The Scottish election has delivered a parliament where every pro-independence parliamentarian elected has committed to the ICAN Parliamentary Pledge, thus joining with thousands of Parliamentarians around the world who are collaborating to ensure that nuclear weapons and the horrors that nuclear war could unleash may yet be consigned to history. Thus humans can have a chance to avoid becoming no more than a footnote in the history of the planet. The Pledge has also attracted signatures from parliamentarians who do not subscribe to independence, so even though indy may be the quickest route to disarming the UK, Scottish Parliamentarians who are committed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are in fact an even bigger group at Holyrood than Parliamentarians who support self-determination for Scotland. Campaigners who supported and challenged the candidates to ensure that this happened now have the task of making sure that the 5 million people in Scotland are all fully aware that Scotland has decided through the ballot box to complete nuclear disarmament as part of our commitment to a different approach to our place in the world. The UK Government is aware that their patriarchal nuclear strategy requires the acquiescence of Scotland’s people. Our new parliament and our government can take legislative action now to pave the way for this. Their remit is to highlight every example of the complete lack of transparency about the unwanted nuclear weapons presence. They must take action in tackling inequality and urgently-needed climate action and link these actions to the TPNW. They can make preparations for a Scotland without nuclear weapons that is signed up to the TPNW. Constituents can ask their MSPs to push for this. See the comprehensive list of new MSPs and where they stand, and if your MSPs have not already signed the Pledge, you can be get support in asking them to. Our next Scottish Round Table discussion is open to all who are interested in campaigning with ICAN in Scotland and finding out more from ICAN Partners who are active in Scotland.
This morning, 30th April, three women members of Extinction Rebellion Scotland have blockaded the main entrance to Faslane naval base, home to the UK’s nuclear weapon submarines, with three garden planters carrying the legend SAFE GREEN FUTURE.
XR Scotland said:
Nuclear weapons are an existential threat to the entire world. Stockpiling weapons with the ability to wipe out all life in order to appear tough does nothing to keep the UK or any other country safe. The ongoing environmental degradation caused by uranium mining and nuclear testing continues to be felt, particularly among pacific island nations that are also the most threatened by climate change. On top of that it Faslane has been polluting the Clyde with toxic chemicals. As the ongoing Climate and Ecological Emergency threatens people and the planet, we must come together to build a safe, more just future for all people.
ICAN partners in Scotland congratulate XR Scotland for this brilliant bit of work. Next week Scotland votes in a new parliament which must begin to build the platform for a Scotland free of weapons of mass destruction a major plank of which will be MSPs who express their unwavering commitment to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by signing the ICAN Parliamentary Pledge.
As Scotland prepares to go to the polls, ICAN and 40+ organisations that have signed a letter to NatWest Group CEO Alison Rose to update the group’s defence sector policy to reflect that nuclear weapons are now prohibited. The call follows widespread condemnation of the UK government’s decision to increase the cap on the nuclear weapons in its stockpile by up to 40%.
ICAN’s Executive Director Beatrice Fihn writes in The Herald, “Prosperity is not bought by nuclear bombs, nor by spending our money on weapons that are outlawed. NatWest has the chance to take concrete steps toward joining the Scottish people in building a responsible and sustainable future with investments in products and communities that build up our world, and avoiding weapons that risk ending it.”
It is not only Scotland that is in democratic deficit when it comes to nuclear weapons.Linda Pearson of Don’t Bank on the Bomb Scotland said “Recent polling shows that nearly two thirds of people in the UK want the government to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, while 77% support a total ban on nuclear weapons globally. NatWest Group should better reflect the values of its customers, and that means ending its support for the nuclear weapon industry”.
Clients (of RBS, NatWest or Ulster Bank) now have a unique opportunity to call on NatWest Group to change its defence policy to comprehensively exclude nuclear weapons. See the draft letter,for clients to reach out to their bank about this issue.
Global Investment advisor V.E, says “With the entry into force of the TPNW, national-level laws prohibiting the financing of companies producing nuclear weapons could become more widespread. Some financial institutions who divest from nuclear weapons already refer to the TPNW as a basis of their decision, arguing that nuclear weapons are banned under the TPNW.“
NO TPNW INTEGRATED IN THE UK’S REVIEW
ICAN partners in the UK are set to analyse and respond to the UK Government’s Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy, and it seems that instead of continuing with the reduction in the number of warheads planned for the upgraded system (apparently made possible by the increase in lethality through greater accuracy in targetting the number of warheads) that number now seems set to rise.
