Interview with Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala About Thirteen Days United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs And President of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

March 7, 2001

JONATHAN GRANOFF: We are privileged to have with us Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala who is the Under Secretary General of the United Nations with the special charge of Disarmament Affairs.

Why is the movie Thirteen Days an important movie?

AMBASSADOR JAYANTHA DHANAPALA: Memories are very short. This is a crisis that took place almost 40 years ago. There are a number of generations that have very little knowledge of the critical period we passed through in 1962. We almost had a nuclear holocaust, an Armageddon. Many people do not understand this until they actually see the film, which is a remarkable historical reconstruction.

Secondly, I think that as long as we have nuclear weapons we are going to reenact this kind of critical situation. Not so long ago, in 1995, there was a test firing of a rocket in Norway. This was completely misread by the Russian Federation, and we almost had another situation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis—except by accident. Fortunately, within minutes of the button being pressed, the Russians were reassured that this was a test firing and normalcy was restored. We could, as long as we have nuclear weapons, have problems like these.

Thirdly, the movie demonstrates the need to create political space and time for diplomacy. Those thirteen days helped to prevent a crisis. If the hawks had been allowed to have their way they would have pushed that button as soon as they heard about the missiles in Cuba. Fortunately, wiser counsel prevailed and the diplomats had a chance to work out a solution to the problem, which saved millions of lives and probably the extermination of a number of U.S. and Russian cities.

Today, 187 countries, the five nuclear powers—the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France—plus 182 other countries have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in which they agreed with the need to put nuclear weapons “off-alert” so as to give all parties time for diplomacy. They have also committed to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

GRANOFF: So the movie really is an affirmation that, if there is enough time, the process of human interaction and diplomacy is preferable to the terror of using these weapon?

DHANAPALA: Absolutely. It is an argument in favor of diplomacy over going to war, and it demonstrates, very powerfully, the need to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Why should we have these weapons which could irretrievably exterminate humankind and the ecosystem that supports it?/ GRANOFF: There are many people who say that these weapons are a deterrent against more horrible situations, thereby bringing stability. They are willing to take the risk that they might be used. How should one respond to that argument?

DHANAPALA: The deterrence argument can neither be proved nor disproved in absolute logical terms. But we saw in the Cuban Missile Crisis the near failure of deterrence. I think that is an important fact. Those who still cling to the theory of deterrence should see this film and realize that deterrence cannot work all the time.

GRANOFF: I know General George Lee Butler, who was head of the Strategic Air Command of the United States, once said that nuclear deterrence is very dangerous because if it fails everything is lost. If conventional deterrence fails and conflict breaks out, there are weapons that can be used. As horrible as those wars are, they don’t end civilizations.

There are people responding to the irrationality of deterrence who are now saying that we can build a shield around countries to protect and defend them against the threat of ballistic missiles. Is that a solution?

DHANAPALA: First of all we don’t know whether the technology exists. People in the security area have always dreamed of an invulnerable, impermeable, foolproof shield. The United States alone has spent about $60 billion for a defense shield and it has not succeeded. It is possible that the tests held in the future might result in something that will be technologically feasible, but until that is proven I think we have to suspend judgement.

But more importantly, there are political costs in having such a shield. Immediately you undermine the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, which was a bilateral treaty but which was regarded by all countries, until quite recently, as being the cornerstone of strategic stability. You are opening a Pandora’s box to another arms race in ballistic missile proliferation. That is not going to be a stable situation.

GRANOFF: So you are saying that the weapons are still ready to be used, and that we could conceivably have another arms race like we did during the Cold War? You mentioned that there are treaties that affect whether we should even have nuclear weapons or not. Could you explain how these treaties work?

DHANAPALA: The treaties are tomes that have evolved over a period of time, and to which member states subscribe in large numbers today. The NPT is the primary treaty, and not only prevents horizontal proliferation (that is, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by more countries), but which also prevents the vertical proliferation (specifically Article VI of the NPT which talks about nuclear disarmament).

Now the meaning of Article VI has been strengthened by an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which has concluded that these talks for nuclear disarmament must be conducted in good faith and must be brought to a conclusion. These negotiations are not open-ended, and they cannot be allowed to delay the day when we can have the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Court also stated that the threat or the use of nuclear weapons is contrary to the humanitarian principles of law.

GRANOFF: The International Court of Justice has said that there is a legal duty to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons and that their use would be contrary to humanitarian law?

DHANAPALA: Absolutely.

GRANOFF: What can citizens do once they understand the devastation nuclear weapons can cause?

DHANAPALA: During the height of the Cold War, especially in the ‘80s, there was a great upsurge of global public opinion. There were citizens action groups and demonstrations calling for a freeze or an end to all nuclear weapons.

Since the end of the Cold War, there is the false complacency that the danger from nuclear weapons has been averted, or has receded. That is not true.

What we need to see is more civil society energy devoted to this subject, which is so vitally connected to the survival of the human species and the survival of our planet. Unless we have more action-oriented civil society movements on this issue we are going to see the same apathy prevail, with the very great danger that our luck may run out and deterrence might fail.

GRANOFF: The movie Thirteen Days makes the point that it was human beings, making decisions from their own consciences and their own wisdom, that prevented the world from being destroyed. They were the heroes of our time. Ambassador Dhanapala is one of those heroes.

Ambassador Dhanapala, as President of the Review Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was one of the people who preserved the Treaty regime that keeps the number of nuclear weapons states in the world limited.

Ambassador Dhanapala, as President of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, as the Under Secretary General of Disarmament Affairs, and as a human being, how do you feel about dealing with an issue for which the fate of all humanity is at stake? What are your thoughts about the personal nature of that?

DHANAPALA: I believe passionately in the capacity of the international community to be able to change the current situation for the better. I believe that we can avert the total cataclysm that would result from the use of nuclear weapons. But the only guaranteed way to do that is to eliminate nuclear weapons.

We have eliminated chemical weapons through the Chemical Weapons Convention. We are slowly seeing the destruction of chemical weapons arsenals. We have destroyed the biological weapons evil with a Biological Weapons Convention that is soon to be strengthened with the adoption of a verification protocol. The only weapons of mass destruction that we have not de-legitimized are nuclear weapons. It will take leadership on the part of the countries that have nuclear weapons to demonstrate their great commitment.

We do not have to wait for another crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis. We do not have to wait for another accidental nuclear war for us to realize the enormous destructive potential
I am strongly committed to this, as I am indeed committed to other areas of disarmament. I believe that the international community can solve their problems through peaceful, political means, as the U.N. charter requires us to do, rather than through weapons of war, which is a very uncivilized and barbaric way to settle problems, particularly in the 21st century.

GRANOFF: Ambassador Dhanapala, thank you very much.


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