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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 43, January - February 2000

Launching The All-Party Group
By Malcolm Savidge MP

In January an All-Party Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation was established in the British Parliament at Westminster.

At the group's inaugural meeting I recalled attending a dinner in the Guildhall in 1993, addressed by then British cabinet minister, David Mellor MP (Conservative). Some other British politicians were present, mostly conservatives, including Margaret Thatcher. The minister spoke movingly about attending school during the Cuban missile crisis and wondering not only whether he would ever see his home again, but whether life as he knew it was about to come to an end. He referred to the vivid fear of the risk of a nuclear holocaust that had lived with him through adulthood. He also praised the vital role in lifting that horror played by Mikhail Gorbachev, guest of honour at the dinner, in ending the Cold War and reversing the nuclear arms race.

The minister's story was a stark reminder of how near we may already have come to disaster. It may also serve as a reminder that the desire to avert tragedy can and should transcend party politics - and indeed all other divisions of creed or nationality.

The commonly shared hope in the early 1990s that the world had decisively put the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) behind it now appears less secure. Complacency that this 'old issue' had been 'settled' still seems to render the mass media and much of the public deaf to warnings of renewed dangers coming from across the political spectrum.

Opportunities have been missed in the last decade. If the increasingly hawkish positions being expressed by politicians in Russia and the US prevail, and China pursues weapons modernisation; negotiation, confidence-building and non-proliferation could be jeopardised. India and Pakistan have come perilously close to nuclear conflict, illustrating the dangers of proliferation and 'localised' nuclear war. Nuclear materials and know-how are spreading, with the attack by the Aum sect on the Japanese subway providing a salutary reminder of the growing threat from religious and political terrorism.

Even a terrorist outrage could cause thousands or even millions of deaths. 'Localised' nuclear war could devastate continents. The probability of terrorism or localised conflict involving WMD is far too high. As for the ultimate disaster, we only have to remember that at the height of the Cuban missile crisis US President Kennedy feared that he had lost control of events and that the probability of catastrophe was somewhere between a one-in-three and one-in-two chance.

The purpose of the new all-party group will be to provide a forum for discussion and debate on the basis of expert opinion and will include use of an open agenda, and allow for the airing of views from across the political spectrum. It will also aim to raise awareness and publicise issues rather than campaign for particular policies. The group will strive to provide an interesting programme of speakers, as well as acting as a focal point for leading international experts visiting Westminster to communicate with a wider audience.

Where appropriate it will co-operate with other all-party groups at Westminster. Given the influence that, for example, the Russian Duma has had on ratification of the START II, and the US Senate on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the group will also explore the possibility of dialogue with overseas parliamentarians. The magnitude of the risk from WMD means that it is time to put old slogans behind us and to consider new ideas and proposals on reducing the dangers.

Malcolm Savidge MP is Convener of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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