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Weapons into Ploughshares, and Crises into Opportunity

NEW YORK, Aug 6 2012 (IPS) - The crisis that started a few years ago with the collapse of major financial institutions in the United States is now centred in Europe and threatens other parts of the world. Many emerging countries in Asia and Latin America that had thus far avoided contamination because of their sound economic and fiscal policies and their timely adoption of domestic consumption stimulus packages are now beginning to experience secondary effects.

Despite the current financial turmoil and uncertainty, hundreds of millions of dollars continue to be spent each day on military operations without any apparent success in solving the problems they were supposed to. Other disquieting signs loom large. Although combat operations in some troubled areas are being discontinued, the root causes of tension remain unaddressed, with unpredictable consequences. As formerly all-powerful war-bent nations feel constrained to pull back into their own territories, new financial resources are nevertheless earmarked in their budgets for designing, testing, and eventually producing and deploying new generations of deadly weapons in the name of maintaining their national security. By the same token, a few others seem determined to devote a considerable percentage of their scarce national resources to achieve means of destruction to counter real or imagined threats from abroad.

The “contagious doctrine of deterrence”, as Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon once described it, is no longer an exclusive feature of the two antagonists of the Cold War. If some nations feel entitled to possess a nuclear “insurance policy” ­ as a former prime minister described his country’s atomic arsenal- there is no reason to expect that others will not follow suit if they deem it necessary.

It is unfortunate that the days when international conferences could succeed in hammering out bilateral or multilateral arms control agreements seem to be over. Even if past agreements did not bring about effective disarmament, at least they preserved a degree of sanity by curbing some of the most dangerous aspects of the arms race and by signalling the possibility of further progress toward disarmament. For over fifteen years now the multilateral machinery put together by the United Nations over many decades has been unable to achieve the slightest headway towards any significant agreement on both nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Mankind seems to have lost the ability or the will to follow up on the progress previously achieved in banning other types of weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical and biological arms.

Despite important reductions in the number of nuclear weapons since Cold War peaks, there has been little, if any, progress towards their actual elimination or even the reduction of their importance in the military doctrines of the countries that hold them. The world continues to devote increasing resources to the production of conventional weapons, a large number of which find their way to illegal brokers to feed conflicts in the least developed areas, severely jeopardising chances of improving the lot of their populations.

At last count, world expenditures on armaments reached some 1.7 trillion dollars ­ possibly as much as the industrialised nations have already spent to prop up their financial situation.

All is not lost, however – at least not yet. Analysts have remarked that every real advance in the interaction among nations has been the product a deep crisis in international relations. In recent history, landmark international achievements have been preceded by major conflicts, immense destruction, and severe strife. That was the case of the Hague Conferences, the creation of the ill-fated League of Nations, and the successful establishment of the United Nations.

But mankind does not have to wait for a major war or a similar catastrophe to occur. Whatever progress has been achieved in the past few decades came as a result of the timely perception that something had to be done before real disaster struck. That was the case of the realisation that the insane buildup of ever more deadly nuclear arsenals by the two superpowers had to cease, that proliferation had to be curbed, that at least the most harmful and indiscriminate conventional weapons had to be banned, and that ways must be found to ensure that the power of the atom is used exclusively for peaceful purposes ­ to name just a few examples.

The combined effect of the current financial crisis and of the deadlock in international structures dealing with security, disarmament, development, and the environment can yet lead to new realisations. Wealthy nations, for instance, are already well aware that their own prosperity and well-being, just like natural resources, may not last forever. They should therefore join forces with poorer ones to find wise solutions for the benefit of all. The most heavily armed nations should realise that converting their territories into fortresses while building ever more sophisticated means of destruction will not enhance their security but rather endanger it.

Sterner fiscal policies could trigger significant reductions in military budgets worldwide. Perhaps most importantly, all nations, regardless of their wealth and political or military might, should finally understand that any crisis can be defused if they are able to work together in an international system that recognises that World War II and the Cold War are definitively over. It is not too late. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

* Sergio Duarte, Brasilian ambassador and former United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

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