It’s historic. The formal schedule of the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty Conference for this Friday coming (7th July) is the adoption of the treaty itself. Over 130 UN states are participating. It’s the very best news in nuclear disarmament in decades.
The Conference, which has the support of the overwhelming majority of the UN member states, has arisen from the growing awareness worldwide of the catastrophic humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons, as underscored by declarations from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent that even a regional exchange of nuclear weapons would mean a disaster beyond any human remedy. The Treaty will follow the pattern of the treaties banning other weapons, such as landmines and chemical weapons. Like these it will not require ratification by all UN states to be effective.
At every step, from the series of international conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons up to the most recent revisions on Friday (30th June), the commitment to prohibition has been strengthened. These revisions include a clearer link to current international humanitarian law on weapons of mass destruction and, critically, prohibit the threat to use them, thus making the concept of deterrence itself illegitimate. Nuclear-armed states may join the Treaty by first eliminating their arsenals or, alternatively, on the basis of a plan, for a clearly timetabled and certified elimination.
Even in these last few days, many diplomats and civil society representatives are keen to still further strengthen the requirements of the Treaty. One aim is to provide more clarity for situations in which non-nuclear states can maintain in a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state and another is the hope that Treaty will be clearer about prohibiting financing nuclear weapon activity.
Once the Treaty is adopted it will open to signing and ratification by 40 or 50 states.(dependent on the final wording) to become a legally binding UN Treaty to stigmatise, and prohibit nuclear weapons leading to their elimination
There is an obvious question from the sceptical. The nine nuclear-armed states are not participating and show no sign at present of ratifying any ban treaty so what effect can it possibly have on the huge stockpiles and threatening postures of these states?
There will be practical difficulties for the nuclear-armed states, as they well understand. Just before the October 2016 vote at the UN last year which established the Conference the vote at the US, in leaked letter, warned its NATO allies not to support the process since a completed treaty would impose significant restraints on the ability of the US to maintain their global nuclear posture, citing difficulties such as the transit of weapons and materials through the borders, airways or sea lanes of ratifying states. Further, the Treaty will mean a critical change in the status of nuclear weapons, as similar treaties have done so successfully for chemical weapons and land mines.Indeed, the ten-year long process to this stage has already shifted the moral framework. In the rarified air of the nuclear weapon states such as the UK, the long established nuclear weapon discourse has been largely limited to issues of military strategy, costs and employment. Increasingly, the focus is now moving to the simple issue of what nukes are and what they do. Who, in any civilised and humane frame nowadays, would entertain discussion of the strategic value of landmines or chemical weapons? The focus would be solely on the horrific and continuing death and damage. Similarly, the perspective on nukes is undergoing a significant shift to the straightforward issue of the humanitarian consequences.
The Treaty will confirm this. Closely connected to that is the understanding that the dominant threats to human survival are catastrophic climate change and nuclear war, each having the potential to precipitate the other, one by provoking dangerous conflict through mass migrations and fierce resource competition, and the other by the drastic climactic effects of even a regional nuclear exchange. Both threats are pointed at everyone on the planet.
Then there is the issue of how the treaty can underscore the democratic deficit on nuclear weapons. One nuclear ‘umbrella’ state, the Netherlands, has been forced to be ‘in the room’ by its own political process, (the people voted to ensure that the Government would participate in the negotiations) despite its own Government’s position. The Netherlands civil society team are holding them to account and challenging the legality and acceptability of NATO’s nuclear strategy in an open forum.
Due to the UK’s refusal to take part Scots are unrepresented and misrepresented at diplomatic level. There has been however a strong Scottish accredited civil society presence which is playing its part in informing and persuading diplomats. This team has now been joined by Bill Kidd MSP, Co-President of Parliamentarians for Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament. With the team is Janet Fenton, Vice-Chair of Scottish CND and a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, who said:
“The nuclear-armed states have no argument with which to object to the Treaty and their strategy appears to be to pretend that it isn’t happening, Given the almost complete absence of this good news story from UK conventional media, the UK Government might be forgiven for imagining that everyone accepts that threatening to incinerate people indiscriminately is a reasonable and legal foreign policy. That’s so irrational , it can’t be allowed to happen. Along with many others I will be at Coulport and Faslane for a week of direct action against the nuclear weapons there from the 8th July.”