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.