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 Starkey: 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

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
; 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

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
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.

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”.

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