Imagining a ban on nuclear weapons, ICAN Action Academy, 11 September 2014
Delivered by Thomas Nash, Berlin, 11 September 2014
Imagining a ban on nuclear weapons
It seems to me that a treaty banning nuclear weapons is inevitable. It will have to happen eventually, so we might as well do it now.
It’s up to us to make it happen. That will be a lot of work, especially in Europe. But we also have to believe it is going to happen, believe it is inevitable.
We also need to get ready for it now because once it starts it is going to be a whirlwind. Things might seem busy now – especially for the organisers who have done such a great job bringing us all together for this meeting, but this is nothing.
We need to build up the intellectual framework, think ahead about how to convince people, anticipate obstacles, difficult arguments, think them through, feel strong in our own minds.
We need to build up our community, our coalition, our network – just like we’re doing here in Berlin right now. Europe is going to be key, many of you in this room will have a big role to play.
A key point for me is to recognise the importance of individuals. It is people who make decisions, it is people who shape the world, who do things. We need to find people who will go beyond their institutional constraints, take risks. That includes you.
So today I want to think about how this process might work, how it all might play out.
I hope this will get us thinking about what we can do, what we need to prepare for.
But first, since we are at the beginning, I should remind us why we care about nuclear weapons, what the ban treaty is and why ICAN believes it is the right way forward.
There are 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world, some of them stationed here in Germany.
The stockpiles are mostly held by the US and Russia, with China, France and the UK making up the five traditional nuclear-armed states. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the more recent nuclear-armed states.
These nuclear weapons are generally pointed at cities, some of the most densely populated areas in the world.
It’s hard to imagine the consequences of a nuclear warhead detonating in a city. Think of this: the temperature at the centre of the blast is hotter than the temperature of the centre of the sun.
The detonation would vaporise everything in the immediate vicinity. Further out it would burn and blind people. The radiation would cause incurable disease. The blast would destroy vital infrastructure and overwhelm medical and emergency response.
Despite all this, existing disarmament processes are not working. They have not been working for a long time.
So within the disarmament movement there has been a growing sense that new approaches are needed. This new approach can be described as the humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons. It is an approach that has dramatically changed the landscape and dynamics in international discussions and ICAN is at the centre of it.
The basic idea is that we need to treat nuclear weapons as weapons, with real effects like any other weapon. They are very big, nasty, dirty weapons, but they need to be seen as weapons, not symbols of power and prestige. I’m convinced that once they are prohibited through an international treaty, their symbolic value will be eroded.
So we are talking about countries developing a new international treaty to prohibit the use, production, possession, transfer of nuclear weapons and require their elimination.
The main reason such a treaty would not happen is that the nuclear-armed states succeed in preventing it from happening. If we wait for that handful of countries to give us the green light before we start we could be waiting a long time. So it is crucial that we are willing to move forward without the nuclear-armed states if necessary. They can come later. They have got themselves stuck in a mentality that binds them to nuclear weapons. A ban treaty might well help them get unstuck.
This ban treaty is necessary: weapons with unacceptable effects need to be banned, its what we do as human society with weapons that have unacceptable effects. We have done it with chemical, biological weapons, landmines, cluster bombs, and we need to do it with nuclear weapons.
It’s urgent: nuclear weapons are not going away on their own, in fact they are being modernised with billions of dollars. We are learning more and more about the risks that a nuclear weapon will be detonated, by accident or by design. And as long as they exist and political leaders assign value to them, there will always be a risk of proliferation.
It’s achievable: it is something that can be done, now, it’s not a distant dream.
And it will have an impact: financially on the companies that make nuclear weapons and the banks that invest in them; politically on the leaders that try to justify possessing them; militarily on the alliances that still include nuclear weapons in their defence policy; and perhaps most importantly it will have an impact on the disarmament movement, a very positive impact. In the UK for example I can’t think of any single actually achievable development that would have more of an impact on UK nuclear weapons policy than a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
So what has happened so far?
In May 2010 at the NPT Review Conference, every member of that treaty acknowledged that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. That’s a good starting point.
Later that year in November 2011 the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement passed a resolution calling on states to develop a legally binding instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Then in March 2013, the Norwegian government hosted the Oslo Conference, this was the first time states had met to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
At the beginning of this year, in February, Mexico hosted the second conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and during the final session, the Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister raised the idea of launching a diplomatic process in his chair’s summary.
A few months later at the NPT Preparatory Committee in April and May, the Irish delegation introduced a working paper on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition which listed four options for a legally-binding instrument on nuclear weapons. The ban treaty that ICAN is promoting was listed as one of these four options.
And what do we think is going to happen next? Of course we don’t know, but here are some ideas from my perspective on what I would like to see happen.
There are two big meetings coming up in the next few months, the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna in December and then the Review Conference of the NPT in May next year. At both of these meetings we want to see countries expressing support for a legally-binding instrument to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons. We want them to call for negotiations that are open to all states, but that no state can block. And we want them to recognise that such an instrument would be compatible with existing mechanisms and instruments and commitments related to nuclear disarmament.
We expect states to commit to such negotiations. They could do this through a joint statement, a declaration, at a conference, however they decide they want to do it. A good time to make such a commitment would be August 2015, the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Once this diplomatic process is underway, there will need to be some conferences to develop the treaty until it is ready to be adopted. The last step in developing the treaty will need to be a diplomatic conference, where the final text will be agreed and states will adopt it.
Then the treaty will open for signature, ministers and diplomats will come and sign it and we will all celebrate.
Now that all sounds pretty straightforward and generally speaking it should be, but there are quite a lot uncertainties. Which countries will be on board from the beginning? Where and when will the negotiating conferences happen? What will be the key deals during the negotiations? Which countries will adopt the treaty and how many will sign it?
I encourage you to think about some of these questions now, in the context of what it will mean for the work in your country. What camp will your country be in during the negotiations? How will it react to the different steps along the way? Who will your allies be in your country and how will you find them and persuade them?
There are four areas that strike me as important when we are preparing for such a process.
1. Getting countries to start something
We need a clear and simple vision, and we have that – a ban treaty even without the nuclear armed states. We need a broad coalition of civil society organisations who share the vision and want to work for it – ICAN provides us with that coalition. We need a handful of countries across regions, maybe just six or seven, that are ready to take action. We need a sense of appetite for this vision amongst a wider group of states. And we need individuals with ambition, confidence and courage to do the job.
2. Where and when?
A key question will be where does the process take place, in which forum? We don’t want to be too prescriptive on this. It could be an ad hoc process like the processes to ban landmines and cluster munitions, where countries volunteer to host negotiations on the basis of agreed rules of procedure. It could be a process based on a mandate from the UN General Assembly, like the process to develop the Arms Trade Treaty. Or it could be something else. But every state should be able to come and no state should be able to block it. And we must not let process discussions postpone action – we need to get started now.
3. Getting countries to come
We will need strong partnerships with governments and UN bodies that are supporting the process. We will need to build up relationships with the right individuals in as many countries as we can. We need to make sure that the relevant information, including the actual invitations, gets to the right people at the right time. This quite often requires some assistance and follow up. And we need to keep up clear communications with all the different people working on promoting participation.
4. Getting countries to do the right things
Starting the process is one thing, but the negotiations will be tough as well. A key question is going to be how to manage relations with states not party to the treaty. We will need to be very well-organised with campaigning both in capitals and at diplomatic meetings. We will need to stick together as campaigners, stay close, trust each other, share information and experiences, build up collective lines of argument and work as a team.
There is a lot of work to do ahead and still a number of questions about how it will happen, but a treaty banning nuclear weapons is within reach. It’s our responsibility to make it happen.