging numbers, the opening speeches tonight have been reminders of the continued obstacles we face, and of the relative longevity of the problem. In particular, Zia Mian, [political scientist] at Princeton University and long-time peace activist, argued persuasively for the need to address the underlying system of militarism, rather than campaigning for disarmament in isolation. Highlighting the parallels (and, at times, identical statements) between the Bush and Obama nuclear postures, Zia reflected on another dynamic US president who, in 1966, stood before the UN arguing for the US’s moral imperative to abolish nuclear weapons. That Kennedy’s message was so quickly forgotten in the history books reminds us that the success of our campaigns is measured in actions, rather than voices.
And yet there is cause for cautious optimism. For the first time in 10 years, the US seems unlikely to obstruct actively within international disarmament negotiations. The growing ICAN movement in France is also important, if not now then for the future; France is the staunchest (and most vocal) in its opposition to nuclear disarmament. And John Burroughs, executive director of the UN office of International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, outlined the reasons to expect progress at this NPT towards achieving a Middle-East region free of nuclear weapons.
The fact that an agenda for this year’s RevCon has already been decided is also heartening. As Ruth Mitchell observed last year at the NPT Preparatory Committee session, in 2005 the RevCon spent nearly two and a half weeks before they could agree on an agenda!
All in all, it’s been a reflective (and perhaps galvanizing) start to our time in New York, and our high hopes are tempered, somewhat, by the awareness of the continued presence of challenges that have been faced by others before us. This is no bad thing. Are we optimistic? Yes. But it’s probably better to begin with a realistic picture of the problems.