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Science for peace remains a distant goal

The New Straits Times, December 16, 2001

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

On Dec 10, intellectual giants and luminaries congregated in Olso to witness the award of the Nobel Prize for Peace. An equally impressive group gathered in Stockholm for the same award for the sciences.

This year the award ceremonies were particularly meaningful, given that it is 100 years since the establishment of the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobel.se)

Taken together, the events speak of the need for scientific knowledge to better serve peace. As it stands today, events seems to demonstrate that science can be grossly misused to disrupt peace. Turning scientific inventions such as commercial aeroplanes into bombs is one extreme example.

There are many lesser examples arising from the misguided use of what is already available. This in fact has always been a moral dilemma, even more so now with new research frontiers, epitomised by the science of genetics.

In this respect the United Nations Resolution of Science and Peace passed on Dec 6, 1988 is milestone. it addresses major aspects of the relation between science and peace and reaffirms at least four main roles of science, namely, promoting international peace, security and co-operation, promoting human rights, promoting the social and economic development of mankind, and, finally, protecting the environment.

The points raised in the preambles of the resolution are valuable food for thought. For example, it states that "progress in science and technology profoundly affects international peace and security, economic and social development, respect for human rights and many other aspects of civilisation and culture"

According to a group called Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) to promote ethical science and technology, "global spending on armaments is approaching US$1 trillion (US$1,000,000,000,000) annually".

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

These could only worsen the disparity existing currently, and may be a breeding ground for violence and terror.

Ironically, under the "war against terror" banner, scientific knowledge continues to threaten peace as there are already indications that a military build-up is inevitable. Critics say that American spending on technology for the build-up will rival even that of the Reagan administration. 

These include the use of more unmanned surveillance drones, more intelligence-gathering aircraft, and converting nuclear submarines to carry and launch cruise missiles, in addition to defence spending against biological and chemical agents.

Indeed, as one of the Nobel winners was quoted as saying" "The United States spends US$35 billion (RM133 billion) a year to maintain its nuclear arsenals. Yet when Kofi Annan, (the UN Secretary-General, this year's Nobel Peace Prize Winner) asks for US$10 billion to stop the AIDS epidemic, he was told there is no cash", noted a 1985 Nobel Peace Prize winner, a US doctor.

Similarly, it is worth reiterating that only three days after the Sept 11 tragedy the US Senate approved US$40 billion for reparations and a "war" against terrorism.

In stark contrast, a few years ago, the same UN Secretary-General had to urge the US to pay up a meagre US$1.3 billion in unpaid arrears. Reportedly until today, Washington still owes the UN some US$220 million.

Yet more is being spent daily on the asymmetric war in Afghanistan; money that could be better used for the well-being of the Afghans. It may have averted 911 in the first place.

Pertinently, as the SGR commented: "It is very important to realise that the attacks of 11 September and  any other terrorist attack on the US would not have been prevented by missile defence systems proposed by President Bush."

It repeats its call that this programme be abandoned to prevent a global arms race that will decrease, not increase, global security. It calls on all states, "particularly USA", to take serious steps to bring into force a strong enforcement regime for Biological and Toxic Weapon Convention this year (see Poison Control, Oct. 7). 

And headlines such as "US boycotts nuclear talks", exactly two months after the September tragedy tell how precarious the situation is.

So we may have a coalition against terrorism, but we are still far away from one that controls the weapons of mass of destruction, whether biological, chemical or nuclear, all handy for terrorist attacks. Without the latter "coalition", the former seems futile.

As the UN Secretary-General said, Sept 11 "made it clear to everyone that we cannot afford further proliferation of nuclear weapons". But not everyone is listening, including the nation with the world's largest nuclear arsenal.

We seem to have forgotten what Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize said: "To spread knowledge is to spread well-being."

Instead, many of us seem bent on misusing knowledge to create havoc and destruction in pursuit of narrow goals. The figures speak for themselves. Since 1901, more than 110 million people, more half of the civilians, have died in conflicts, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London (NST, Dec 7).

Thus as affirmed by the US, scientists need to establish a free and open dialogue between one another, and with political leaders and the public in general, with regard to scientific developments and their present and potential implications for our civilisation.

Hopefully this will give rise to worldwide and greater awareness of usefulness of science in the preservation and promotion of international peace. Wishing our readers Selamat Hari Raya.

In conjunction with the Nobel Prize Centennial celebration, Universiti Sains Malaysia's Main Library is organising a Nobel Laureate Exhibition from Dec 12- Jan 19. it is open to the public. Recommended  website: almaz.com/nobel/top.html  

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