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This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons - interview

Changing the culture around nuclear weapons to seeing them as just another dangerous weapon of mass destruction, won ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) a pivotal UN treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Ian Sinclair interviews Rebecca Sharkey, ICAN’s UK Coordinator from 2012-2017 on the background, the future – and the UK’s role in it.

Image: Sea of white poppies, Flickr/TreacleTart

Ian Sinclair: As the Nobel Peace Prize highlights, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was an incredible achievement. How did it come about? What was the most difficult hurdle ICAN had to overcome to make it happen?

Rebecca Sharkey: Nuclear weapons were born in WWII, one of the darkest chapters in human history. The fear of nuclear weapons hung like a silent and terrifying cloud over the lives of millions of people during the decades following Hiroshima. And it was only by luck that one of the very many near misses didn't mutate into a nuclear nightmare. Growing up in the eighties, I can remember that on the horizon in the distance in my nightmares was a mushroom cloud, silently unfurling in slow motion to destroy everything I knew and loved. But although my fear largely dissolved at the end of the Cold War, as it did for most people, the threat of nuclear weapons did not go away; if anything, our volatile world is more unsafe than ever. At the heart of ICAN’s campaign is a wake-up call to the world about this existential threat, and an urgent call to action to prevent catastrophic humanitarian harm.

One of the myths instilled in those of us brought up in nuclear armed countries is that nuclear weapons provide security. It is this unsubstantiated claim that underlines the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and is an article of faith for so many decision makers in countries like ours. Prime Minister Theresa May stated in July 2016 that it would be “an act of gross irresponsibility” for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons; it would constitute “a gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take”. At the same time, the UK’s [then] Defence Minister Michael Fallon MP repeats the mantra that “We share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament”. This ‘doublethink’ is the reason why so many previous attempts at nuclear disarmament have stalled: why would you give up something that you believe is essential to your security? Overcoming deep acceptance of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and what currently represents a mainstream moderate position in nuclear armed states was ICAN’s central and most difficult hurdle to overcome.

ICAN strategy is to change the culture around nuclear weapons, stripping them of their perceived value and status, stigmatising them so that they can be seen for what they really are: weapons of mass destruction with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. As ICAN colleagues have argued, “We showed how the claim that nuclear deterrence has prevented war requires ignoring the poor record these weapons have at preventing conflict. We demonstrated the pervasive harm they have caused to many people living in areas affected by use and testing, undercutting claims that nuclear weapons provide security”. Instead of answering the question ‘how can my country be safe without nuclear weapons’ we turned the tables and asked ‘how can the world be safe while nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to everyone?’

In practical terms, this involved building a global coalition of organisations and individuals all committed to campaigning for the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law, as the other weapons of mass destruction are. In 100 countries, ICAN campaigners lobbied decision makers, circulated petitions, organised creative stunts, wrote articles and pitched to journalists, held public meetings, protested in the street, made a splash on social media. We came together at civil society forums to share and debate ideas, to sharpen our messages and tactics, and to make friends. We shook up international government-level disarmament conferences by bringing groups of campaigners of all ages and from all continents to debate with diplomats and promote our talking points; we gave speaking platforms to the survivors of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as to the victims of nuclear testing, such as members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association; we showed hard-hitting films to diplomats to shake them out of their complacency; we brought in experts to explain in alarming detail the impact of nuclear weapons on the human body, on the environment, on the climate, on the global economy. We built strong partnerships between civil society and the states championing the treaty, without whose brave leadership the treaty – and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize – would not have been possible. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014, shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law.

Campaigners for a nuclear-free world have traditionally been dismissed by the establishment as being idealistic peaceniks. ICAN turned this unfair characterisation on its head by focusing on facts, and by ‘owning’ realism; we showed up the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ for what it is: a theory. We highlighted Ward Wilson’s 2013 book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, which cast a critical eye over some of the myths that have become ingrained in our thinking about nuclear weapons, especially that they ended WW2 and have kept the peace since (they didn’t and they haven’t). At meetings with politicians and civil servants, I would arm myself with copies of ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’, a chilling 2014 Chatham House report which showed that “since the probability of inadvertent nuclear use is not zero and is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious, the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high”. I also took copies of ‘The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK’s nuclear weapons’ by Scientists for Global Responsibility, which presents sobering evidence that the launch of the nuclear missiles of just one UK Trident submarine could kill 10 million people and cause devastating climatic cooling. Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Control documents the risks inherent in possessing, in his words, “the most dangerous technology ever invented”. Speaking at ICAN meetings, Schlosser encouraged campaigners to draw attention to the numerous instances during the Cold War when a nuclear detonation hung on a razor’s edge, as well as the close shaves such as when the US almost detonated its own nukes on its own soil. Inspired by this approach of highlighting the potential for self-inflicted disasters, we launched a campaign in the UK – ‘Nukes of Hazard’ – which threw a spotlight on the lorries which routinely transport fully assembled nuclear warheads along ordinary roads across the UK, often passing close to schools and homes (what could possibly go wrong…?).