This represents a complete disregard for the majority global support for moving towards elimination of nuclear weapons through support for and implementation of the TPNW, which entered into force and is legally binding on 51 UN member states, with others in process of ratification and committed to support.
Thanks to David Cullen at Nuclear Information Service for bringing this new situation to our attention as the and to ICAN who are flagging it up internationally.
A simple and quick way for all to to comment – as discussed in last week’s ICAN in the UK meeting – is to follow up on the advocacy letter sent to the UK Government in January.
Our MPs must ask why the UK is set on breaching the NPT which it lays out as the basis for its nuclear strategy.
In relation to the particular situation for Scotland, where the warheads are stored and based, this UK arrogance highlights the democratic deficit over nuclear weapons, and our frustration in being misrepresented as a country in the transnational community. This is not an issue only for the SNP, with Greens taking an even stronger anti nuclear position than the party of government and many other elected representatives and candidates standing for election in May fully supportive of the TPNW being adopted universally, and nuclear weapons eliminated everywhere.
There were celebrations across the world on the 22 January, Entry Into Force Day for the new legislation at the UN. In this election year the impact of the Treaty has huge implications for the democratic deficit in Scotland over its enforced position as unwilling host to the UK’s nuclear weapons. But does law always provide the answers?
The story of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a very fast moving one – we must be most concerned with what we are now enabled to do and what should happen next.
A simplistic view of ‘now illegal’ can be at best confusing if not misleading.
The central problem with nuclear weapons is not their legality or lack of it, but their effect – the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their use and the existential danger to this planet that arises from their existence.
The history of the TPNW’s development, its relationship to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, to a lesser degree, the ICJ Advisory opinion on Nuclear Weapons (1996) and the impact of of the TPNW on international acceptance of the legitimacy of nuclear weapons (stigmatisation) is all part of the story concerning changes in the legal status of nuclear weapon, and these changes depend on an understanding of the reality of the effect of the weapons.
The prohibition of other weapons of mass destruction has effectively removed any status that they might have had as symbols of power, and until the long-overdue TPNW was adopted, only nuclear weapons were not subject to the universal revulsion that has applied to instruments of racist genocide. The legal status of a treaty enhances and increases the impact of the condemnation as we see in the example of landmines, no longer made or sold in the US despite their not joining the formal treaty that prohibits them. Prohibition is not, in itself, the cause of the condemnation of nuclear or any other weapons.
An unequivocal and comprehensive prohibition adopted and agreed by member states of the UN starts the process of delegitimising the very idea that there is any place for these weapons in any transnational negotiation
The existing definitions of what is acceptable violence between state parties – proportionality, distinguishing civilians etc – would all make any use of any of the nuclear weapons that presently exist illegal. This can be tested if they are used – of course, that is too late for any effective legal or practical remedy. Nuclear deterrence theory suggests that their very awfulness would prevent their use – an unconvincing tautology that seems to say that nuclear weapons need to exist in order to prevent their use. (Similar distortions existed in the minds of those who questioned abolitionists about the legality of the slave trade, recently re-examined in the sorry history of that trade and its devastating legacy of suffering).
There is no over-arching legal framework or force that can drag the nuclear-armed states to the table, telling them their weapons are ‘now illegal’ and that is why they must abandon them. The power that will make that change lies in the hands of those who refuse their governments a mandate to spend money, put people to work, or threaten life on earth in the way that a policy based on nuclear weapons demands. The TPNW allows UN member states to come together and desist and reject these policies and refuse to be compliant with their effects. It allows member states to work together to remediate environmental damage to test sites and support indigenous peoples whose lives and lands have been affected, and it publicly recognises that these countries have a shared view that nuclear weapons are an anathema, and the number of governments who share that view is growing. Within nuclear armed-states, responsible NGOs and many Parliamentarians agree with the provisions of the Treaty, and that number is also growing.
UN House Scotland is an ICAN Partner Organisation and also hosts the Co-ordinating group for ICAN in the UK (UNA UK, UNH Scotland, and the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy). ICAN is the originator and main civil society contributor to the origins, development and Entry Into Force of the TPNW – that is what it was awarded the Nobel Prize for doing, despite persistent opposition and pressure from nuclear armed and nuclear complicit states. The legitimacy of the nuclear-armed states position has diminished at each hurdle overcome.
