Sign Up

Nuclear Colonialism

Why does India see nuclear non-proliferation as neo-colonialism?

March 1, 2002

Why does India see nuclear non-proliferation as neo-colonialism?

Three years ago, I took a rest stop at Bombay, now according to the canons of Hindu nationalism renamed Mumbai. I was en route to New York, via Australia, from talks in Baghdad, held in my capacity as chairman of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq.

I had chosen to stop in India because of my long engagement with and affection for Indian culture. I would have only one day, but I had thought that even a brief contact with the architecture, sounds, colors and food of India would refresh my enduring affair with one of the greatest of human cultures. The talks in Baghdad had been hostile and tense. This heightened my expectations of my one day of indulgence in India.

As I waited for my bag at the luggage carousel in the airport, I already felt the excitement of arrival. I was there, at last, in India, after an absence of some five years. My reverie was broken by a voice off to one side,”You are that wretched Butler.”

I looked around and saw an Indian man approaching me, pointing at me angrily. He was well dressed, 40-something, and apparently sober. My immediate thought was that I was about to get the “why are you persecuting the poor Iraqis” speech, once again. It proved to be not as simple as that.

“Why are you so hateful of India,” he demanded. I asked him what he had in mind and got my answer — the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Almost two years earlier, as Australian ambassador to the United Nations, in New York, I had tabled the treaty text in the General Assembly, where it had been adopted overwhelmingly.

This had defeated India’s earlier blockage of the treaty in Geneva and had involved several very public clashes between me and senior Indian officials. These actions had been widely publicized in India, including newspaper amid television pictures of me as the main antagonist of India.

I tried to explain to the man that I was not an enemy of India, quite the opposite. That was why I was in Mumbai, on my own time, with no official duties.

He then explained to me, in terms as clear as any professional negotiator, that it was deeply wrong that the United States, for example, could insist that nuclear weapons were essential to the preservation of its security but refuse to allow the same to India.

“Are we not threatened?” he asked. “We have a long border with China. It has nuclear weapons. It has attacked India in the past. It has occupied Tibet. Why should we not be able to defend ourselves against China?”

I told him that the test ban treaty was a part of measures to control and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons, something I had understood all Indian leaders since Mahatma Gandhi had supported. It was not directed against India, as such.

He said he was a shopkeeper, selling textiles and fine saris. The world he saw from his store front had indelible features, including historic inequity between sovereign states. The latest form of this was expressed in ownership of nuclear weapons.

It was, of course, a touch fatuous to think that this airport argument would lead anywhere or solve anything. Indeed, my bag had by then arrived, and I wanted to be on my way into the city.

“I will not be detaining you any further. I am not a ruffian. But you must know that this nuclear colonialism will not stand. India’s security is as important as America’s. We fought for our independence from the British just as America did. We will defend it.”

However, a crucial example exists in the 40-some countries that could make nuclear weapons but have decided not to do so and have promised never to do so under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). One country, South Africa, made nuclear weapons but later disassembled and destroyed them. South Africa is now a non-nuclear-weapon state under the NPT. It clearly knows how to make nuclear weapons — it made them. It has committed itself never to do so again.

The assertion that nuclear weapons are a permanent, ubiquitous feature of human life is an opinion, not a fact. To represent it as the latter is deeply misleading. All that can be said, as a matter of fact, is that they have existed for 56 years. It is also a fact that 5 of the 8 countries that possess them have formally declared that it is their policy to eliminate them. The other three are ambiguous on the issue.

What is most shocking about the various arguments that conclude that nuclear weapons are a given, embedded in the very nature of things, is that these weapons are the singular human invention capable of destroying the earth and all that lives on it. Our history deserves better than a resignation to them or an acceptance that we are compelled by nuclear weapons to a danse macabre.

Adapted from “Fatal Choice” by Richard Butler.
Copyright © 2001 by Richard Butler.
Used by permission of Westview Press.