The significance of the Vienna Conference is profound. Its overt outcome is likely to appear quite modest. If you think that sounds like a contradiction, read on.
The Vienna Conference, hosted by the Austrian government, and attended this week by an expected one hundred and fifty governments, follows from similar meetings in Oslo and Mexico. Looking at nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens, Vienna will delve further into evidence from survivors of nuclear explosions and testing, UN humanitarian response agencies, researchers on nuclear use scenarios, nuclear accidents, hair trigger alert and deployment problems, computer and human miscalculations, and on cyber and other kinds of risks undreamed of when the US and Soviet Union raced each other to amass over fifty thousand nuclear weapons.
So what, some might say: people have been talking about nuclear dangers since the weapons were first used in 1945. True, but this time the majority of governments going to Vienna are being pushed to move from just discussing the dangers to initiating more effective political and diplomatic action to accelerate nuclear disarmament.
To understand why, you only had to see and hear over six hundred people from all over the world who crammed into the Civil Society Forum this weekend. Organised by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and ICAN Austria, the civil society forum demonstrated how a new generation is getting involved in campaigning to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Mostly young, the ICAN generation have been galvanised by new research into nuclear risks, climate change and famine.They aren’t dominated by die hards from certain nuclear-armed states, but represent many non-nuclear nations as well. And they are not interested in excuses from any governments, whether nuclear armed or nuclear free. Nor any nonsense about “not in my lifetime”.
They don’t see why the nine pariah states (yes, that includes Britain as well as China, Russia, France, the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan and the pathetic despots of North Korea, with their desperation to be rated as nuclear “powers”) get to decide when and how to eliminate nuclear weapons. From a humanitarian perspective, abolishing nuclear weapons is a necessity – and the right and responsibility of all. That insight has caught on with peoples of the Global South, who see a parallel with the vested interests that blocked independence movements and the emancipation of slaves. It wasn’t the colonisers or slave-owners and their economic hangers-on and parliamentary apologists who led those abolition movements. Some made pious declarations about wanting to free slaves (eventually), but most were too dependent on the economic and social institutions that underpinned slavery to abolish the systems and mindsets that sustained human trafficking and bondage. Instead they tried to divert attention towards tinkering with legislation purporting to make an inhumane institution work a bit less cruelly.
What is inspiring in the new Ban the Bomb movement is how many nuclear ban campaigners already have courageous experience working against poverty and defending human rights in their countries. Many first got involved in disarmament by persuading their governments to give up – and ban – landmines and cluster munitions. Many are strong, committed women, reminding me of how the established peace organisations under-estimated the inspirational power and effectiveness of Greenham women in the disarmament movements of the 1980s.
In the eyes of the ICAN generation, nuclear weapons are a stupid, dangerous, cold war aberration creating divisions and terrifying risks at a time when all nations need to work together to tackle the most serious security challenges we all face, starting with the industrial-fuelled destruction of our Earth’s climate and environment.
Most of the governments these younger campaigners are putting under pressure have already eschewed nuclear deterrence and dependence. But for years they seemed to accept that their status as “non-nuclear-weapon states” under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meant they’d given up their leverage and responsibilities to accomplish further – more universal nuclear disarmament treaties.
The humanitarian approach is reframing the problem of nuclear weapons from deterrence credibility and techno-military issues to human fallibility and disastrous humanitarian consequences. In doing so, it is mobilising a generation with the determination and strategies to ban and eliminate them. In addition to mobilising civil society and governments to push these nuclear ban strategies, the significance of the Vienna Conference lies in the fact that the P5 nuclear states on the UN Security Council have become divided over what to do about the humanitarian disarmament challenge after their collective boycotts of Oslo and Nayarit proved counterproductive.
In February 2014, when Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz announced his intention to host the third HINW Conference, he made clear his view that a defence concept “that is based on the total destruction of the planet should have no place in the 21st century”. But almost immediately the Austrian Foreign Ministry came under pressure from the United States, UK and other NATO and nuclear-armed representatives, who objected when the Chair of the Nayarit Conference, Mexico’s Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, called for “a diplomatic process ... [to] reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument…” This conclusion was strongly backed by campaigners across the world, but provoked anxiety in some quarters, especially where nuclear dependent governments gather. Some of the P5 claimed that their decision not to participate in the Nayarit HINW Conference was vindicated, while raising the spectre that such negotiations would undermine the NPT, which holds its next Review Conference in May 2015. Yet the US and UK will now be seated in the Vienna HINW Conference, while France and Russia have excluded themselves. China is expected to send officials to observe, but not formally sit behind the “China” nameplate.
The objection that humanitarian disarmament initiatives undermine the NPT is frequently made, but very odd. Since the 1970s - and even more, after the cold war ended - various additional negotiations have been undertaken by various states with the express purpose of implementing the NPT. Despite vociferously opposing the start of negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1994, the UK and France were subsequently among the first to sign and ratify the treaty. They have proclaimed ever since that the CTBT reinforces the NPT, as indeed it does. Likewise, the US and Russia want their bilateral arms reduction agreements to be viewed as important steps towards implementing the NPT. In 2003, George W. Bush pulled together a group of invited, “like-minded states” to carry out the controversial “Proliferation Security Initiative”, while President Obama has headed up a less militaristic grouping of “willing” states in a series of “Nuclear Security Summits”. Such initiatives have been strongly backed by the UK, US, France, and often Russia and China, and presented as means to strengthen and implement the NPT.
Now we are seeing the club of nuclear-armed states becoming more divided, not just about the humanitarian initiatives, but about everything to do with nuclear weapons. Not content with shunning the Oslo and Nayarit Conferences, the P5 decided to boycott UN talks on nuclear disarmament at the Palais des Nations in 2013. Israel has become increasingly isolated, not only through its bombing of Gaza but its “opaque” nuclear position. That has left the United States in a particularly difficult position in the run-up to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The centrepiece commitment from the 2010 NPT Review Conference was agreement to convene a regional conference in 2012 to discuss ways forward on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. No such conference has happened, which will make a positive outcome at the forthcoming NPT Conference even harder than usual.
India and Pakistan are trapped in a nuclear arms race with each other. Both participated in the UN talks as well as the humanitarian Conferences, while underscoring that they want nuclear disarmament but will not join the NPT as long as it enshrines one rule for five ‘nuclear-weapon states’ and a different rule – and status – for the rest of the world. The fifty thousand weapons wielded by five states has become sixteen thousand weapons trundled around by nine governments and militaries. This situation is unstable as well as immoral. Moreover it would take the use of just a hundred Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons to create catastrophic climate disruption and nuclear famine. To put this in context, each UK nuclear-armed submarine carries over three hundred times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.
Under heavy civil society pressure to participate in the Vienna Conference, the US sought - and received - assurances that Vienna will not actually launch treaty negotiations. The UK has followed the US in participating, but failed to persuade France, despite frantic bilateral talks about Vienna. Framed as a Chair’s personal statement, the outcome is likely to be modest, while highlighting even more terrible global dangers attached to the retention, acquisition and deployment of nuclear weapons by nine frightened nations.
It will be useful to have British and American delegations in the humanitarian disarmament room this time, but they shouldn’t overestimate their importance. With international civil society more energised, determined and influential than ever, governments would be naive to assume that a modest outcome statement from Vienna means that humanitarian disarmament strategies are losing acceleration. We’re still gathering speed.
Rebecca Johnson will be reporting again from the Vienna Conference later this week.