On the UK’s weapons in Scotland, as early as 2012 a Select Committee paper was published on the possibility of re-location of the UK’ nuclear weapons outside Scotland, where they are seen by the Parliament and the present Scottish Government as an affront and an anathema. There has been much work done since, but even a (failed) independence referendum did not flush out a UK Government solution to the problem.
The impossibility of relocating the UKs nuclear weapons system in Scotland is more than adequately covered in a number of publications by the late John Ainslie (Nowhere to Go) and David Cullen at NIS (Trouble Ahead), both referenced in the UK Chapter of Reaching Critical Will’s 2020 update on modernisation programmes around the world, Assuring Destruction Forever. The Scottish political question is a separate, albeit related, issue, when a parliamentary election seems likely to return a Government and a First Minister that have publicly declared an intention of joining the TPNW.
While we need to ensure that we understand the limitations of the legal implications we can afford the Treaty its importance in driving forward changes in what is considered acceptable in the global community. That is only in part dependent on the legal framework and it can re-interpret or alter it. There is a fluid balance that can arise through the UN process, that has notably been used to effect by individuals like Alexander Kmentt and Tariq Rauf (see IAEA, SIPRI, NPT, METO) and by the efforts of UN consultative organisations like the IRCRC, Bulletin Atomic Scientists, and Reaching Critical Will to name a few.
The UN process and negotiation of the TPNW’s rules of procedure can draw from customary international law and also on well-regarded research to make lasting changes or facilitate agreements and eventually shape interpretations and accepted understanding of IHL through negotiations based in the preamble to the Treaty.
A briefing on the TPNW and the UK (nuclear-armed) Government is available on this website in the form of The official 4 page report from Dr Rebecca Johnson, founding chair of ICAN and NGO participant at every NPT Review Conference since the 1980’s. (This document was prepared as a brief introduction to the findings in a full-length report by Dr Johnson for Nuclear Information Service and the Nuclear Education Trust and funded by the JRCT which is due for publication shortly).
Two recent articles published by TODA are essential reading on where we are with the TPNW. One is by Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, the Austrian diplomat and former Arms Control person of the year who initiated the Humanitarian Pledge that was the catalyst for UN to set up the Open Ended Working Group that started the TPNW process at the UN, and who has been appointed by the UN as President to oversee the First meeting Of State Parties to the TPNW later this year
The other is by Professor Tilman Ruff, the first founding chair of ICAN and co-president of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War who is an advisor to The Red Cross and the World Health Organisation.
Despite the credentials, both articles are very accessible and inspiring to read and to be informed by, and indicate that academic integrity does not discount ethical consideration.
In particular, Tilman exhorts us requires us to ‘use the treaty well’ and offers a positive and bold approach. Not for him is there any offer of support for the inevitable disparaging efforts to belittle the importance or workability of the TPNW that have marked every stage of its progress. His outline of the next series of steps will require academic rigour and activist vigour. ICAN is already working with diplomatic, academic and campaigning partners to achieve this and information about all the Scottish or other UK ICAN Partners and the international campaign is reported at the Scottish ICAN Roundtable (First Tuesday afternoon, every fourth month, next one is April 6th)
In addition to acting as an administrative base for ICAN partners in the UK, UN House Scotland’s work in increasing the understanding and promotion of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals allows a holistic understanding of the TPNW, since none of the goals are ultimately compatible with the continued existence of nuclear weapons. UN House Scotland also provides a base for, and works in partnership with Secure Scotland, to challenge language and practices that embed racist and patriarchal prejudices in everyday life and to encourage the development and promotion of better ways to ensure that progressive development of a Scotland that looks after all its citizens and incomers and contribute to the global security and peace. Both Secure Scotland and UN House Scotland welcome and appreciate the importance of the ever growing and changing application of International Humanitarian Law in the nuclear Weapons debate, and see the TPNW’s place in a much wider and inter connected context that the purely legal framework.
Citations and references available on request.
Janet Fenton Feb 21
Below is the four page advance briefing which precedes and summarizes Dr Rebecca Johnson’s in-depth report on the TPNW in relation to the UK which will be published shortly.