When the risks and consequences around nuclear weapons are looked at face on, it becomes an idealistic position to suggest that the status quo can continue indefinitely. By focusing on humanitarian and climatic impact, on risks and consequences, the terms of debate are moved from the theoretical (and therefore unprovable) realm of ‘deterrence’ to a pragmatic discussion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), human rights and environmental protection. Within such a framework, it is impossible to argue for the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It is the disarmers who become the realists, the proponents of nuclear weapons the idealists.

IS: What was the involvement of the US and UK in the negotiations that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

RS: In October 2016, the UK’s disarmament ambassador Dr Matthew Rowland was seen fist-bumping his US counterpart after speaking at the United Nations General Assembly against a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. As I wrote at the time, “It was staggering to hear the hypocrisy in Rowland’s speech. He lectured UN member states on the need to ‘do no harm’ whilst doing harm himself to proposals for genuine progress on nuclear disarmament. But the UK and other nuclear armed states continue to threaten catastrophic worldwide harm to people and the environment through their continued deployment of nuclear weapons which creates an existential risk of accidental, unintended or deliberate use. Far from being a leader on multilateral disarmament, the UK has been unilaterally rearming its nuclear arsenal and is now refusing to support new multilateral negotiations towards a global ban treaty”.

Ahead of the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013, colleagues at Article 36 put in a Freedom of Information request which revealed that Foreign Office officials were well aware of the potential for success of ICAN’s approach. In their emails to each other, they acknowledged that a humanitarian approach had led to the effective stigmatisation and prohibition of cluster munitions, and expressed concerns that something similar could happen with nuclear weapons. Far from engaging with the substance of the conference, which was a facts-based discussion of the consequences of nuclear detonation and the challenges of providing any kind of humanitarian response, Article 36 argued that the “UK’s internal and public explanations for its eventual decision not to attend are focused on concern that the UK would not be able to pass itself off as a leader in nuclear disarmament and anxieties about international political processes”.

The UK government decided to join the US and the other ‘P5’ nations (permanent members of the UN Security Council – UK, US, Russia, China and France) in a boycott of the Oslo Conference, as they went on to do again for the second Humanitarian Impacts Conference held in Mexico the following year. Bitterly divided amongst themselves, these five nations ironically united against the rest of the world to defend the weapons of mass destruction they point at each other. However, without these ‘heavyweights’ present, it was in some ways easier for the 127 nations which did participate at the Oslo Conference to make progress, alongside international organisations, UN agencies and a focused and well organised civil society contingent under the umbrella of ICAN. At the 2013 Committee of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) a couple of months later, South Africa delivered a statement on behalf of 80 member states on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which boldly stated: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”. The foundations for a new ban treaty were firmly laid, with these 80 countries being joined by many more at the next round of disarmament talks – all spurred on by ICAN campaigners lobbying politicians and decision makers at international conferences and at home in capitals across the world.

Fast forward to the treaty negotiations earlier this year, and the UK chose once again to boycott UN-mandated negotiations (122 countries had voted in favour of them), in spite of treaty obligations under the NPT to “negotiate in good faith”. Instead, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft joined the Trump administration in a highly unusual and irregular press ‘protest’ outside the UN conference room, refusing to take questions from journalists on a floor NGOs couldn’t get to, whilst other countries filed into the room behind them to do actual work. This was following previous attempts by the US to pressure its allies, particularly NATO states, to vote no to the ban treaty resolution, and “not to merely abstain”, and furthermore that “if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them”. Despite claiming that a ban treaty without the nuclear armed states would be meaningless, the United States revealed through this diplomatic move that it believes a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would indeed have a significant impact.

