Podcast: Poised to outlaw nuclear weapons

June 29, 2016

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Is the international community poised to outlaw the most destructive weapons ever created? In this podcast, we report on the progress made at the May session of a special UN working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva. There the vast majority of nations declared a readiness to start work on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines were among those proposing that the first negotiating conference be convened 2017. While few expect that the nine nuclear-armed nations will embrace this new law, proponents are convinced that it will be a powerful catalyst for change.

I’m Tim Wright from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. To guide us through the debates in Geneva, I spoke to Richard Lennane, a former Australian diplomat and UN disarmament official. His current job title:

Richard: Chief inflammatory officer of Wildfire, which is an NGO working for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

We began by addressing a basic question that proved quite contentious at the May session: Is there a legal gap in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons? For most nations, the answer is clear and simple: yes. But a few insisted otherwise.

Tim: The Canadian government put forward a working paper challenging the notion that a legal gap exists. Was that well received?

Richard: No, I think it was received with some incredulity and ridicule because the Canadian paper made this very arcane, complex legal argument about why there was not in fact a legal gap, and it just didn’t add up. Because if you reduce it to common sense, you know – other weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical weapons, are prohibited, and nuclear weapons are not. And now you have 126 countries saying: of course there’s a legal gap; we want to prohibit nuclear weapons. And to sort of introduce some obscure legal argumentation to say that there’s no such gap – it’s absurd.

The 126 nations to which Richard refers are those that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge – a non-binding commitment to work with all relevant stakeholders to fill the legal gap in the existing regime. Austria initiated this pledge in December 2014. And, at the working group in May, it read aloud the full list of endorsers:

Austria: Afghanistan, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, my own country Austria …

All the way through to:

Austria: Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

The full list is on the ICAN website.

Canada, though clearly outnumbered, was unswayed:

Canada: Canada does not agree with arguments made in favour of the existence of a legal gap, and as a result we don’t believe there’s anything to fill.

I asked Richard what he thought Canada was hoping to achieve:

Richard: They’re clutching at straws, really, because they can see the way things are going. They can see there’s a big international movement now to push ahead and negotiate a new treaty banning nuclear weapons, and they’re just trying everything they can to slow it down and stop it. But I really don’t know what they thought they could achieve. Did they think that, if they somehow concluded through clever legal arguments that there is no legal gap, that all these other countries were just going to give up and go home?

Canada is a member of NATO, and as such it argues that US nuclear weapons are indispensable for its security – which is why it has sought to prevent the start of negotiations on a ban, and why it argues that no gap exists.

Its legal reasoning rests, counter-intuitively, on the notion that nuclear weapons are not inherently illegal; only if they were inherently illegal would a gap exist. New Zealand roundly dismissed that argument:

New Zealand: Of course, Mr Chair, there is no such thing, either at domestic or international law, as, quote, inherent illegality. As one knows – taking, for example, the analogy of laws relating to drug use – something is either legal or illegal. One may be able to talk about inherent immorality, but there has hitherto been no known concept of inherent illegality.

Many delegations questioned why there are global bans for other weapons of mass destruction, but not yet one for the very worst weapons of all. This is the Philippines:

Philippines: While we have treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, we do not have one for the deadliest of them all, and so the work on a treaty that will ban and prohibit the possession, use or threat of use, acquisition, development and testing of nuclear weapons is the most ideal and correct action.

The Kenyan delegate agreed:

Kenya: The challenge that we are facing today is the fact that there is no instrument or agreement that explicitly outlaws nuclear weapons.

And that is how the vast majority of nations see it. Canada came away from this debate looking hopelessly out of step – its stance not at all reflective of a nation eager to see real progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons. This was a nation swimming frantically against the tide.


Do as we say, not as we do

Before debates began in earnest on the idea of a global treaty banning nuclear weapons, governments discussed a somewhat less controversial issue: enhancing transparency.

All delegations seemed to agree that nuclear-armed nations should report periodically on the number and type of nuclear weapons they possess – in order to facilitate disarmament. No nuclear-armed nation was present to object to this proposal. Just as they had boycotted the first session of the working group, in February, once again they were nowhere to be seen.