Alexander Kmentt is one of the architects of the initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In this article he gives the rationale for the Humanitarian Initiative and counters criticism of the Treaty. He points out what a step-change the TPNW is, marking the point that: “Rather than continue to merely demand disarmament progress from nuclear-weapon states, a prohibition of nuclear weapons emerged as the one concrete action that non-nuclear-weapon states were able to effect themselves. “
With the Treaty now established as international law the challenge for us all is to work for its progress. This will involve being savvy about the arguments of those who resist that progress. It will involve challenging the conventional narrative about nuclear deterrence and focusing instead on the humanitarian consequences and the appalling risks. This article is an excellent place to start.
To: Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, UK Prime Minister 10 Downing St London SW1A 2AA
Cc: Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Affairs
Cc: Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Secretary of State for Defence
22 January 2021
Entry into force of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
Dear Prime Minister,
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons becomes binding international law today, following the ratification of the 50th state on 24 October 2020.
On behalf of UK-based partner organisations of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN, the 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate), we welcome this important multilateral Treaty which will not only ban the production, testing, deployment, possession and use of nuclear weapons, but also prohibit those bound by it from assisting others in these illegal endeavours.
While we are disappointed that UK diplomats decided not to attend the negotiations that led to the Treaty, we note that the Treaty has the overwhelming endorsement of the UN General Assembly, where over two thirds of countries support it. We further note that the United Nations Secretary-General views the Treaty as an “important element of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime”.
Irrespective of the UK’s current position, the Treaty’s impact will be increasingly felt here in Britain. The Scottish Government publicly supports it and seeks to rid Scotland of Trident and end the dangerous transportation of warheads between Faslane, Coulport, and Berkshire’s bomb factories, Aldermaston and Burghfield.
Major international banks and financial institutions are divesting from nuclear weapons production, informed by ICAN’s “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” campaign.
Cities across Britain, including Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Brighton and Hove, Norwich and Leeds, have signed up to support the Treaty’s implementation. Many more Councils will follow.
Nuclear weapons are dangerous security risks, not assets. They are useless for tackling today’s major threats like the COVID-19, climate and ecological emergencies. Whether intentional or accidental, nuclear weapons use would have catastrophic global humanitarian consequences – the UK therefore has a responsibility to work with the global community on this issue.
We urge the government to engage constructively with this Treaty, which will help create a more favourable environment for the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, rescheduled for 2021 due to Covid.
Until such time that Britain joins the Treaty, we call on the UK to participate in meetings of states parties as an observer and contribute to discussions including those on disarmament verification, environmental remediation and victim assistance.
Philip Austin, Northern Friends Peace Board (Quakers)
Councillor David Blackburn, Nuclear Free Local Authorities
Sue Claydon, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship
John Cooper, Fellowship of Reconciliation
Tim Devereux, Movement for the Abolition of War
Ben Donaldson, United Nations Association – UK
Dr Gari Donn, United Nations Association – Scotland
Janet Fenton, United Nations House Scotland
Dr Kate Hudson, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Prof Lynn Jamieson, Scottish CND
Dr Rebecca E. Johnson, Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy
Brian Jones, CND Cymru
Bruce Kent, Pax Christi
Gina Langton, 80,000 Voices
Brian Larkin, Peace and Justice Centre
Fiona MacGregor, Hastings Against War
Professor Alan Maryon-Davis FFPH FRCP, Chair of Medact
David Maxwell, Christian CND
Elizabeth Minor, Article 36
Dr Lesley Morrison, MEDACT (Scotland)
Marian Pallister, Pax Christi Scotland
Dr Stuart Parkinson, Scientists for Global Responsibility
Oliver Robertson, Head of Witness and Worship, Quaker Peace and Social Witness
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK
Paula Shaw, WILPF UK
Jane Tallents, XR Peace
Dave Webb, Yorkshire CND
Angie Zelter, Trident Ploughshares
As far as the Nuke Ban Treaty is concerned the 22nd January is a day for a double celebration. On that day the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters into force as international law, binding those states that have ratified to abide by its articles. It’s a day to bang the drum, ring the bells, hang the banners, chalk the streets.
The other cause for celebration is the real progress of the Treaty itself. While awareness of the TPNW is very low in the UK, in the fresh air of the wider world things are shifting in the right direction. Here are just a few indicators of how positions are moving from initial disregard and criticism of the TPNW towards a level of recognition and acceptance. When the UN General Assembly got a further opportunity to endorse the Treaty on the 7th December last year it did so emphatically with 130 nations registering there continued support. There have also been nuanced but significant position changes by both China (itself a member of the nuclear Big Five) and Canada. On the 25th October a Tweet from the Chinese Mission to the UN ran: “China has always been advocating complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, which is fundamentally in line with purposes of #TPNW. China will continuously make relentless efforts towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.” Cynical perhaps, but taken at its lowest it is still a recognition that to speak against the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons does not place you well in global opinion.
