Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 13, 2008
A politician's Struggle for Peace
Long-time politician and former WCR editor Douglas Roche has released his memoirs. In this excerpt from Creative Dissent (Novalis, 2008) he discusses his deepening commitment to the quest for nuclear disarmament in the early 1980's when he was a member of parliament.
My political philosophy was turning global. I became preoccupied with a central facet of modern life: we were entering a totally new period of our planet’s history. For the first time, the opportunity existed to bring about a better life with larger freedom for the world’s people.
Yet the situation was tragically ironic: never before had we had the potential to free the world from the threats of hunger and war, but never was the world so hungry and the threat of war more monstrous. Yet we went on, seeking our self-interest, oblivious to the depths of the danger or the magnificence of the challenge. I found the words of the poet T.S. Eliot stunningly accurate: “Here were decent godless people. Their only monument the asphalt road. And a thousand lost golf balls.”
From Development to Disarmament
I found parliamentary life in Ottawa to be not very conducive to the expression of such thoughts, so I looked elsewhere for the opportunity to do so. I wrote and gave speeches, as an outlet for my frustration as an opposition backbencher.
Then I received an invitation that was to shift the focus of my entire public career. The Canadian Association of the Club of Rome invited me to give a paper, Development in the Year 2000, at a conference to be held in Ottawa in 1982.
The Club of Rome, a global think tank, came to prominence with its report Limits to Growth, published in 1972. The report predicted that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of the limited amount of natural resources, particularly oil. Continuing research showed that, with governmental action, economic and environmental catastrophes were preventable. I was a member of a similar organization, the North-South Roundtable, which concentrated on five priority areas for development: food, energy, technology, transfer of resources and the elimination of absolute poverty. Two of this group’s leaders — Barbara Ward, the British economist and member of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, and Mahbub ul Haq, a World Bank adviser and later the first editor of the UN’s Human Development Report — influenced me deeply.
As I got to know Barbara, who was a well-known author and one of the editors of the Economist, I admired the way she introduced a spiritual perspective into development issues. In one of her essays, she wrote, “On the one hand, we are faced with the stewardship of this beautiful, subtle, incredibly delicate, fragile planet. On the other, we confront the destiny of our fellow man, our brothers. How can we say that we are followers of Christ if this dual responsibility does not seem to us the essence and heart of our religion?” Mahbub, gentle and unassuming, was one of the giants at the UN. I visited him often. I found both Barbara and Mahbub, who were both concerned with the state of the planet, much more interesting and visionary than the politicians I dealt with on a daily basis.
I brought the North-South Roundtable to Ottawa for a meeting and tried to get at least a few of my political colleagues to attend. I wanted them to hear that the ideas for a world with less poverty, less inequality, greater justice, greater respect for human rights and more equitable international relations had a sound basis. Though the New International Economic Order of the 1970s had been scuppered, the vision for a world of justice and greater humanity was still alive.
The Club of Rome’s assignment challenged me. The Year 2000, on which my paper was to focus, was far in the future. How did I know what would happen by then? I decided to take a couple of months to research the subject as best I could. The more I pored over statistics and reports, the more I found the world painfully off balance: opulently rich in the forces of death, yet poor in providing for the needs of human lives.
Behind the statistical shadows of income disparities, inflation and retarded growth were hundreds of millions of individuals trapped by shocking neglect. They suffered from hunger, illiteracy, illness and desperate poverty. I found this social deficit a threat to world security because the festering problems, neglected in favour of armed might, promised rising public anger and social upheaval.
No indicator more graphically showed the incredible destructive power loose in the world than the existence of 50,000 nuclear weapons, whose combined power was one million times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. At least five countries then possessed nuclear weapons; the capability of producing a rudimentary nuclear force was within the reach of 20 to 25 more countries.
The nuclear spotlight was on Europe, where 572 NATO Pershing II and ground-launched Cruise missiles were to be deployed to offset 250 new Soviet SS-20 missiles and hundreds of older SS-4s and SS-5s currently aimed at western Europe. The “unthinkable” nuclear war had given way to “limited” options. I wrote: At this conference we are concerned with formulating the proper policies for Canada in the year 2000. But a higher and more urgent priority now demands the attention of everyone in the development field: ensuring global survival to reach 2000. The world has become such a dangerous place that peacemaking must become the foremost consideration of Canadian foreign policy.
I have come to the conclusion that the breakthrough development advocates seek in North-South economic and social progress will not come while East-West political and military tensions are so high. The power of war-making is clearly triumphing over the power of peacemaking. It will little avail us to design the orderliness of the post-2000 era if we cannot first establish the survivability of world society to that beckoning milestone. For me, survivability has become the key to a future of economic and social justice. Development demands disarmament.
The paper, which was 29 pages, ran through a long list of actions Canada should take in both the development and disarmament fields. I called for the Canadian government to cut defence spending by 10 per cent and apply the savings to the United Nations Development Programme. “Would that not be a dramatic signal to the world that a turnaround in priorities can at least be started?” I also asked that Canada support the “freeze” campaign: a freeze on the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons and their carriers by the Soviet Union and the United States.