But, even on this issue, there was one area of fundamental disagreement among the participating nations: the need for transparency with respect to nuclear weapons stationed on foreign soil. Kicking off the discussion on transparency was ambassador Piet de Klerk of the Netherlands, whom the chair had invited to be an expert panellist. I asked Richard:

Tim: Was he a good choice of speaker?

Richard: Well, yes and no. He was certainly an interesting choice of speaker because the Netherlands is one of the countries that have been very prominent in calling for measures to increase transparency and reporting and so on, and yet the Netherlands – although it’s widely believed to host NATO nuclear weapons on its territory – doesn’t provide any transparency at all about those weapons. So it’s kind of like sending your chief hypocrite to promote a policy. The Netherlands’ ambassador was asked what role do states that host nuclear weapons have in increasing transparency and reducing risk, and he just said, point blank, oh, no special role, which, again, is just absurd.

Brazil was one of the nations that had asked the Dutch ambassador what role host states could play:

Brazil: On the issue of transparency, I would ask if the panellist could explain in which ways host countries could provide greater transparency on nuclear weapons located in their territory.

Mexico made clear its view:

Mexico: As a significant transparency and confidence-building measure, non-nuclear-weapon states hosting nuclear weapons on their territories should provide information in this regard.

Thailand, too, demanded more openness:

Thailand: We all know that there are also nuclear weapons stationed in territories of some non-nuclear-weapon states. These states should also be called upon to do their part on transparency measures.

And this was the Dutch ambassador’s response:

Netherlands: I don’t think, conceptually, there’s any special role for umbrella states or for host states.

The other host states are Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey, all of which participated in the working group.

New Zealand noted that, at last year’s NPT review conference in New York, nuclear-armed nations had been reluctant even to reaffirm past commitments – let alone to make new ones.

New Zealand: The same reluctance about transparency does seem also apparent on the part of host states with respect to holdings on their territories.

ICAN campaigner Linnet Ngayu, of the African Council of Religious Leaders, called for an end to the secrecy and denial:

Linnet Ngayu: It is deeply regrettable that several states here today are unwilling even to confess that they host nuclear weapons on their soil. They withhold that information not only from ordinary citizens, but also from lawmakers. What does that say about the strength of their democracies? What does it say about the state of our international disarmament regime? This opaque practice is entirely unacceptable. The nuclear-free states in this room must not stand for it any longer. What hope is there for a fruitful exchange of views if states harbouring nuclear weapons refuse to declare that they are doing so? Their cold war policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on their territory must be abandoned now.

Several delegations also encouraged host nations to reduce the risk of the accidental, inadvertent or intentional detonation of the nuclear weapons on their territory. This is Mexico:

Mexico: To those countries hosting nuclear weapons in their territories: what can you do in order to reduce the risk of witnessing the catastrophic consequences of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized nuclear weapon detonation in your own territories?

But no host nation was forthcoming with an answer – perhaps unsurprising, given the difficulty of discussing risks related to weapons without first acknowledging their existence.

Many governments expressed grave concern that, unless real progress could be made towards the goal of elimination, nuclear weapons would sooner or later be used again. This is Ireland:

Ireland: We see the increasing prominence of nuclear weapons in security doctrines and the ongoing significant investment in modernization, much of which would have the effect of making it easier to use nuclear weapons. Against such a backdrop, the deliberations of this group are both timely and pressing.

Host state Germany, on the other hand, downplayed the risks:

Germany: While the risks connected with nuclear weapons cannot be denied, it is difficult to see why those risks should be higher today than during the heyday of the cold war. On the contrary, they are – judging on the basis of available information, and acknowledging that sound risk assessments are always very difficult – much lower today.

In a subsequent statement, Germany seemed more concerned:

Germany: With nuclear arms permanently targeting our territory, it is our duty to ensure the safety and security of our populations. Therefore, we rely on effective deterrent, including a nuclear one, to prevent aggression or attempts at blackmailing us.

In recent years, it has become less and less clear whether Germany is in fact committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The same can be said, too, for the Netherlands and others that host nuclear weapons on their territory.

At the working group, they presented no evidence of steps taken towards ending their own reliance on the worst weapons of mass destruction. They, together with nuclear-armed nations, are without doubt contributing to the disintegration of the NPT – a treaty they claim they want to preserve and fortify.