In 2017, Canada’s premier Justin Trudeaux called the Treaty “useless”, echoing the sneers that were current then from the US, France and the UK, and when it was adopted by the UN in July that year he said it was “premature”. There has been a small but meaningful shift. Following the 50th ratification of the Treaty in October last year Global Affairs Canada said: “We acknowledge the widespread frustration with the pace of global efforts toward nuclear disarmament, which clearly motivated the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of of Nuclear Weapons.”
The point here is that in a globalised world the big players, states, corporations and institutions, are concerned for their reputations. Japan, as a state theoretically sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella, refuses to sign the TPNW. Yet it is also a country which, uniquely, has suffered a nuclear attack and where 75% of the population want Japan to join the Treaty. Two of Japan’s biggest financial institutions have now begun to take account of the TPNW. Sumitomo Life Ins. Co., whose huge tower dominates the Shinjuku skyline, does not have guidelines on investing in nuclear weapons companies, but has recently said it will consider exercising restraint as investing in such companies would hurt its reputation once the nuclear ban treaty takes effect. The stance taken by the investment giant MUFG is less opportunistic and more ethically based. It will no longer invest in nuclear weapon production as it now classes them along with “other inhumane weapons”.
Another key sign is the failure of the US to stop the TPNW reaching entry into force. To date it has only just managed to keep its NATO clients in line but its attempt in October last year to prevent new states from ratifying, and to urge those who had already ratified to withdraw, was a complete and humiliating failure.
It is the emphasis on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons together with the hard reality of the risks of nuclear exchange that has been the key to the growing enhancement of the Treaty’s stature. The basic message is simple: nuclear weapons are horrific in their effects and the risk over time that they will be used is utterly intolerable. The petrol can sits on the edge of a shelf close to the open fire. The only solution is elimination.
Like the climate emergency nuclear weaponry is an existential threat to humanity and the planet. Beyond that there is a further parallel. Up to this point it is the possessors of nuclear weapons who have been able to have almost complete ownership of the disarmament agenda. The TPNW is a claim to shared ownership of the nightmare problem, since any nuclear exchange is a threat to us all, just as the Global South, already suffering the effects of climate change, is increasingly challenging the disproportionate carbon emitters of the rich nations. The pandemic is surely teaching us that on this wee, fragile planet we have to come together for solutions. The Nuke Ban Treaty is bang on that track.
This is a summary of Ambassador Kmentt’s address to Scottish CND’s AGM on 21st November 2020. A recording of the talk is available here.
Speaking in a personal capacity Alexander addressed the significance of the TPNW and the arguments against it, and went on to outline how its progress might best be supported. A key feature is the focus on the humanitarian consequences and the recognition that these consequences are much more grave and complex than previously understood. The Treaty moves the discourse from the abstractions around the deterrence concept to the concrete – the real risks and impacts of the weapons and the emphasis on human security. It is an expression of the need for the non-nuclear states to take responsibility themselves for addressing the risks, rather than simply making demands on the nuclear-armed states. The Treaty has depended on working within the UN General Assembly, thus breaking free of the usual consensus model for disarmament negotiations which has hitherto given a de facto veto to the nuclear-armed states. The TPNW illuminates the impossibility of combining deterrence theory with human security and international humanitarian law. For example deterrence can make no provision for restitution and environmental repair in the case of an accidental detonation. The TPNW can transform the whole discourse.
The established nuclear think-tanks are fighting back against the Treaty but the fact and nature of this opposition is evidence of the sharp challenge it presents to the conventional discourse. It is notable that the nuclear establishment fight-back does not deal with the humanitarian dimension. It is argued that the TPNW must be ineffectual since the nuclear-armed states are not involved, yet it present a sharp challenge to the deterrence doctrine. It is claimed that the Treaty disregards the “security” environment, yet there is no attempt to elucidate whose security is at risk. The Treaty exposes the basic position of the nuclear-armed states – to postpone disarmament until the “security” environment allows it, so indefinitely. There is also the accusation that the TPNW undermines the NPT, despite it being precisely crafted to support Article V1, and despite the fact that Ireland, which was key in developing the NPT, and South Africa, which responded to the NPT by disarming, are strong supporters.
