May 19th, 2009 11:49 EST
From A Dark Corridor in the Bowels of the United Nations
I am writing this article in a dark echoing corridor in the first sub - basement of the United Nations building in New York.
It is full of people, both nongovernmental organisations and diplomats from all over the world. As I write various African diplomats are talking loudly and it`s hard to hear oneself think.
The place has that strange, subterranean, bunker - like, echoing quality that one might expect from STRATCOM or Kosvinsky Mountain, though I always find the UN stimulating and positive.
What on earth am I doing here, and why do I have a blue bit of plastic round my neck with a `D` this time (which entitles me to use the computers reserved for delegates, from whence I type) instead of the usual lowly `N`, for NGO?
I am attending the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting, or `prepcom`, leading up to the 2010 review conference of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, arguably the world`s most important treaty, and an international arms - control/disarmament instrument at arguably again, has much to do with the survival of the human race.
NPT Prepcoms and review conferences are one of a number of exalted UN gatherings in which representatives of governments and nongovernmental organisatons from every nation on earth (except India, Pakistan and Israel in this case though India and Pakistan have been invited to send observers), get together to discuss matters that affect the survival of the human race, and the media of the world treats it as if it had never happened. Nonetheless, these meetings, and their success or failure, are of utterly vital importance for the whole planet. From the grimy passageway in which the delegate`s computers sit you wouldn`t know it, but you might guess from the excited buzz of many languages and the self - important striding of delegates from across the world, in dark pinstriped suits or national dresses.
For a number of years I`ve been pursuing the issue of the operational status of nuclear weapons systems, and have managed to take the issue to the United Nations, so the bowels of the decrepit old UN building in New York has become rather familiar, with the smoke - filled `Vienna cafe` outside conference room 4 the familiar rendezvous with everyone from India`s chief of delegation to the diplomats of Chile, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland since they decided to put up a resolution on operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems in October 2007.
I have attended just two NPT `prepcoms` and hope to attend the 2010 review conference.
And this time I have had the luck or misfortune or whatever, to be going as an official member of the Australian delegation, along with prof. Tilman Ruff, chair of ICAN.
This NPT Perepcom was supposed to be different. As the optimism engendered by the Obama administration and the Prague speech was taken on by governments worldwide, it filtered into the rarefied atmosphere even of this NPT prepcom, and the opening speeches were full of urgency -and optimism. Surely, now there is a US president that takes nuclear disarmament seriously there will be the possibility of completely eliminating nuclear weapons and of taking the apocalypse - self inflicted, not the doing of any vengeful and lunatic diety - off the global agenda forever.
And sure enough, the most vital thing - the adoption of an agenda for the 2010 review conference - was literally gavelled through by the chairman in record quick time without a murmur.
So far so good.
The next step was the adoption of a series of recommendation from the prepcom to the review conference.
This is proving much more difficult.
As I write, I have in my briefcase, the first set of recommendations put out by the chair, followed by a second set put out in response to the reactions by various governments including the US and Russia, the NAM bloc, Australia, France, the EU as a whole, Egypt, and a bunch of others in response.
The first set was in my view and that of the NGO community generally, already incomplete and weak though it did for the first time include language committing to a possible nuclear weapons convention.
It also included language committing for the first time since the year 2000 review conferences commitment to the `total and unequivocal elimination` of nuclear weapons, to `going to zero` in nuclear weapons.
And it contained good language on operational status of nuclear weapon systems.
The second iteration still contains the good language on op status but just about everything else has been diluted or has disappeared or been on one way or another somehow blunted.
One can see the pressure, applied behind the scenes, by a nuclear weapons establishment that does not intend to go quietly.
As I sit, various groups are, I understand, caucusing.
My own delegation has asked Tilman and I for an evaluation and we`ve given it. It is disappointing, and could develop, alas! into an opportunity lost.
We can`t afford to lose too many of these opportunities. The UN may be all about talk and week - long negotiations on the position of a semicolon. But the position of that semicolon may be life or death for the world.
Let`s not blow it, please.
PS: A funny thing happened on the way to the HAP reception... or when the wrong party is the right party.
A funny thing took place the other day.
I was invited to the reception of the Hague Appeal for Peace to be held I was informed, on the 10th floor of the Church Centre, opposite the UN.
As I had been struggling for the first few days of the prepcom with the agonies of gout and my left toe felt like it had been dipped into either liquid nitrogen or molten lava, I wasn`t sure I would be able to make it.
But at the due time, I made it across the road to the Church Centre, and as I entered, so did a couple of diplomats.
I asked them if they were `going to the HAP reception` and they said yes they were.
They pressed 12th floor in the lift. I said `surely the HAP reception is 10th` but they said, no, its 12th and I went along with them.
As we exited the lift I recognised the room as being the boardroom of the International Peace Academy, which is the kind of outfit that has various current and former heads of state on its board and would, naturally, have Ban Ki Moon as its patron. I`d debated former ambassador Chris Ford on operating status in that room the previous October.
I was met at the door by Francoise, the man who`d organised the debate. As we entered, TV cameras recorded us and we smiled for them. Francoise beamed.
The room filled up with indescribably exalted bigwigs, none of whom I knew in the slightest, and I languished (sustained by exquisite nibbles and wine) until the Kuwaiti ambassador rescued me with a prolonged conversation about the global economic crisis. Kuwait was doing fine and buying everyone else at bargain-basement prices.
I then had a number of conversations in which the subject of operating status of nuclear weapons came up with various people. Having a resolution in the general Assembly seemed quite normal and even trivial there. I felt I should be stuck to someone`s boot.
Then, a funny thing happened. The lights kind of dimmed and someone familiar could be seen shaking hands along a line of people which I found myself in the middle of.
It was Ban Ki Moon.
I shook his hand and had a 30 second introduction and he moved on.
I think that at the time I did not quite register what had just happened.
The party went on and he made a funny speech that left no doubt that it had been him.
I think I had a drink or three and found myself talking to a large and friendly bear of a man who did not let on exactly who he was.
I talked as usual about operating status and nuke weapons and he listened with intent interest.
Finally he said he had to tell me that he was Ban Ki moons senior political adviser.
Exactly what he next said is kind of classified but was very very positive.
The party had more or less ended and people had mostly left.
I made to leave also and as I left I encountered Francoise.
I said to him something like `Only at this place can one have a chance conversation that makes complete global incineration significantly less likely.`
Francoise beamed widely and asked me for details which I supplied. He beamed even more.
As I left the lift stopped at the 120th floor. Some people got on looking like they had been at a function.
I asked if the HAP function had been on the 10th floor. Yes, they said, it had just finished.
Sometimes the wrong party turns out to be the right party.