The UK government's stand against humanitarian disarmament

Why is the UK government boycotting a key multilateral conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons? Rebecca Johnson analyses the implications for British nuclear policy as governments and civil society convene in Mexico to take forward a new humanitarian disarmament process

Rebecca Johnson
13 February 2014

Over 140 governments are gathering in Nayarit, Mexico, for the Second International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, hosted by the Mexican Government. The nations in Nayarit include most of the European Union and NATO states and the UK's  Commonwealth and Non-Proliferation Treaty partners from Africa, Asia-Pacific, and of course Latin America. But the British government is officially absent. Despite strong recommendations for attendance from the Liberal Democrat side of the Coalition and a number of senior diplomats, William Hague, the British Foreign Minister, decided to follow France, Russia, the United States, Israel and North Korea in boycotting this meeting.

As one of the nine nuclear-armed states, wouldn’t it be sensible for us to engage with other governments and experts such as the Red Cross, humanitarian response agencies, climate scientists and doctors in order to  find out the latest research on the devastating health, environmental, economic, agricultural and developmental consequences that would result if nuclear weapons were used, either by accident or by design?

The government’s main reason to boycott the Nayarit Conference is to avoid being drawn into a situation where they have to acknowledge others’ concerns about the foreseeable humanitarian consequences of nuclear detonations. They understand that any realistic assessment of the global impacts will make the majority of governments want to take collective action to prohibit these weapons and demand their elimination. They’ve seen this happen before, with landmines and cluster munitions, as Nobel Laureate Jody Williams highlighted in a recent article

Looking at how far the humanitarian initiative has developed since 2010, nuclear-armed states like Britain are understandably nervous that a concerted nuclear ban process would irrevocably change the legal and international context within which financial, political and operational decisions regarding nuclear weapons would be taken. But we shouldn’t let them off the hook.

Humanitarian arguments to facilitate disarmament are not new. Recognition of the indiscriminate, disproportionate and uncontrollable impacts of other weapons of mass destruction created strong incentives for banning biological and chemical weapons in 1972 and 1993 respectively. More recently, the unacceptable humanitarian harm caused by conventional weaponry became a driving motivator in successful campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions. When states with vested economic or military interests in these weapons obstructed efforts in established fora, cross-regional governmental and civil society coalitions bypassed the blockages and achieved effective prohibition treaties. Whether they accede or not – and many erstwhile opponents have! – all states have ended up having to change their behaviour because of the stigmatisation and restrictions placed on weapons banned under International Law.

Military and production rationales generally dominate debates about armaments. The humanitarian approach sidelines these interest groups.  Pressured by civil society to find sustainable ways to prevent further human suffering caused by certain weapons, governments – eventually including the UK – turned conferences on humanitarian impacts into successful treaty negotiations. It’s no secret that the humanitarian discussions in Mexico are intended to lay the groundwork for accelerating nuclear disarmament. At the UN High Level Meeting on 26 September 2013, Austria’s President Heinz Fischer was pretty clear about this, saying: “Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned and eliminated before they abolish us.”

The nuclear-weapon states, for their part, have begun a desperate rearguard action to stop such a process from developing. When Norway convened the Oslo Conference in March 2013, they tried ignoring it. Now they do their best to dismiss it. They brief willing NGOs and media with arguments about how it’s all very well to talk about humanitarian impacts “within the arms control and disarmament process” but those that want this to lead to a nuclear ban treaty don’t take into account “the domestic and inter-state dynamics of the nuclear weapons states, and the psychology of insecurity that surrounds their nuclear postures”, as Rebecca Cousins wrote on openSecurity.

