Nuclear disarmament : from ‘open-ended talks’ to ratification and beyond
Now the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is due to become international law, nuclear powers need to engage constructively on nuclear disarmament.
From the moment two atomic bombs killed two hundred thousand people in two split seconds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy-five years ago, nuclear weapons have caused nightmares, environmental contamination, self-serving myths and abuses of power.
What will change now that the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is on the threshold of making nuclear weapons internationally illegal?
It is significant that the 90 day countdown to the legal entry into force of this multilateral nuclear disarmament Treaty was triggered by three nations (Honduras, Jamaica and Nauru) from the Global South. Symbolic too, that this occurred in time for the 50th ratification to be deposited with the UN Secretary General on 24 October, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations .
This Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons was brought about by "We the Peoples", in direct opposition to the wishes of the nine nuclear armed governments, who desperately tried to stop the Treaty as negotiations opened in the UN General Assembly with rules that were developed by the UK and others to achieve the Arms Trade Treaty a few years earlier.
The UN rules ensured that all governments were invited to the table and no-one was given the power to veto. That made it possible for this Treaty to be negotiated and adopted by an overwhelming majority of states.
When I started writing a series of contemporaneous articles for openDemocracy on feminist approaches to security and disarmament in 2010, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was a little known project of anti-nuclear doctors and activists in Australia. Treaty negotiations were controlled by a handful of governments that possessed nuclear weapons and wanted to keep control of the associated power and technologies for their own use.
The security and needs of the majority of nations who had decided to forego these weapons of mass extinction were barely taken into account.
Seventy years of campaigning by Japanese Hibakusha, such as Setsuko Thurlow and survivors of nuclear testing and colonialism, as well as generations of doctors, scientists and peace activists, culminated in UN 'open-ended' talks from 2013 that enabled far more people and governments to discuss how best to prevent the catastrophic consequences and risks of nuclear use and war. These in turn led to UN negotiations in 2017 that upended the privileges and assumptions of cold war arms control and made inroads into the nuclear club's macho fiefdom.
Unable to block the negotiations or veto the Treaty, the nuclear armed states staged a boycott. Some, including three members of the UN Security Council, lined up their ambassadors in a weird demonstration outside the UN General Assembly as their colleagues from other countries streamed into the hall to begin the serious business of banning nuclear weapons.
Treaty negotiations were controlled by a handful of governments that possessed nuclear weapons and wanted to keep control of the associated power and technologies for their own use.
Three years later, we are celebrating that the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons will become international law on January 22, 2021.
Making human security the objective of negotiations, instead of privileging military-industrial interests, has resulted in a powerfully different Treaty, based on humanitarian law and feminist security principles.
The preamble clearly sets out the shared security interests of the world's peoples:
"… the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation…"
This leads to the core prohibitions on acquiring, developing, manufacturing, testing, deploying, transferring, possessing and using nuclear weapons. It is stipulated that everyone who is bound by the Treaty must also support its full implementation and avoid assisting, inducing or encouraging anyone else to violate its provisions in any way.
Having chosen to boycott the negotiations, the nuclear armed states complain that the Treaty is "dangerous" and doesn't take their interests into account. In a last ditch derailing attempt, the Trump administration sent a letter and talking points to many governments. Arrogantly describing national decisions to join the Treaty as a "strategic error", the letter tried to pressure them to pull out.
Among its talking points the US repeats its discredited accusation that the new Treaty undermines the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and complains that the text does not fully determine how its prohibitions and provisions will be verified and implemented.
On the contrary, the Treaty was overwhelmingly adopted by 122 NPT member states in 2017, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently described it as an important pillar to strengthen nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Rooted in the humanitarian imperative to prevent nuclear use, war and proliferation, the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons establishes the principles and conditions for these abhorrent weapons to be eliminated, with a set of practical, adaptable enforcement provisions.
The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons establishes the principles and conditions for these abhorrent weapons to be eliminated, with a set of practical, adaptable enforcement provisions.
The legal, structural and institutional details will begin to be negotiated at the first meeting of TPNW states parties, which is scheduled to take place before the end of 2021, probably in Vienna, where both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are headquartered.
Similarly, the Treaty provided two practical pathways for nuclear armed and umbrella states to make choices in how they join and comply with the Treaty's requirements that they end reliance on nuclear activities and eliminate these weapons, programmes and policies. Recognising that one size doesn't fit all, and the nine nuclear arsenals are very different, the Treaty is deliberately constructed to enable the existing nuclear armed states and their nuclear umbrella allies to participate in the process as observers until they are ready to join.
The non-nuclear nations came together with humanitarian and disarmament experts and civil society activists to bring this ground-breaking nuclear disarmament treaty into international humanitarian law.
Here in Britain, we face an uphill struggle to persuade the government to halt the hugely expensive Dreadnought-Trident modernisation. However, public opinion polls show large majorities of British people in favour of nuclear disarmament and opposing Trident replacement, projected to cost £205 billion.
Public opinion polls show large majorities of British people in favour of nuclear disarmament and opposing Trident replacement, projected to cost £205 billion.
More and more, people are coming to see that nuclear weapons pose extinction level risks and are not a political or security asset. They are useless for tackling today's major security challenges, including the climate, Covid and ecological emergencies.
The Scottish Government publicly endorses it and seeks to rid Scotland of Trident and end the dangerous transportation of warheads between Faslane, Coulport, and Berkshire's bomb factories, Aldermaston and Burghfield.
With the Treaty close to entry into force, major international banks and financial institutions are beginning to divest from nuclear weapons production, informed by ICAN's "Don't Bank on the Bomb" campaign.
And a growing number of city and county councils, from Manchester and Edinburgh to Renfrewshire and Oxford, have signed up to support the Treaty’s implementation, with many more likely to follow in the next weeks and months.
Until there is a government able to take the necessary political decision to join the Treaty, it will be important to send UK diplomatic and scientific delegations to observe the TPNW meetings of states parties and contribute expertise and ideas as the legal, institutional and verification systems for Treaty implementation.
The House of Lords has urged this constructive approach, which previous UN governments have taken towards other important Treaties, even before taking the political decisions to join.
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