Science in Society Archive

Response to the Terrorist Attack on the USA, September 11th, 2001

A Statement from the Coordinating Committee of Scientists of Global Responsibility, UK Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR)

SGR expresses deep sympathy for the thousands of people, from many countries, who were killed and injured in the terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11th, 2001. SGR unreservedly condemns these attacks and supports attempts to identify the perpetrators and bring them to trial.

However, SGR is deeply concerned about the possibility of military action taken in retaliation to this attack by US and other forces. Further, we feel that there are important lessons which should be drawn concerning global security and global inequality, and that these are not getting adequate attention in media coverage of the issue.

US Government Response

The US Government, understandably outraged by these attacks, has chosen to brand them as the opening shots of a 'war', thus psychologically preparing the ground for military retaliation against the alleged perpetrators in Afghanistan.

SGR believes that such actions run the severe risk of inflaming a tense situation with the likely result being that more innocent civilians will die in the 'crossfire'.

Already, western aid agencies have been told to evacuate from Afghanistan, hence abandoning refugees created by Afghanistan's civil war and the ongoing drought in the region. US threats are creating a situation which is already adding to considerable suffering in the area and where the UN aid agencies have already only three weeks supply of food aid (1).

SGR urges European Governments to restrain the US from precipitous action.

'Deeper Problems'

It is essential to see this attack in a wider context. Global spending on armaments is approaching $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) annually. Meanwhile global inequality is increasing, with nearly half the world now
living in poverty.

Such spending on weapons, which has decidedly not increased world security, has to be compared with the much smaller sums given to an increasing range of natural disasters such as the flooding in Bangladesh in 1991 which killed approximately 140,000 people and the 1998 landslides in Venezuela which killed 30,000 people.

Such a reality can only breed hostility against those who control the world's money supplies: and the World Trade Centre provided a physical symbol for those feeling resentment. Moreover, the US Government has been selective in regard to whom it criticises for human rights violations: it has condemned certain Arab countries but is rather quieter about violations carried out by Israel. Its apparent double standard is shown even more starkly when it is remembered that the US supplied arms to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war and to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in its war against the Soviet Union.

Missile Defence

It is very important to realise that the attacks of 11 September and any other terrorist attack on the USA would not have been prevented by the missile defence systems proposed by President Bush. Critics of these systems, including SGR, have consistently pointed this out. These events show that the greater threat to the USA is from terrorist attacks and not from intercontinental ballistic missiles from 'rogue states'.

SGR repeats our urgent call to President Bush that this programme should b abandoned to prevent a global arms race which will decrease, not increase, global security.

Terrorist Use of Biological, Chemical and Nuclear Materials

These events have highlighted the power and unpredictability of terrorist threats. These threats could have involved, and may in the future involve, the use of biological, chemical or fissile nuclear material. SGR calls on all states, particularly the USA, to take serious steps to bring into force a strong enforcement regime for the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention this year. Commercial concerns expressed by the USA during the recent failed negotiations on this issue should not be used as an obstacle.

The black market trade in the fissile material from which nuclear bombs could be made has greatly increased since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Even countries such as South Africa have admitted that they cannot account for all the fissile material they have produced. In 1991, Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (a forerunner to SGR) warned that reprocessed nuclear fuel could be converted into weapons grade material. A recent report by the respected nuclear scientist Frank Barnaby has reiterated this. SGR therefore calls for much stronger action, not only into seizing illegally traded fissile materials, but also to restrict and quickly eliminate the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. Lessons can be learnt from the USA which stopped the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the 1970's.

In the UK, the planned approval of the Sellafield MoX plant - whilst the eyes of the world are elsewhere - should be halted. It carries the risks of making even more dangerous plutonium vulnerable to terrorist seizure and creates the need for a completely unnecessary and dangerous world-wide plutonium shipment network - including shipment by air. The recent attacks also raise the possibility that nuclear power plants themselves could be terrorist targets, with horrific consequences (2).

Military action against Afghanistan runs the severe risk of destabilising a region which contains nuclear weapons - in Pakistan and India. The possibility of nuclear weapons under the command of an extreme faction has to be avoided at all costs.

Important lessons need to be learnt from these attacks. Whilst we need greater co-operation between nation states to guard against terrorism and to bring its perpetrators to trial with principles of international law (3), we also need urgently to take major steps in reducing the reasons which cause such actions: religious and cultural intolerance, and economic and social inequality. These root causes of terrorism, not imprecise military action to avenge their effects, are the major issues to address as we begin the 21st Century.

(1) The lack of action to support humanitarian measures should be contrasted against huge sums already allocated for the 'war' against terrorism. On Friday 14th September the US Senate approved spending of 40,000 million dollars for reparations and a "war" against terrorism. 5,000 million dollars have been agreed to support the US airline industry. Some of this financial allocation should be used for increased international aid for refugees in Afghanistan and Iraq and other states directly affected by recent conflicts.

In stark contrast, the US has failed to meet its UN commitments. In March 1999, Kofi Annan, General Secretary of the UN, urged Washington to pay up 1300 million dollars of unpaid arrears to enable the UN to do its job properly. On May 11, 2001, the House of Representatives froze US repayments to the UN. The US currently owes the UN over 220 million dollars.

(2) International Atomic Energy Commission meeting Vienna, September 17, 2001: spokesperson David Kyd: At present all nuclear plants present a clear target for terrorist attacks and the security of radioactive material must be taken very seriously indeed. Most nuclear plants would not withstand direct hit of large, fuelled airliner.

(3) Support the setting up of the International Criminal Court via the
Treaty of Rome. Almost alone amongst world states, the US has refused to support the International Criminal Court and the 1998 Treaty of Rome, fearing cases against itself. The US should change this stance to support this global
effort to set up an international court where offenders including terrorists could be tried consistent with internationally agreed principles.

From SGR forum mailing list

Article first published 00/00/00

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