Thursday, December 21, 2006


This week the world in the form of the United Nations has been striving to restrain the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear activity. On the farnarkling involved more below, but this geopolitical drama has highlighted one of the crucial issues facing the global culture in the twenty-first century.

Who has the right to have nuclear weapons? Or to put it technically by what legitimate process are states entitled to possess nuclear weapons.

Rights are bestowed by states which uphold and institutionalise them. Schappelle Corby, by example, was convicted of drug trafficking a crime in which the standard burden of proof is reversed. Contrary to conventional opinion the Indonesian justice system normally places the burden of proof on the state except in the event of drug trafficking in which the accused has to show on the balance of evidence that they hadn’t anything to do with the drugs placed about their person. This same reversal of proof with respect to drug trafficking exists in Australia. Rights are not immutable they are proscribed by statute and can vary. Corby’s rights if she’d been accused of murder would’ve been different.

The right to nukes is a pickle. Nukes are kept by states not within states (fingers crossed). Who or what bestows upon states the right to bear a nuclear arsenal? The strict answer is no-one and nothing. The United Nations is not a government in that sense although it bears many marks of one: it has a large bureaucracy for example, But it's fundamental role is that of a voluntary association of nations formed at least partially because of the invention of atomic weaponry.

Ergo it can't grant or withhold 'rights' to bear arms. That's a matter that states decide for themselves. Hence, moral objections aside, every state has the ‘right’ to bear a nuclear arsenal no matter how irresponsible.

Of course there is international law and the United Nations does make noise about the issue. However due both to the Byzantine nature of the U.N.’s political farnarckling and the unwillingness of nations to surrender sovereignty there is no force that can compel a cease and desist with anything like a national justice system’s effectiveness.

The closest things the world has to an enforcement of limits to nuclear weaponry are the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NNPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency, set up in 1957, exists to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology; the treaty signed in 1968 furthers this aim by limiting the possession of nuclear weaponry to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the only states that had the bomb in ‘68. Since this time the number of nations thought to possess the bomb has grown to nine. India and Pakistan (who never signed) have both tested nuclear weapons. Israel (also a non-signer) is thought to have the bomb although this remains unconfirmed and earlier this year North Korea (who signed, then withdrew) tested a small nuclear device.

Thus despite international efforts to limit the spread of atomic weapons, they have spread. This is pretty much because there is nothing that compels nations to comply with international pressure. The use of sanctions notwithstanding one cannot lock a whole country up in prison. Therefore nuclear weapons can be developed if a nation has the resources and will to do so.

Currently the international community is attempting to head of what is perceived to be an attempt by the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The UNSC has, after extended negotiations in which the United States/Britain faced off against Russia/China, authorised sanctions to bring Iran to heel. Russia is in the nuke energy business with Iran and don’t want the possibility that its client is making the bomb to spoil the party. Thus Russia amended the resolution to spare Iran’s legal nuclear activity: that is the Russian financed heavy water plant at Busher. Dealmaking like this is the UNSC’s par.

Iran responded . It’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif declared, “A nation is being punished for exercising its inalienable rights.”. The republic’s foreign ministry “considers the new UN Security Council resolution ... an extralegal act outside the frame of its responsibilities and against the UN Charter,". Iran not only maintains that it’s rights to nuclear technology are inalienable but that the UN is exceeding its authority.

Iran therefore says effectively – the United Nations has no business telling us what to do: similar to North Korea who’ve likewise ignored international pressure to halt their bomb program. As much as we’d prefer it otherwise, this challenge to international authority in addition to the other states that have developed nuclear weaponry despite international criticism effectively demonstrates that the UNSC has no authority. Obedience to its dictates is voluntary.

That Iranians ignore it is understandable. If I was the enemy of the United States and they’d invaded my neighbour I’d want the bomb too. However, criticisms of the United States standing, do we really want a world in which dictatorships can obtain and use nuclear weapons?