IS: In the New Statesmen you note ICAN’s strategy “was to push ahead whether or not the nuclear weapon states participated”. What was the thinking behind this strategy?

RS: To use an analogy from the smoking ban: for years, the government knew smoking was very bad for the health. Successive public campaigns urged smokers to cut down, not to smoke in front of their children, not to smoke in the car etc. All the attention was on the smokers. It was only when the evidence about the damaging effects of passive smoking emerged that the idea of banning smoking in public places become possible: now instead of this being about the smoker’s needs it became an issue of public health, of concern to everyone. As someone who can remember working in a windowless basement office with colleagues who chain-smoked, I can really appreciate the cultural shift that has thankfully made such a situation unthinkable nowadays. I can also remember wondering how on earth the smoking ban would be enforced – would the police go to all the pubs in the land and arrest thousands of people? But the smoking ban marked real societal change – the smokers, while still battling with their addiction, understood that their behaviour was damaging to others, and without too much fuss took their smoking to the pavement outside the pubs and offices. It’s far from a perfect analogy with the nuclear weapons ban, but the smoking ban illustrates a point about how change in society can happen by reframing an issue so that the damaging behaviour of a minority is not allowed to threaten the basic rights of the majority. It’s also about understanding where and who the change is going to come from – and that’s not smokers banning smoking or nuclear-weapons-possessors banning nuclear weapons.

Proponents of nuclear weapons, like smokers, are not bad people. But both have developed a dangerous habit, which they may need help to quit. The oft-repeated line of British politicians and officials is that the UK is committed to nuclear disarmament, but only when the conditions are right. The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is going a long way towards creating those conditions. In the last few years, evidence about the catastrophic climate impacts of nuclear weapons was confirmed using the latest climate change modelling technology, revealing that the ‘nuclear winter’ scenarios described in the eighties were not exaggerated. Soot thrown up into the atmosphere from the gigantic explosions would block out the sun, triggering a mini Ice Age which would cause a global crop failure leading to widespread ‘nuclear famine’. This is the equivalent of the evidence about passive smoking: it makes nuclear disarmament an urgent global public health imperative, one that trumps the perceived needs of the nuclear possessors.

Nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented; but the notion that they are acceptable can be. 159 countries – 80% of UN member states – signed up to a joint statement at the United Nations led by Austria in 2015 expressing deep concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Like the passive smokers, this silent majority of non-nuclear-weapon countries has a right to be heard and protected – and this is why ICAN was determined to push ahead whether or not the nuclear armed states participated.

IS: Are you hopeful that the UK will engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the future?

RS: Uniquely among all nuclear armed states, the UK has within it a significant body of population and politicians opposing the status quo: Scotland. During the independence referendum, Scots engaged in real debate and discussion about what sort of society they wanted to live in – the sort of political engagement that is so lacking for most of us most of the time. If you were setting up a new nation, would you choose to spend billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction that are stored an hour’s drive from your major cities and transported by road past your population’s homes on a regular basis? Uh, no. Ronnie Cowan MP, whose Inverclyde constituency borders the Faslane nuclear weapons base, explained how having nuclear weapons on your doorstep sharpens the mind: “Sometimes I think that people’s approach to Trident is an abstract one, but in my constituency it is real; it is a real weapon with the very real capacity to murder millions of men, women and children”. In Scotland, elected representatives and parliament overwhelmingly oppose nuclear weapons. Campaigners like Janet Fenton and politicians like Bill Kidd MSP have worked hard to ensure that Scottish resistance is aligned with ICAN’s humanitarian approach and the global ban treaty movement, and a recent speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised this link: “We will never accept that a limit should be placed on the contribution Scotland can make to building a better world. Strong voices for peace and justice are needed now more than ever. Last week, ICAN, the global campaign against nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize. Our party stands proudly as part of the global movement for peace. So let us restate this today. No ifs, no buts from the SNP. We say NO to weapons of mass destruction. We say NO to nuclear weapons on the River Clyde, or anywhere else”. One of the main contenders for leading Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, has also called for the UK to sign the new global ban treaty. Incidentally, another reason that Scotland has been able to have such an honest public debate about nuclear weapons is the emergence of crowd-sourced independent media outlets such as CommonSpace and The Ferret.

