Laying the path for Global Zero on nuclear weapons

York political science student Polina Emelianova was chosen as a student delegate to the Global Zero Summit held in Paris Feb. 2 to 4, which was attended by major world figures. She has written this account of what she experienced and why she has decided to organize a local chapter of Global Zero at York.

We have all heard of nuclear war “close calls” such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the realities of the lessons they taught seem to have been lost in the pages of history books and put away on the shelf with the end of the Cold War. Even those who recall the details of the event have often categorized the issue of nuclear war as a problem of the past millennium. “I just feel so distanced from the issue,” one York student explained to me, “like it’s not my problem.”

Right: York student Polina Emelianova with fellow delegates at the Global Zero Summit in Paris

I was thinking of this on the bus to the Global Zero Summit, rolling through the French countryside as it slept under a light layer of snow. There were 30 of us in total, students from the United States, Japan, Pakistan, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, Israel and China, and me, the lone Canadian, all brought together by our concern for today’s threat of nuclear weapons and a wish to further understand this danger and how it can be combated.

I haven’t always been interested in nuclear arms. The issue appeared in the odd paragraph here and there in my political science readings, but it was a lecture by Sergei Plekhanov, my Russia in World Affairs professor at York, that somehow awakened me to the realities of the danger they pose in today’s world. How many more close calls are we to experience before these weapons are used, triggering nuclear war? Isn’t there a way to prevent this from happening?

In my search to answer these questions, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to attend this international summit of an organization that works for the total elimination of nuclear weapons around the world. Global Zero was founded just over a year ago by world leaders in response to the growing threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism; and in just this one year they have gained enormous momentum, the summit itself being covered by major newspapers around the world and even receiving statements of support from US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Polina Emelianova and Stephan de la Pena KickLeft: Emelianova with fellow delegate Stephan de la Peña Kick of Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Germany in the golden hall

It was inspiring for us students to see the golden hall of the InterContinental Paris-Le Grand Hotel filled with international elites, from ambassadors to former presidents and military leaders, among them Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, and George Shultz, former US secretary of state, all gathered together for one shared purpose. There, the ambitious goal of Global Zero acquired a realistic dimension. We discussed the feasibility of their plan for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons, which encourages deep reductions in the US and Russian arsenals, to be followed by a multilateral agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons – global zero. Of course, one cannot deny that even with the support of these world leaders, the obstacles to zero are considerable. Not only are these weapons seen by many as key in satisfying national security interests, but the reduction of nuclear arsenals may mean intrusive verification mechanisms that can undermine state sovereignty, something few countries are willing to compromise. These are only two of many difficulties in the way of Global Zero’s 20-year plan, but for our purposes, it is the year 2010 that is decisive.

Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, famously said that humanity is “sleepwalking towards nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism,” and this year presents a rare gap of opportunity where we can choose disarmament over proliferation. This is a time when two key players, Obama and Medvedev, have stated their commitment to the goal. This is also the year of the finalization of a major treaty that aims to reduce the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US. In addition, before us is April’s review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the G8 Summit, which will be hosted by Canada in June. The question is whether key states will take these opportunities to reaffirm their commitment to “general and complete disarmament” as expressed in Article 6 of the NPT, and whether they can persuade others to make the same promise.

This is going to be one of many decisive years for nuclear disarmament and students were made part of the campaign because we have a role to play in the struggle. This is why upon my return to York I began organizing one of Canada’s first Global Zero chapters on our campus. The campaign’s top-down approach must be complemented by social movements that can arouse public support and ensure the follow-through of its long-term plans. As Jennifer Allen Simons, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, said to the student delegation, “My generation has really made a mess of things for you. I’m sorry, but it’s all up to you now.” As distanced as we may feel from it, we have inherited this Cold War hangover issue and with it the responsibility to ensure that we don’t “sleepwalk” into the direction it takes.

For more information on Global Zero at York, e-mail Polina Emelianova or see the Global Zero at York Facebook group.