Human Rights and Nuclear Secrets

In the post Cold War world, the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons has received increasing attention. India, Iraq, Pakistan, and North Korea have been especially singled out for attention. Yet, as in many other areas, the concerns of our government are often very selective. What is seen as a dangerous threat to international peace on the part of so called "rogue states'' is quietly disregarded in the case of allies.

I was reminded once again of our government's discriminatory approach to international security issues when I received a call in early September from a friend and former colleague. Sam Day, a Wisconsin native, is a former editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Day is currently coordinating an international effort to free Mordecai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear scientist imprisoned by his own government.

Vanunu's story is a tragic tale of the sacrifice of individual rights to a crude realpolitic and the demands of the international arms race. His family emigrated from Morocco to Israel in 1963, when Vanunu was 9. As a young man, Vanunu served in the Israeli army. He later went to work in the Dimona nuclear research center in the Negev Desert. This "research facility'' harbored a plutonium separation plant operated in strictest secrecy. Vanunu became increasingly disturbed by the work of this plant, which was preparing components for nuclear weapons without the knowledge even of the Israeli population.

Vanunu left the plant in 1985. Before departing, he took photographs documenting the work of the plant. Emigrating to Australia, he presented the facts about the Israeli nuclear program to a reporter from the London Times. The Israeli government then had him kidnapped in Italy and dumped his drugged body into a cargo vessel bound for Israel. He was charged with treason and convicted in a closed-door trial.

Vanunu was subsequently held in solitary confinement for more than 11 years. Amnesty International condemned his treatment as "cruel, inhuman, and degrading.'' In March of 1998, he was released into the general prison population but denied other privileges.

Vanunu has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. The European Parliament has called on Israel to release him. Last winter 36 members of the House signed a letter calling on President Clinton to ask Israel to free Vanunu on humanitarian grounds. The President replied that he shared their concern about Vanunu's prison treatment but took no further action.

This summer Day has been trying to persuade the Senate to write to Clinton on Vanunu's behalf, but thus far he has been unable to find a senator who will take the lead in initiating such a letter. He indicated to me in a recent conversation that his best hope right now is New York's retiring senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, will take the lead on this issue. Day also hopes that letters from constituents in many other states may persuade other senators to become active in this cause. Here in my home state of Maine, letters to Senator Collins have prompted her staff to begin investigation of this case, though no commitments have been made.

None of Vanunu's supporters, Day included, denies that Vanunu violated Israeli law by breaking his oath of secrecy in divulging his government's secret nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, at the very least the abduction, secret trial, and barbaric punishment of Vanunu raise humanitarian issues.

Even beyond the cruelty to Vanunu, there is another set of fundamental moral issues involved in this case, issues to which both Israel and the U.S. should be sensitive. Is a citizen always bound to obey the edicts of his or her government? Does an oath of secrecy absolve one of the responsibility to divulge violations of international law being conducted by one's government? Neither secrecy oaths nor the orders of governmental superiors provided absolution at Nuremberg. Israelis should be in the lead in honoring the Nuremberg precedents.

Vanunu is rightly regarded as a hero by many peace, human rights, and religious activists. He neither received nor sought compensation for his revelations. He acted out of a deep concern for the threat that nuclear weaponry posed to the security of the entire region, including Israel. His actions honored the democratic faith that citizens are entitled to know about significant military choices undertaken supposedly on their behalf. In domestic laws that protect whistleblowers and in rhetorical forays on behalf of human rights the U.S. government honors the principles upon which Vanunu acted. Yet in its daily dealings with Israel, our government remains silent on the Vanunu case.

U.S. citizens have an important stake in this case. Secrecy has always been an essential pillar of the nuclear arms race. The development of nuclear technologies carries with it not only the threat of nuclear war but significant safety risks of accidental detonation and pollution of workers and surrounding communities. We know about many of these risks only because a courageous few dared to break the veil of nuclear secrecy. The least the Senate can do is to ask the President to demand the release of Mordecai Vanunu on humanitarian grounds. His long imprisonment already represents an atrocity.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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