The ban treaty approach

The debate then shifted to the main part of the working group’s mandate: effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms for a nuclear-weapon-free world. At the February session, delegations had put forth their initial ideas. The chair had then produced a synthesis paper describing four approaches for moving forward:

Richard: Three of them were various ideas for changing the status quo and doing something new, so that is to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention or a straightforward ban treaty, which is what we want, or some kind of framework convention or treaty. And then the fourth option was what countries like the Netherlands, Australia, Japan and the other weasels want, which is what they call the progressive approach – which has previously been called the step-by-step approach or the building blocks approach – where you just have a number of measures that you hope that the nuclear-weapon states will do, but they don’t.

More and more nations are gravitating towards the one approach whose success is not contingent upon the goodwill and leadership of nuclear-armed nations: the ban treaty approach.

Brazil, for instance, had previously championed a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention or framework, which would comprise a time-bound programme for eliminating nuclear weapons. But, it noted:

Brazil: If such proposals were viable, we would have been well advanced on the path towards nuclear-weapons-free world. But they are not.

Egypt has also come to accept that a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons could be the first step towards elimination:

Egypt: For the government of Egypt, we continue to endorse the commencement of negotiations on a nuclear weapon convention, which would aim at the realization of the total and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified framework of time, under effective multilateral verification and control. Yet, if necessary, a first step to that objective could be the negotiation of a treaty banning the production, possession, development, transfer and use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.

El Salvador noted that the ban treaty approach is borne out of frustration at decades of failure in pursuing the other approaches:

El Salvador: We are not adopting a prohibition instrument just because we feel like it. We’ve exhausted all the other possibilities.

Almost without exception, the nations that oppose a ban are those that possess nuclear weapons or claim protection from an ally’s nuclear weapons. They are advocates of the misleadingly named progressive approach, which consists of a series of partial measures, including entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty. I asked Richard:

Tim: What’s wrong with calling for these sorts of things?

Richard: Well, there’s nothing wrong with calling for them. And they’re both perfectly sensible ideas. But they’ve been good ideas for over 20 years now. The only problem with them is that they don’t happen, and they’re blocked – not by the 126 countries, for example, who want to negotiate a new legal instrument; they’re blocked by the nuclear-weapon states and, in some cases, some of the weasels. So there’s no reason not to call for them. Sure, we can call for entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. We can call for start of fissile material treaty negotiations, but it’s not going to do anything. If you’re not going to do anything different, you’re going to get the same results you’ve had for the last 20 years. These are good ideas. It would be great if they were done. But they’re not done, and just calling for them to be done again is not going to help.

Tim: What do you think of the term progressive to describe this approach?

Richard: Well, it’s really again quite a pathetic attempt to cover up the fact that nothing’s happening, when all you’ve got to suggest as a way forward is to just change the name of what you’ve been doing before without success, it shows you really don’t have much to offer. You list again things that you’ve proposed for the last 20 years, and you give them a new label in the hope that it looks fresh.

Advocates of the so-called progressive approach have been at pains to inform the impatient majority that nuclear disarmament is very complex and will not happen quickly. Australia – a nation which argues that US nuclear weapons make it safer and more prosperous – had this to say:

Australia: The hard yards need to be taken, and there are no quick fixes.

And in another statement: 

Australia: Difficult, hard yards. No short cuts.

Host nation Belgium, too, stressed that there are no short cuts:

Belgium: This morning, an almost automatic link has been made between an increased awareness about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the necessity for concluding immediately a treaty banning nuclear weapons. We do not think that a short cut to nuclear disarmament is possible.

As Mexico observed, the room was clearly divided in two:

Mexico: There is a group that is trying to protect the status quo and therefore is sticking to old ideas that have been around for more than 20 years. There is another group who is trying to change the status quo and is putting forward new ideas.

And there was no doubting which group was the larger.


Elements for the new treaty

The bulk of the discussion at the May session of the UN working group in Geneva was on the elements to be included in a new legal instrument, or instruments, for nuclear disarmament.