Civil society can support the Treaty by taking advantage of the broader and more inclusive discourse that focusses on humanitarian consequences, as with climate change high-lighting the links bewteen the two threats. This is pertinent for Scotland as the location of nuclear weapons and the risks that brings in the case of accidental detonation or nuclear conflict. In the UK, a House of Lords committee at least acknowledges the Treaty, urging the government to take its existence seriously, to be more open and to adopt a less aggressive tone.
There are two scenarios. The TPNW may be unsuccessful in challenging the nuclear status quo or it can lead to greater engagement with international humanitarian law. Maintaining its momentum is the key.
The Nuke Ban Treaty and the Global Social Norm
We are well used to dramatic norm shifts in our recent social history. Recall the low internal visibility, stink and grime of pubs before the smoking ban, or the hahaha from drivers who had managed to drive home utterly guttered without killing anyone. On a slightly longer view there was the accepted habit of burning witches – the last one in Scotland, Janet Horne, was a mere 300 years ago.
A couple of weeks ago at the Nuclear Disarmament Cross Party Group in the Parliament we heard from Sean Crowe TD about the Irish Parliament passing legislation to line up with the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). His audience was impressed and intrigued that the bill was passed unanimously but Sean seemed to be a little puzzled by our reaction. What else would you expect? It was the bleeding obvious (though his terminology was more circumspect than that).
The big bad world also has a social dynamic. Like big businesses all the big nations take account of reputational risk – especially relevant in today’s world in which the power tectonics are slipping and creaking. Even authoritarian states guard their global reputations as they attempt to expand or protect their spheres of influence. When satellites exposed the internment camps in Xinjiang the Chinese government launched a blizzard of whitewashing and misinformation. If reputational risk was a not a feature they would just have told the world to bugger off.
The TPNW has been impinging on assessments of reputational risk for some time and this has stepped up with the 50th ratification on 24th October and its entry into force on January 22nd next year. A number of big international investment corporations have caught the drift, such as the giant Japanese finance company MUFG which now classes nuclear weapons along with other inhumane weapons. Since the 50th ratification there have been nuanced but significant position changes by both China (itself a member of the nuclear Big Five) and Canada. On the 25th October a Tweet from the Chinese Mission to the UN ran: “China has always been advocating complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, which is fundamentally in line with purposes of #TPNW. China will continuously make relentless efforts towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.” Cynical perhaps, but taken at its lowest it is still a recognition that to speak against the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons does not place you well in global opinion. And that is one of the beauties of the Treaty. It poses that critical question. Are you for the end of nuclear weapons and if not through the Treaty what precisely is your plan?
In 2017, Canada’s premier Justin Trudeaux called the Treaty “useless”, echoing the sneers that were current then from the US, France and the UK, and when it was adopted by the UN in July that year he said it was “premature”. Since the 24th October there has been a small but meaningful shift. Following the 50th ratification Global Affairs Canada said: “We acknowledge the widespread frustration with the pace of global efforts toward nuclear disarmament, which clearly motivated the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of of Nuclear Weapons.”
This norm shift is perhaps a little slow to roll right now in the tight enclave that is the United Kingdom. Channel 5 still thinks it is OK to make a slice-of-human-life documentary aboard one of the UK’s very own genocidal nuclear submarines. Can you imagine: the heart-warming account of the daily life of a unit handling poison gas? The mundane preoccupations of bulldozer drivers as they excavate mass grave plots, just in case they are needed? No, I thought not. Yet we have managed to make our particular obscenity quite cuddly, really. But even here there are signs. In a recent interview Labour’s Shadow Defence spokesperson repeated the party’s utterly deplorable backing of the renewal of the UK’s nuclear arsenal and intensified the absurdity by saying that it was our duty as a P5 state to modernise. Yet even he had to acknowledge that the TPNW was “an important milestone”, though what meaning can be attached to that contradiction remains obscure.
And there is not doubt that in nuclear weapon-addicted states like ours the norm will mainly be changed by heightening the stigma the weapons attract. We can do this by avoiding getting totally sidetracked into secondary arguments (important though they may be), such as strategic value, obscene costs, waste of high order skills, etc. and instead keeping on hammering home that they are utterly inhumane and threaten human life across the planet. In Scotland we are maybe beginning to get there but if we are not careful we can so easily slip back into the old track of passive acceptance of the utterly unacceptable.