Nuclear Freeze and a Minority Report
The UN’s Second Special Session on Disarmament, scheduled for June 7–July 10, 1982, was just around the corner. I urged the government to mandate Parliament’s Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence to do a special study on security and disarmament to come up with proposals for action by the Canadian government. Many witnesses were called; there was strong support for Canada to support the 188 U.S. Congressmen who had signed a House-Senate Joint Resolution calling on the U.S. and the Soviet Union to achieve a nuclear freeze, to be followed by reductions in nuclear warheads.
The U.S. administration (Ronald Reagan was in the early years of his presidency) was adamantly opposed to a freeze. The hawks who dominated the parliamentary committee were in complete support of the U.S. My own party would have no part of the freeze. Battles in the committee, points of order and parliamentary manoeuvring went on for days. It was clear that the final report would be full of bromides and that no honest evaluation of the merits of stopping the arms race was being made.
I had had enough. But I wasn’t alone. Five other MPs on the committee — my Conservative colleague Walter McLean; Paul McRae, a Liberal; and three NDP members, Pauline Jewett, Bob Ogle and Terry Sargeant—were also chagrined. I suggested a minority report; the others said yes, and I was commissioned to draft it for all of us to sign.
Our report, tracing the history of the conventional and nuclear arms races, pointed to the 7,770 nuclear warheads in strategic missiles, 6,340 nuclear warheads in strategic submarines, 2,790 nuclear weapons in strategic bombers and another 37,000 tactical nuclear weapons. “The development and deployment of still more fire power never ceases,” the report stated.
Next, it outlined the horrors awaiting humankind in a nuclear exchange that had been detailed by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (an organization that was to win the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize): “Even a single one-megaton nuclear bomb explosion [80 times more powerful than the explosion of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima] over an urban area would cause death and injury to people on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind and would present any remaining medical services with insoluble problems.”
People not immediately burned to death, blown apart or asphyxiated in shelters would find themselves in a nightmare world, populated by the dying, dead and insane. Food, crops and land would be contaminated, water undrinkable. The survivors would envy the dead. In an all-out attack, who would survive, as radiation swept across the oceans and into the atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer and releasing lethal ultraviolet rays? The collapse of the ecosystem would leave a global wasteland.
We recommended that Canada support the global nuclear freeze campaign, deny the U.S. permission to test the new Cruise missile system in Canada, press all nuclear powers to pledge never to be the first to use nuclear weapons, and devote one-tenth of one per cent ($7 million) of its defence budget to disarmament efforts. The report was, of course, hailed by disarmament groups across the country and denounced by U.S. supporters in Parliament, who insisted it had absolutely no status. I paid little attention to the attempts to discredit me.
Still, External Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan named me a consultant to the Canadian delegation to the UN Special Session on Disarmament. I wrote a lengthy report, which McGuigan, in his memoirs, An Inside Look at External Affairs During the Trudeau Years, said “was better than anything produced by the department.” MacGuigan went on, “It thus came as no surprise to me when Roche was appointed as ambassador for disarmament after the change of government in 1984.”
The UN Special Session was road-blocked in trying to formulate a time-bound comprehensive program of disarmament by the intractability of the two superpowers of the day, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It could do nothing but reaffirm the final document of the First Special Session on Disarmament in 1978. That document had acquired the status of “the Bible” on nuclear disarmament because it said, “Removing the threat of world war — a nuclear war — is the most acute and urgent task of the present day. Mankind is confronted with a choice: we must halt the arms race and proceed to disarmament or face annihilation.”
Though the Second Special Session failed, it achieved folklore status when one million people marched past the United Nations Building, through the streets of Manhattan and into Central Park for the largest political demonstration in U.S. history. A petition for disarmament signed by 90 million people in nine countries was presented to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. Ten thousand people crowded into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where prayers were offered in several languages for an end to the arms race. Seventeen hundred protestors, practising civil disobedience, blockaded the entrances to the British, French, Chinese, Russian and U.S. missions to the UN, and many were arrested.
At the final non-governmental organization briefing, Inga Thorsson, the Swedish diplomat who had pioneered studies in the relationship between disarmament and development, urged expanded efforts to develop a worldwide international disarmament community “to continue our efforts until we succeed.”
I took her seriously.
Rage was building inside me. World politics had become so distorted, anyone who advanced the cause of development and disarmament, the two great building blocks of the structure of peace, was seen as a radical. Anyone who pleaded for sanity in the use of the world’s resources to build up humanity rather than the arsenals of war was considered idealistic. Anyone who urged rational positions in public policy was a voice crying in the wilderness of cynicism.
We weren’t asking for unilateral disarmament but rather mutual, balanced and verifiable disarmament by first of all freezing further weapons growth. What nation would now take a step for disarmament and back up its words with deeds? “People have begun to march,” I wrote, “and if that is what it takes to move governments, then let the marches continue to the point where the nuclear arms race is universally condemned as a crime against God and man himself.”
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