Richard: Obviously we had the standard ideas, like there should be a prohibition of possession of nuclear weapons, of stockpiling, of development, of use and so on, but also perhaps some more creative and innovative ideas like prohibitions on financing, provisions on assistance to victims of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing, provisions on cooperation with nuclear-armed states and so on. So, it was really the first time that these sorts of things had been discussed in a formal meeting like this. And the other interesting part of the debate was that nobody objected to any of these specific elements. We didn’t have any countries, not even the weasels … the weasels of course didn’t want to engage in this debate because they don’t want a new treaty at all. But the result was that these measures were discussed and gathered a lot of support.

Tim: Do the weasels actually oppose the prohibition of nuclear weapons?

Richard: Well, that’s a very good question, Tim. I think you should ask them. Because you would have to say that, as non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, how could they oppose the prohibition of nuclear weapons? Because nuclear weapons are already prohibited for them. Yet, it’s interesting that they do seem quite blatantly to be resisting efforts to negotiate a new legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

A number of delegations suggested that there was general consensus among participants on the need to prohibit nuclear weapons. The only difference of opinion related to timing. This is Switzerland:

Switzerland: Switzerland’s longstanding view is that nuclear weapons, like the other weapons of mass destruction, ought to be prohibited. While there seems to be a very widely shared view that an instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons would be needed at some point, views still seem to be divergent with regards to the point in time such an instrument would be appropriate.

And Austria concurred:

Austria: For the first time, we had discussions on the key elements of a prohibition. It became clear that there is an agreement that a legal norm prohibiting nuclear weapons is necessary and common to all approaches. And no delegation has maintained they are against the prohibition of nuclear weapons. What was obvious to all of us is that we have differences on the timing. A wide majority wants to start negotiations on a legally binding norm to prohibit nuclear weapons as soon as possible, and a minority does not want to start such negotiations soon – some have even argued only after the elimination of nuclear weapons.

It might sound preposterous, but a small handful of nations, including Australia, do argue that nuclear weapons should be prohibited only after they have been eliminated. For other weapons, prohibition has been essential for achieving progress towards disarmament, as Austria explained:

Austria: Hitherto disarmament treaties have been based on a prohibition, and then the practical steps to destroy those arms came later. We all know that treaties don’t start with universality, and it can take time. There are very few treaties, indeed, that can show universal membership.

And, according to Austria, the problem boils down to this:

Austria: Those who think that nuclear weapons add to their security see not this urgency for prohibiting them.

Delegations debated not only the timing of a prohibition, but also its scope. Austria and others made clear that a ban treaty should outlaw not only the use of nuclear weapons, but also their possession. In New Zealand’s opinion, the list of proscribed activities in the new instrument should be as broad as possible.

New Zealand: The most important lesson to be drawn from our experience with a range of other disarmament regimes would seem to be that the elements, or prohibitions, covered in a new instrument must be truly comprehensive and leave no gaps. The full range of prohibitions must be covered explicitly and with sufficient detail to stand the test of time.

However, Sweden – a laggard of sorts in these debates – suggested that a simple ban on use might be more feasible:

Sweden: There is one partial measure that we think could gain support among both countries with nuclear weapons and countries in nuclear alliances, and this is the prohibition on the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.

But it is hard to take this thought bubble seriously. In the UN General Assembly, India has long proposed the negotiation of a convention prohibiting merely the use of nuclear weapons. Last year, Sweden voted against that resolution, as did most nuclear-armed nations and their allies.

While Sweden is not a member of NATO, it has close ties to the alliance. As an apparent delaying tactic, it often argues for more studies to be conducted on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. This is Austria’s view:

Austria: My delegation doesn’t see any need to have a discourse that we should wait for more studies and so on. I think the results are very similar and are very clear. The results are a call for action. And the time to act is now.

The Netherlands, too, attempted unsuccessfully to steer the discussion away from a total ban:

Netherlands: While a blanket ban may not enjoy the support of nuclear-weapon possessors at this point, perhaps the open-ended working group could encourage a dialogue on which specific types of nuclear weapons are currently the most destabilizing and therefore the most dangerous.

One can only assume that the Dutch ambassador was not referring here to the nuclear weapons stationed at its Volkel air base.


Weapons of terror

Tim: There was a discussion about nuclear weapons and security in the 21st century. What did that discussion reveal about the motivations of the umbrella states? 

