Anti-nuclear crusaders search for their 'Greta'

Search for 'anti-nuke Greta'

Ask Hugo Slim about teenaged climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and one thought comes to mind: if only there were a young person like her who was that worried about nuclear weapons.

Slim is the Geneva-based head of policy and humanitarian diplomacy for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and he was in Ottawa recently to meet Canadian anti-nuclear weapons activists.

Those activists are toiling, largely out of the public eye, to persuade Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to treat the possibility of nuclear annihilation as seriously as he does the threat posed by climate change.

They are urging Trudeau to push Canada's NATO allies, who are meeting Tuesday in London, to start talking with non-NATO nuclear states about laying down their atomic arms one day.

Canada doesn't have nuclear weapons but its membership in NATO means it adheres to the 29-country military alliance's nuclear-deterrent policy — that it supports having nuclear weapons in its arsenal essentially because its adversaries have them.

Slim works for an organization that opposes nuclear weapons, and is known for its scrupulous neutrality, so he says he doesn't expect the Trudeau government to suddenly swear off nuclear weapons any time soon. But he wishes someone like 16-year-old Thunberg would come along to get under his skin and tweak the consciences of other leaders who possess or support nuclear weapons.

"There are two big existential issues around the human species at the moment — climate change and nuclear weapons. Climate change has really mobilized young people across the world. Nuclear weapons is still seen as a slightly older persons 1960s, '70s issue. It's hard to galvanize younger people to recognize the risk," Slim said in a recent interview.

"If you look demographically, through history, you'll notice one thing about political change: that it's always young people that drive political change," Slim added. "It's about them seeing things and playing roles as political change-makers, as they always have in human civilization."

The ICRC is trying to build support for the new Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, which was negotiated in 2017. More than 120 countries support the treaty, and Slim is hopeful 50 countries will ratify it by next year which would bring it into force. But it has no support among the countries that possess nuclear weapons — including the United States and its allies, including Canada.

The world is now under renewed threat because of the reversal of decades of incremental nuclear disarmament measures between the U.S. and Russia, including the recently abandoned treaty on intermediate-range weapons. The current New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia expires in 2021 and neither country is racing to negotiate a successor, said Turcotte.

Moreover, a new nuclear arms race is now underway with the U.S. pledging to spend $1.5 trillion to modernize its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years, while eight other nuclear-armed states are now updating and expanding their weapons' delivery systems, including a new generation of hypersonic missiles that are unstoppable with current technology, he said.

"We are moving quickly towards the brink and we're asking the prime minister quite literally to help (do) what he can do personally to engage our allies, as his father did back in the early '80s."

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