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Countdown to Zero: A Compelling Film With a Critical Message

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A few years ago, Lawrence Bender and Jeffrey Skoll set out to make a new documentary about nuclear weapons, a film which would act as a wake up call to the imperative of nuclear abolition, just as their last project, An Inconvenient Truth, galvanized public discourse--and action--surrounding climate change. Teamed up with policy expert Bruce Blair and Writer-Director Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground, Blindsight) they created the newly released Countdown to Zero, which unequivocally argues that, whether by accident, malicious intent of "terrorists" or as a result of failed diplomacy, nuclear weapons pose an unacceptable risk and must be eliminated.

While scores of arms control and disarmament civil society groups are deeply inspired by the mass consciousness-raising and mobilization opportunity the film presents, many disarmament activists are vocally disappointed with the film. They are concerned that the film overemphasizes the hazard of sub-state actors acquiring these weapons of terror and places insufficient responsibility upon countries like the US and Russia for their continued reliance on-- and dangerous posture of-- nuclear weapons.

Countdown to Zero makes the case for abolition without employing the moral arguments eloquently posited by luminaries such as Albert Schweitzer, or Cold Warrior George Kennan, who once stated:

The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings - against people we do not know, whom we have never seen, and whose guilt or innocence is not for us to establish - and, in doing so, to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity- an indignity of monstrous dimensions - offered to God!

Indeed the film omits many valid arguments highly relevant to advancing to the security of a world without nuclear weapons:

1) The continued possession of nuclear weapons--which by itself entails a threat to use them--instigates others to acquire them. As UN High Representative Sergio Duarte said, "One cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect."

2) It is necessary to uphold the rule of law by fulfilling the unanimous ruling of the International Court of Justice wherein the Court held " ...there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control"

3) Because nuclear weapons, in the words of the late Senator Alan Cranston, are "unworthy of civilization," it is imperative as a matter of conscience to address their moral impropriety.

4) We should not overlook the injustice and destabilizing impact of the extraordinary economic expenditures wasted on nuclear weapons and outrageous allocations within nuclear weapons-states to modernize their arsenals - a burlesque expression of improved means to unimproved ends.

5) This is the moment to utilize the political high ground opened by the Five Point Plan set forth by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which includes, inter alia, a "call for the (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) NPT parties to pursue negotiations in good faith - as required by the treaty - on nuclear disarmament, either through a new convention or through a series of mutually reinforcing instruments backed by a credible system of verification."

6) Every citizen has a right to demand compliance with the commitments stated as "The reaffirmation by the nuclear-weapon States of their unequivocal undertaking to accomplish, in accordance with the principle of irreversibility, the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all States parties are committed under Article VI of the Treaty," as stipulated in the 2010 Final Document of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, agreed to by 189 countries that are parties to the NPT, and the important diplomatic processes that are necessary to achieve that goal.

Do such omissions weaken the core argument of the film? Do they dilute the film's efficacy as a public outreach and engagement tool? Hardly. Rather, it is the responsibility of civil society groups and concerned citizens to seize the opportunity of this powerful, mass-distributed major motion film arguing for abolition and supplement the film's message by drawing attention to these various initiatives and remonstrations.

Of course nuclear proponents could try to use the film for their own nefarious ends by focusing singularly on the dangers of terrorists or unfriendly states getting a hold of the weapons, arguing that military force can prevent such proliferation. Such people brought the US into a war in Iraq by simply telling lies. Will they try to distort the message of this film? Possibly. However, this possibility should only motivate abolition-minded civil society members to redouble our efforts and help amplify the movie's unambiguous concluding message: that abolition is the only way, and we will achieve it with engaged, public support.

The film's core message is compelling, effectively presented and unambiguous: the only way to address the nuclear threat of nuclear weapons is through their elimination. Towards this end, it calls for incremental threat-reducing steps, such as bringing the new US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty into force, taking the weapons off of high alert status, lowering the numbers of existing warheads and obtaining a universal, legal, intrusive, and enforceable agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Russia, the United States and China already have pronounced modernization programs in place, to say nothing of the more shrouded programs by the "unofficial" nuclear weapon states of Israel, India and Pakistan. The politics of turning these programs around will require a shift in the characterization of nuclear weapons: that they are a greater problem than any problem they seek to solve. This is the message of Countdown to Zero. This shift will require all of us to speak up, mobilize public opinion and, as captioned in the last frame of the movie "Demand Zero"!

Jonathan Granoff is the President of the Global Security Institute (GSI). Rhianna Tyson Kreger is a Senior Officer at GSI. See: www.gsinstitute.org.

This post originally appeared on the Tikkun blog.