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Syria and the need for a 21st century arms control agenda
August 31, 2011
The Aug. 29th Washington Post article “Syrian unrest raises fears about chemical arsenal” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Joby Warrick raises a key national security question for the United States. Will we pursue an arms control or arms proliferation foreign policy in the 21st century? During the moving Egyptian revolution, canisters of tear gas that were stamped with the “Made in the USA” label brought down protesters in Tahrir Square. U.S. aircraft and helicopters were shot down in Iraq using guidance systems built in Russia. In Sudan, while it wasn’t the People’s Liberation Army that was pulling the trigger, Sudanese hunted each other with Chinese-made copies of the AK-47 assault rifle. And, finally, Syria created the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenal trading dual-use pharmaceuticals with countries like France. The arms proliferation of the 20th century has created the nightmares of the 21st century. In Syria, we face the prospect of a crumbling government and the inevitable chaos that could follow the fall of a regime that has been in power for so long. When the Soviet Union fell, despite some proactive U.S. anti-proliferation initiatives, the materials to make nuclear weapons quickly spread to other countries and groups. Our country is still investing, as we must, to try and secure these vulnerable nuclear weapon materials. Should Syria’s chemical weapons fall in the wrong hands, we will be paying the consequences for decades. In medical and public health settings there is an axiom that goes, “A penny of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While arms proliferation will not end tomorrow, the United States can play a key role in building an international consensus around robust arms control. As we speak, an Arms Trade Treaty is being negotiated that has the potential of creating a mechanism to track and, hopefully, curtail the international conventional arms trade. (Click here to find out more at controlarms.org) As we move to try and pick up the pieces from the Cold War, essential nuclear disarmament treaties, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, deserve the United States’ leadership and support to walk us back from the brink of disaster. Any realistic assessment of our implementation of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention shows the United States and other parties wanting in our efforts. We must commit the political will and resources needed for the rapid world-wide eradication of these weapons of mass destruction. I remember listening to Dr. Robert Mtonga, from Zambia, testifying to the UN on his experience and frustration dealing with the human costs of the arms trade on his country. He discussed the patients he treated and at one point he noted, “We [health professionals] are tired of mopping the floors while the taps are still running.” Let us pursue a 21st century national security agenda that begins to turn the tap of global violence off.
Additional Arms Control Links:
IPPNW co-President Dr. Robert Mtonga compelling blog piece on the role of public health in a robust arms treaty
Arms Control Association Brief on the Arms Trade Treaty
Chemical Weapons Information at Global Green
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