Richard: Well, we had more and more strident claims, from these umbrella states, from the weasels, that nuclear weapons are important to them, that they need nuclear weapons for their security. And this is not something we’re really used to hearing from them. Because usually the role of the weasels is to act as bridge builders between the other non-nuclear-weapon states and the states with nuclear weapons, like the US and Russia and China and the UK and France. But none of those nuclear-armed states were participating in this open-ended working group, so the weasels found themselves as the ones who had to explain why nuclear weapons are actually needed. And this I think was very uncomfortable for them. And the fact that there was so much, I guess, movement and momentum and interest from so many other states in going ahead with a new treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, the voices of the weasels became more and more strident and I suppose blatant in saying, no, nuclear weapons are legitimate, we need them, they play an important role in providing for our security.

Many of the umbrella nations have, however, avoided explicitly linking their anti-ban stance to their reliance on nuclear weapons. Their opposition to a ban, they say, is based on a belief that prohibition simply is not an effective strategy for achieving elimination. But, for many, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain that pretence. Belgium, for instance, was frank in explaining its position:

Belgium: Even though the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote, my country cannot at this point in time subscribe to the statement that nuclear weapons should never again be used under any circumstances, because this is inconsistent with the concept of deterrence and with NATO policy in general as it stands today, as are calls for an immediate ban on the possession or use of nuclear weapons.

Canada took umbrage at the suggestion that some umbrella nations might at times be less than sincere:

Canada: In contrast to those who have criticized states which maintain a belief in nuclear deterrence, Canada does not question the sincerity of the motives and aspirations of those states that see a ban as the next step in disarmament, nor do we think them naive. We take the advocates of a ban at their word.

And why would they not? What ulterior motive could the nuclear-free nations of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific – and parts of Europe – possibly have in demanding that nuclear weapons be banned?

Throughout the May session, the umbrella nations demonstrated, perhaps more starkly than anyone, why the current system for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is in desperate need of repair. This was Poland’s emphatic endorsement of nuclear weapons – Poland, of course, being a party to the NPT:

Poland: Currently, the nuclear weapons – regardless of our assessment of its humanitarian aspect – play a significant role in preserving stable and predictable security environment, as well as strategic balance, which results in lack of global conflict for almost 70 years.

Germany argued that a ban on nuclear weapons would do nothing to enhance global security:

Germany: We do not see how a ban would likely make a difference as long as the security situation is as challenging as today. It would merely repeat a norm already existing for non-nuclear-weapon states today.

But is that norm strong enough? Under the NPT, Germany is considered a non-nuclear-weapon state. Yet it has nuclear weapons stationed at its Büchel air base. Evidently, then, the norm could be strengthened. And the ban would do just that.

When countries such as Belgium, Germany, Poland and Canada extol the supposed security benefits of nuclear weapons, it raises all sorts of questions:

Richard: Like, well, if they’re important to your security, why aren’t they important to the security of other states? Wouldn’t other states listening to you defend the security benefits of nuclear weapons say, well, we should have nuclear weapons, too? So it’s really an incitement to proliferation. And it’s directly undermining the NPT. But most of all it’s really illustrating what role the weasels are playing in this. They are maintaining the status quo and trying to keep nuclear weapons, which is directly contrary to their obligations under the NPT.

Jamaica agreed that policies of reliance on nuclear weapons incite proliferation: 

Jamaica: The premise of nuclear deterrence is that, by threatening to annihilate the populations and cities of another country, it is possible to gain security. If that is true for countries that have nuclear weapons or are part of nuclear-arm alliances, then isn’t the conclusion that every nation should have the right to acquire nuclear weapons so that their people can be protected by the same deterrent means? In this connection, I wish to ask the countries that are part of the nuclear umbrellas, who are here defending nuclear deterrence, to explain to me why Jamaica should not get nuclear weapons in order to benefit from the same kind of deterrence that prevents some possible or future threat?

Jamaica, incidentally, is fully committed to a ban.

South Africa argued that the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons would greatly enhance security globally:

South Africa: As the only country to have developed and then dismantled and verifiably destroyed its nuclear weapon capability, our experience has illustrated that nuclear weapons do not guarantee security, but rather undermine it. For too long the debate on nuclear weapons has been dominated by the perceived security interests of a handful of countries.

This debate on nuclear weapons in the 21st century showed all of the contradictions in the policies of the weasel governments. 