This is precisely what the UK government wants you to think: only nuclear-armed states can understand the complexity of the role they assign to nuclear weapons. Only they can unravel the dynamics and psychologies of their own complex relationships.  Only they can undertake nuclear disarmament, at their own pace, in their own club, and very very slowly, “step by step”.  In the meantime, they need to update their nuclear forces and procure the next generation, because nuclear weapons are Really Important. How could it be possible for a bunch of countries that have already renounced nuclear weapons (the “non-nuclear-weapon states” in the Non-Proliferation Treaty) to initiate – let alone carry to fruition – a treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons operations such as use, deployment, production, transporting and stockpiling.? Those activities are not covered by the NPT, and so they are deemed to be the UK’s  right to continue, as long as leaders express rhetorical commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons at least once every five years!   In other words, nuclear weapons are solely the business of the states that wield them, and, apart from showing up at NPT meetings, the rest of the world should shut up.

These are the considerations that Cousins thinks the humanitarian disarmament strategists have failed to take into account.  On the contrary. Since those attitudes justify and promote perpetual nuclear weapons modernisation and proliferation, humanitarian disarmament strategies recognise the need to bypass them. Stuck in cold war military dependencies, these are the problem psychologies that ignore the real security concerns of today’s world and perpetuates nuclear business as usual, with all the attendant risks. 

The humanitarian strategy recognises how irrational such narratives are, and also how embedded in the policies of the nuclear-armed states. A nuclear ban process will not be comfortable for Britain because it refuses to feed into those weapons-clinging narratives. Mobilising domestic civil society actors as well as states, it aims at helping nuclear-dependent governments  to confront the circular logic that perpetuates nuclear possession and proliferation. New possibilities for disarmament and security open up when the legal and political context is changed through a multilateral nuclear ban.

For a while longer the UK will try to ignore and dismiss the humanitarian approach. At present, with all three of the major parliamentary parties committed to replacing Trident, mainstream politicians and media seem incapable of looking beyond the wrangling over how many nuclear ‘platforms’ the UK can afford, and whether a particular version of deterrence doctrine requires that at least one nuclear-armed submarine must be on continuous at-sea ‘deterrent’ patrol (CASD) at all times. With Scotland’s independence referendum scheduled for September 2014, there are also some media discussions about what would happen if an independent Scotland carries out the Scottish National Party’s manifesto commitment to demand removal of the submarines and warheads from Faslane and Coulport, where they are currently based. 

Those are the peculiarly domestic preoccupations of the British. For mainstream media, the idea that nuclear-free nations may take the lead and ban nuclear weapons in the near future, with or without the nuclear armed states, is barely acknowledged. Behind the scenes, however, the government is taking it very seriously.

Imagine, for example, how the British debate on replacing Trident would be changed if an international nuclear ban treaty is on the books. Would we still be debating arcane “angels on a pinhead” doctrines and CASD?  Unlikely. Instead we might find the Ministry of Defence  quietly enhancing the rest of the tools we have in the political, military and diplomatic toolbox for deterrence. 

 Even if the government declares its unequivocal opposition to joining an international nuclear ban treaty, how many MPs would be left arguing for billions of pounds to be spent on renewing a weapons system that the rest of the world had prohibited?  As Jody Williams and others have noted, experience from past treaties shows that public and international pressure can turn adamant opposition one day into enthusiastic endorsement the next. Especially once the treaty nears completion.

As the humanitarian initiative goes forward into its next stage, putting the spotlight back on Europe, even the possibility of a nuclear ban treaty is likely to cause a fundamental rethink about British nuclear policy. Regardless of whether the price tag for Trident replacement is calculated as close to £100 billion, as CND, Greenpeace and the Liberal Democrats have calculated, or the ridiculously low £20 billion figure that is evoked by nuclear proponents, it would be prudent not to rush ahead with Trident expenditure until the prospects of the current humanitarian initiatives become clearer. 

As the rest of the world gets more serious about banning nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds, it will become much harder for anyone to keep funding, making and deploying these WMD, and any use would be recognised as a crime against humanity.  At the very least that is worth a try!

Read more articles on the case for nuclear disarmament on 50.50's platform Towards nuclear non-proliferation

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