News

SCOTLAND AND THE GLOBAL DISARMAMENT MOVEMENT

Dr Nick Ritchie, University of York, May 2021

Scotland has an important role to play in the global nuclear disarmament movement in two ways: 1) by reinforcing the web of international norms and law that constrains and delegitimises nuclear weapons; 2) by challenging the nuclear weapons practices and ideology of the British state.

Reinforcing nuclear disarmament

Westminster parties and politicians that support the UK’s nuclear weapons often frame the very idea of getting rid of them as naïve, dangerous and a form of national emasculation. The SNP’s position on nuclear disarmament, which reflects the view across Scotland, is routinely derided as outside the mainstream. And yet it is not. In fact the opposite is true.

In 2017 the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the UN by 122 states. In 2015 at the UN General Assembly 139 states voted in favour of a ‘humanitarian pledge’ to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”. 115 states are members of nuclear weapon-free zones that prohibit nuclear weapons. Across swathes of the global South and areas of Europe, states have long rejected the legitimacy and necessity of nuclear weapons, including many states that have the capacity to build them. Moreover, public opinion polls routinely show majorities in support of eliminating nuclear weapons, including across Europe. The movement in Scotland that refuses to accept UK nuclear weapons is fully in step with a global movement of governments, people, religious organisations, parliamentarians, and trades unions that reject nuclear weapons and a system of security based on the threat of catastrophic nuclear violence. 

Furthermore, the direction of travel is towards ever tighter normative and legal restrictions on nuclear weapons and elimination. Two other ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – chemical and biological weapons – have been eliminated through global conventions: the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Nuclear weapons are subject to a global norm of non-proliferation through the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, regional prohibition in the nuclear weapon-free zones, a ban on nuclear testing through the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); a norm against the first use of nuclear weapons (often referred to as a ‘nuclear taboo’), and International Humanitarian Law that prohibits all means and methods of warfare, such as nuclear warfare, that cannot discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as civilians, who are not, that cause unnecessary suffering, and that cause severe or long-term damage to the environment. In addition, there is a universally accepted goal of nuclear disarmament that the nuclear weapon states, including the UK, still claim to support. This is was first formulated when the United Nations General Assembly on 24 January 1946 adopted its first-ever resolution, calling for the “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons”. So a web of norms, laws, restraints and obligations affecting nuclear weapons has developed since 1945. This web developed because of a deep and abiding concern about the omnicidal possibilities of nuclear war and a widespread acknowledgment that nuclear weapons must be subjected to extensive controls up to and including their elimination. Scotland’s support for nuclear disarmament is part of this global web and an important contribution to it.

An independent Scotland committed to nuclear disarmament would be able to go further and join the ranks of ‘disarmament advocacy states’ that have driven disarmament diplomacy. These have been defined as “often small- or middle-sized nations, sometimes known as ‘Middle Powers’” that have “been instrumental in stimulating a strong civil society sector, ranging from mass-appeal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to think tanks and academic institutions supportive of the elimination of nuclear weapons”. They include states like Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and South Africa, Thailand, Egypt and Malaysia. An independent Scotland would therefore find support in Europe for its work on nuclear disarmament from its close neighbour, Ireland, as well as Switzerland and Austria. But it would also find support from – and through its disarmament advocacy lend support to – governments, political parties, and publics in other European states, including NATO states, that are opposed to nuclear weapons, for example in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Iceland.

Challenging the British nuclear state

The UK government plans to operate the next generation of Dreadnought nuclear-armed submarines from Faslane until the 2060s or 2070s. This brings with it a set of nuclear risks for Scotland. These include risks of serious accident resulting in explosions and/or radiation release involving nuclear warhead transportation convoys, nuclear submarine reactors, Trident missile bodies, and nuclear warheads. The UK Ministry of Defence places the highest priority on the safety and security of its warheads, missiles and reactors, but there is a worrisome historical record of accidents involving nuclear weapon systems and delivery vehicles in peacetime and, more alarmingly still, during international crises.  

The Scottish Government can continue to use devolved powers, for example around transportation, civil contingencies and environmental protection, to challenge the legitimacy and necessity of living with this set of nuclear risks, unwillingly, for perhaps the next half century on current UK plans. 

Moreover, the SNP and the Scottish Government can challenge the ideology of nuclear weapons that is alive and well in parts of Westminster. It can do so by highlighting the dangers of practising nuclear deterrence, the irrelevance of nuclear threats to today’s transnational security challenges, not least the climate crisis, and the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear violence. It can do this by continuing to set out an inclusive national narrative based on a positive vision of Scotland in which nuclear weapons have no place. This frames Scotland as a small but effective internationalist power, one that is committed to peace, conflict resolution, development aid and disarmament: a “committed and active participant in the global community,” in the words of the Scottish government’s 2013 white paper on Scottish independence. It is a narrative that has invoked Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland as examples of states of comparable size and status that have made a sustained and significant contribution to conflict resolution, peace, reconciliation, and diplomacy – some of which are important disarmament advocacy states. It stands in contrast to commitments by Westminster political parties to retain nuclear weapons for the long-term as national security assets rather than liabilities.