Again unique among nuclear armed states, the UK has as Leader of the Opposition a politician who is a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn has a long way to go to persuade his Party of his view, and Labour policy continues to be the same as the Conservatives’ in favour of renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons at eye-watering cost. But there is the real prospect of change, a glimmer of which was seen last year with the opening up of public debate when Corbyn stated he would not be prepared to ‘press the button’. A good friend of ICAN’s, Jeremy Corbyn sent his new Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, to attend the UN treaty negotiations earlier this year. Hamilton wrote afterwards that “Labour will work with ICAN to prevent the use of these horrific weapons that are not only a threat to innocent lives, but also a threat to international peace and stability”. At the end of October, Fabian Hamilton went further by telling a newspaper that a future Corbyn government would sign the treaty: “Parliament voted a year ago to renew Trident and it’s in the manifesto, but let’s move on. In July the United Nations voted for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I supported it and Jeremy Corbyn supports the ban – that has gone unnoticed.” Hamilton said Corbyn should move “slowly and through Parliament” to sign the treaty if elected prime minister, and said similar UN treaties for chemical weapons and landmines had proven effective. (A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan). Also at the UN treaty talks in June was Green MP Caroline Lucas, an ICAN champion who wrote: “You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence”. Sturgeon, Corbyn and Lucas all raised the humanitarian initiative and global ban treaty when addressing tens of thousands of people in London in February 2016 for what was dubbed the country’s biggest anti-nuclear weapons rally in a generation, organised by ICAN partner CND.

The ban treaty provides an opportunity for a new public discussion about nuclear weapons in this country, side-stepping the divisive polarisation that this topic usually generates. One of the few Conservative politicians to engage with ICAN, Derek Thomas MP wrote after our meeting: “I am completely in agreement that multilateral disarmament is something that we should pursue as an urgent priority and I will be pressing the Government to take all necessary steps in its power to secure multilateral disarmament. I have looked closely at the work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and am in support of their aims”. Unfortunately, this positive statement is to be found in the middle of a blog entitled ‘Why I am voting in support of the Prime Minister and our nuclear deterrent’, but it does show how the ban treaty can start the vital conversations and debates that need to happen in order to create change.

Nuclear weapons aren’t going to disappear overnight, but the stigma now enshrined in international law will help to change attitudes. Nick Ritchie, Lecturer in International Security at the University of York, wrote a couple of years ago that, “A new ban treaty would strip UK nuclear weapons of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons. Such a shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism in the United Kingdom”. We are already seeing how the treaty might affect UK law on nuclear weapons: anti-nukes activists from Trident Ploughshares cited the ban treaty as part of their defence in court last month and were released with just a warning, after they took part during the summer in a blockade of RNAD Coulport, where the UK’s nuclear warheads are stored and loaded onto Trident submarines.

It is my firm belief that the British establishment will soon wake up to the reputational damage that our possession of nuclear weapons will increasingly cause. We like to be seen to be doing the right thing; we care what other countries think of us. UNA-UK’s ‘global Britain scorecard’ highlights the good work the UK proudly does in contributing to UN peacekeeping and providing support for overseas aid, while criticising the UK for failure in ‘responsible arms trading’ and ‘multilateral nuclear disarmament’. UNA-UK’s methodology “follows the UK’s own analysis that Britain’s security and prosperity is underpinned by a strong, rules-based international system with the United Nations at its heart”. The ban treaty has stigmatised nuclear weapons, making them not just illegitimate but illegal: threatening to use WMDs is no longer an acceptable or legal way to go about international relations. It may take some time for this truth to sink in, but with the combination of pressure from the international community, from global and UK civil society, from Scotland and from within the political establishment at Westminster, change is coming.

Britain renounced the use of poison gas after WWI by signing the 1925 Geneva Protocol; now, nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, we should show moral and political leadership by stopping Trident renewal and joining the majority in the international community to renounce nuclear weapons. While the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may be controversial today, a few years from now I believe it will be the new normal for the UK and the rest of the world. The door remains open for the UK and other nuclear armed nations to Do the Right Thing. In the words of the ICAN statement on winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: “We applaud those nations that have already signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we urge all others to follow their lead. It offers a pathway forward at a time of alarming crisis. Disarmament is not a pipe dream, but an urgent humanitarian necessity”.

Rebecca Sharkey tweets at @rebshark


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