If you answer no, sorry. We already have one.

The Soviet Union was of course a dictatorship. The transition to democracy still has a long way to travel for former Soviet States including and especially Russia. China’s still a one-party state. Pakistan’s stable only in the event of military dictatorship. India’s a democracy but with a history of assassinations and civil strife. Israel is a democracy with quite a political kaleidoscope, many changes of government all coalitions of various kinds and a hostile neighbourhood. The United States, France and Britain are the cradles of modern democracy but also with histories of civil strife and assassination.

And of course there’s North Korea. The nuclear family is not a happy one.

By what right have these nations developed nuclear weapons? By none bestowed in a legal sense. Ancient convention stipulates that nations have a right to defend themselves. Historically they haven’t an inalienable right to sovereignty. If a stronger power conquered you that was life.

Nuclear weapons in many ways guarantee sovereignty to the nation that possesses them. If Australia has a nuke we wouldn’t need America, militarily. No matter the war fever amongst generals in Indonesia, Malaysia or elsewhere in the neighbourhood, nukes are the great leveller. This is the reason India and Pakistan have acquired them. It is the reason Iran seeks to.

The United Nations was set up to put a halt to the nation poaching which characterises much of history. After Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy made efforts to grab themselves a slice of the imperial pie the world seemed to reach a consensus and the moral tide went against empire building. Gradually the old European empires either self-dismantled (ie Britain) or were forced to do so by local independence movements (France) or both. The UN was also set up to civilize world relations in the face of the massive destructive power suggested by atomic weaponry.

The only trouble is it doesn’t work. Unlike the relationships between states and individuals a supra state body cannot impose loss of liberty or life as punishment for law breaking. International conventions therefore have exactly the force of verbal contracts made in a stateless territory. They have substance if the parties involved decide to honour them. If they don’t too bad.

That the UN is too mired in bureaucracy and special interest to adequately police the world is apparent. Partially the problem is the existence of 5 permanent members of the UNSC. As indicated above in its efforts to deal with Iran concessions had to be made to Russia who wish to guarantee their interests in the region. It doesn’t matter if the watering down of sanctions might provide a loophole through which Iran can continue to develop atomic weaponry. The UNSC is stuck. Each permanent UNSC member can veto whatever resolution is proposed and will do so if it runs contrary to its interests. This is certainly anti-democratic. It is also a fatal encumbrance on an institution which is the closest thing the world has to a global lawmaker.

Under George the 2nd's precidency the neo-conservative agenda has been given a good try. This agenda states that the previous conservative practise of tolerating right-wing dictatorships (he's a bastard but he's our bastard) is null and void. Accordingly the United States as leader of the free world has the reposnisbility to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world bringing democracy to everyone, hence the Iraq war. Naturally Iraq's large reserves of oil don't hurt.

If the United States want to go gallivanting about like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Libert Valance all well and good. Trouble is they don’t have the resources to topple every nasty regime in the world and building nice new democracies out of smoking rubble is still beyond their skill-set range. More to the point if they only go to war for democracy in places with suspiciously large quantities of resources vital to the US economy they will lose credibility more than somewhat.

The fact of the matter is that the US does not have the resources or will to go around imposing democracy on other places. Even in the event they were able to do so to conquer a place and force a new system of government on people there is impractical and fundamentally anti-democratic. One cannot talk about rights if one isn’t willing to honour those rights oneself. And by what right does America impose order on the world?

This is not to demonise America. Oil aside the desire to spread democracy globally is not without merit. One should respect the intention if deploring the tactics. The world would undoubtedly be better if governments were universally answerable to their people. But whether one can accomplish this by bulldozing regimes and imposing copycat constitutions irrespective of local culture, history and circumstance is questionable.

What the world needs now is some way of imposing order on the various nations that make up its membership. This will require a universal agreement on basic values. How this can be done is a good question because currently unanswerable. When?

Quite a while I'd say.

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