An independent Scotland would be in a position to negotiate the removal of the UK nuclear weapons complex from Scotland. In doing so, it would raise very difficult questions about the cost and necessity of reproducing facilities for nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear warhead outside of Scotland. This would prompt a very serious debate in the remainder of the United Kingdom that could lead to a groundswell of support in favour of terminating the UK’s dependence on nuclear weapons altogether.

In summary: Scotland has an important role to play in the global nuclear disarmament movement. It can reinforce and advance the norms and laws that restrain and prohibit nuclear weapons and nuclear violence as part of a global enterprise in common cause with the vast majority of states and peoples. It can challenge the legitimacy of UK nuclear weapons practices in Scotland and Westminster narratives that insist nuclear weapons are necessary and legitimate. As an independent state, Scotland could join the ranks of the disarmament advocacy states, support the delegitimisation and stigmatisation of nuclear weapons in Europe, and prompt a profound rethinking of nuclear weapons in the remainder of the UK. For these reasons, Scotland – its government, people and institutions – should continue embrace its contribution to global nuclear disarmament with confidence.

Dr. Nick Ritchie researches and teaches in the areas of international relations and international security at the University of York. His particular focus is on nuclear disarmament, proliferation and arms control and US and UK national security. After completing his PhD thesis at the University of Bradford in 2007 on the evolution of US nuclear weapons policy after the Cold War, Nick spent four years researching and teaching at Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies before joining York in 2011. He previously worked for five years at the Oxford Research Group, an independent Non-Governmental Organisation working with policy-makers and independent experts on the challenges of global security and nuclear disarmament.

January 2021 – The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Enters Into Force

The 22 January is a historic milestone for this landmark treaty. Prior to the TPNW’s adoption, nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction not banned under international law, despite their catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Now, with the treaty’s entry into force, we can call nuclear weapons what they are: prohibited weapons of mass destruction, just like chemical weapons and biological weapons.

Nuclear weapons are not a necessity for human security, and their use is not compatible with common sense, human decency, or the teachings of any major religion or ethics system. The atomic chain is losing its invisibility as survivors of civil war in African countries recall the uranium wars that destroy people. From slavery to cluster bombs and in school playgrounds and on factory floors, formal prohibition helps people to condemn what is unacceptable. The smoking ban made smokers outcasts. The US no longer manufactures or uses landmines. They never signed the treaty but did responded to global condemnation of landmines. Already, some financial institutions are saying NO to nuclear weapons, and campaigners can take heart that prohibition can lead to elimination. So lets make a noise about it! Churches and are expected to ring their bells and Quaker Meeting Houses will be dropping banners. The lockdown may prevent a huge demo at Faslane or George Square, but check out the international banner that you can order now and have in your window on the day.

These can be bought from UN House or from the SCND Online shop, or you can make your own. More news soon of action to celebrate the day we banned the bomb.

  • As campaigners call out the UK for its contempt for international law the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons goes from strength to strength.
    Following the Westminster government’s announcement that it is increasing the cap on the number of nuclear warheads, CND is reporting the UK to the United Nations for breaking international law.. as confirmed by a specially commissioned legal opinion. We Scots must get behind this move by signing CND’s petition. The additional bombs will be heading … Continue reading
  • Warm Welcome for ICAN NATO Report from Scottish CND

    The Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has published its report: “Why NATO members should join the UN nuclear weapon ban”. “Scottish CND warmly welcomes this new, thorough and comprehensive report which makes a wholly compelling case for NATO member states to engage with the Treaty on the … Continue reading
  • Faslane Nuke Base Blockaded

    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 … Continue reading
  • THE HUMANITARIAN INITIATIVE AND THE TPNW
    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 … Continue reading
  • ICAN in the UK Letter to PM as Nuclear Ban Treaty enters into Force
    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 … Continue reading
  • Marking the Progress of The Nuclear Ban Treaty
    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, … Continue reading
  • We must maintain the momentum of the Nuclear Ban Treaty

    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 … Continue reading
  • Shifting the Norm for Nukes

    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 … Continue reading
  • NEXT STEPS FOR TPNW –
    On 22 January, the states that have ratified the TPNW will be bound by its prohibitions and also its obligations – including universalisation – which means urging all the world’s governments to join. Already, the norm is starting to shift as the Canadian Government, a strong opposer, took an opportunity at the UN to state … Continue reading
  • NUKE BAN TREATY BECOMES INTERNATIONAL LAW!!
    With Honduras’ ratification on 24th October 2020 the TPNW has now acquired the necessary 50 ratifications to enter into force as international law. The TPNW 1 was adopted at the UN in July 2017 with the support of 122 member states.. When the 50th state ratifies, there remains only the 90 day period allowed by … Continue reading