Remarks by Thomas Nash, Director, Article 36, Monday 20 January 2014

I will set out some thoughts about the concept of a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

  • a recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons
  • need to build on existing mechanisms in place to prevent use, including NPT
  • the conviction that a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons is feasible and meaningful

Humanitarian impact

Need to remember these are weapons, not just symbols, they have effects. We have seen these effects, the effects are unacceptable, this is why they need to be banned.

Recognising the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is also important in terms of the way states conceive of their identity.

Is possession of or dependence on the possible use of weapons of mass destruction compatible with concepts of human rights and humanitarianism that many states hold as central to their identities?

Existing mechanisms

Existing mechanisms have had success in preventing use of nuclear weapons. NPT, NWFZs, CTBT are useful building blocks towards elimination, but need to stigmatise the continued possession of nuclear weapons in a way that these instruments don’t.

A ban on nuclear weapons

ICAN’s call for a new ban treaty is based on a conviction that it will change the landscape, making use of nuclear weapons less likely and elimination more likely.

The process, as well as the treaty itself, will extend and renew the stigma attached to nuclear weapons and will erode the legitimacy that some states give nuclear weapons.

Banning nuclear weapons is not the same as elimination, but it will provide an additional tool towards elimination, which usually follows prohibition as with chemical and biological weapons.

Three elements of how we frame this ban treaty:

1. Fulfilling disarmament commitments

A ban treaty is not an alternative to the NPT, nor a response to its perceived shortcomings.

It will be a concrete track in its own right, which we think will reinforce the NPT.

2. Building on the nuclear weapon free zones

We see a ban treaty as a standard that builds from the bottom up; coalescing existing zones which already cover 115 states.

It would be open to all states on an equal basis and this would allow states outside existing zones to stand in solidarity with others in prohibiting nuclear weapons, even if their neighbours were not ready to join a nuclear weapon free zone.

3. Banning weapons of mass destruction

A prohibition of nuclear weapons is the missing piece in a broad legal rejection of weapons of mass destruction.

The preambles of the treaties banning chemical & biological weapons highlight their unacceptable humanitarian consequences as basis for prohibition and call for prohibition of all weapons of mass destruction.

It is an anomaly that nuclear weapons have not been banned. We can rectify this with a new ban treaty.

But what would the impact be?

A central principle for this approach is that a treaty process should not be prevented by states that possess nuclear weapons. So it is natural for people to ask what the impact would be if nuclear-armed states do not join the treaty.

We argue that:

– the legal clarity of a ban would increase political pressures toward elimination

– the greater stigma would increase political costs and reduce incentives

– restricting investment would reduce commercial pressures to keep the weapons

– nuclear weapons would become more problematic in military cooperation

– the treaty process and meetings would build a stronger community for elimination

What does the UK think?

Documents released by the Foreign Office under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the UK is concerned that this humanitarian approach could lead to a ban on nuclear weapons:

(Extract from an email sent on 7 January by an FCO official when the UK approach to the Oslo conference was under discussion) At the heart of the “humanitarian disarmament movement” is the thread that any weapons which are indiscriminate in their effect should be outlawed. This is how the Cluster Munitions Convention campaign began. The Oslo meeting will seek to establish as gospel that nuclear weapons have such an indiscriminate effect, and must therefore be banned. So we need to establish a strong counter-narrative which reflects our broader disarmament and deterrence strategy. This narrative could have multiple uses: with Parliament; for the Oslo meeting, perhaps deployed in writing if not orally during the event.

More recently we have heard in Parliament that the UK has not yet decided whether or not it will participate in Mexico and giving slightly mixed reviews of the initiative:

(Lord Wallace of Saltaire on 6 November) We continue to have concerns that the initiative would divert attention from the 2010 action plan agreed by states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty…

My Lords, the valuable contribution that the Norwegians and others have been making on this whole question of the humanitarian and, incidentally, climatic consequences of the explosion of a nuclear weapon are very much something that the UK Government are taking seriously. We see this as a very useful expert contribution. Looking at how, if there were to be—heaven forfend—a nuclear explosion, we would cope as an international community with the consequences, is something that is very valuable to take forward.

We think the UK and France should participate in Mexico, but we would not be too surprised if they do not attend.

We hope that the discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons will motivate states to begin a process to develop a new legal standard. States like the UK and France should not approach this negatively. They should welcome it as an effort to help create the conditions for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Posted in: Nuclear weapons, Statements,