Richard: They claim they want to get rid of nuclear weapons, and here they are claiming they want to keep them. You can’t do both. And I think one of the most important benefits of a new treaty banning nuclear weapons, or even just talking about a new treaty banning nuclear weapons, is that it has revealed this contradiction in the weasel policy, and it’s going to be very hard now for them to avoid addressing that.

A common criticism of the ban approach is that it would somehow undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is Estonia, a NATO member, voicing its concern:

Estonia: The whole process will undermine the existing legal framework for nuclear disarmament, and first and foremost we are talking about the NPT.

Poland, another NATO member, argued that a ban would, quote, destroy the NPT:

Poland: So the question is quite clear what we are choosing: either the NPT system, which is a cornerstone of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, with almost universal coverage, or unknown new immediate single ban treaty, supposed to change mentality, but with unknown efficiency.

Most nations, however, view the ban treaty as complementary to the NPT – a measure that would enhance it, not undermine it. The NPT, after all, requires its parties to pursue negotiations on effective measures for nuclear disarmament. According to Indonesia, a ban treaty would be one such effective measure:

Indonesia: A new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons would represent an effective measure under article VI of the NPT and, therefore, implementing the NPT. It is contributing directly to the achievement of the object and purpose of the NPT. A prohibition on nuclear weapons would coexist with and support and enhance the NPT. 

And Kenya agreed with that assessment:

Kenya: It is our belief that the negotiation and the conclusion of a legally binding instrument banning nuclear weapons is necessary. We do not share in the view that such an instrument will in any way degrade the NPT.

Mexico said that not only would a ban help implement the disarmament provision of the NPT – that is, article VI – it would also strengthen the non-proliferation aspects: 

Mexico: A prohibition on nuclear weapons, apart from making a major disarmament contribution, will be the ultimate non-proliferation measure.


Stigmatizing nuclear weapons

Umbrella nations argued that a ban treaty without nuclear-armed nations on board would be ineffective. But is it effective simply to hope and wait for these nations to take action, when for decades they have failed to do so?

Indeed, all are today investing heavily in the build-up and modernization of their nuclear forces, with plans to keep them for many decades to come. This is the harsh reality that we face. I asked Richard:

Tim: What progress can be made without the nuclear-armed countries?

Richard: In a way, it’s almost easier without the nuclear-armed countries because it’s really thrown the focus more on what it is that the countries without nuclear weapons can do. And of course there are a lot more of them. I mean, the vast majority of countries in the world do not have nuclear weapons and do not rely on nuclear weapons. So it’s actually quite natural and logical for them to be discussing what they can do about making the world safe from nuclear weapons. I am very optimistic that this idea has become more widely accepted now, and it’s going to really change the way the world – or the international community as a whole – deals with nuclear weapons. And the initiative to examine and discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has really illustrated very clearly that this is the responsibility of all countries. Nuclear weapons affect all states, regardless of who actually owns them, and therefore they’re the responsibility of all states to deal with. And now we actually have a large number of the world’s countries ready to go ahead and deal with the problem. Of course, while in the end it’s the countries that have the nuclear weapons who have to take the steps to get rid of them, we’re in a very good situation now where it’s the countries that want to get rid of nuclear weapons, who are really committed to that, are ready to go ahead and negotiate a new treaty. And at this stage, the nuclear-armed states, the ones that have nuclear weapons, are kind of irrelevant. They’re on the sidelines. This is going to go ahead without them. It would be great if they got engaged and got involved, but I don’t think we need them right now. And it will be very interesting to see just how far this can go.

Many of the governments supporting a ban have become quite explicit about moving ahead without the involvement of nuclear-armed nations. This is Kenya:

Kenya: Participation, signature, or ratification of nuclear-armed powers, while desirable, is not necessary for the negotiations and conclusion of that instrument.

Jamaica believes that the treaty, through its normative force, will be a catalyst for elimination:

Jamaica: Indeed, it would encourage nuclear-weapon states and nuclear umbrella states to stop relying on these types of weapons of mass destruction for their perceived security. Another notable impact of a global prohibition is that it would encourage financial institutions to divest their holdings in nuclear weapon companies.

Many delegations hope that the ban will advance disarmament by stigmatizing, or delegitimizing, nuclear weapons. This is Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka: By agreeing on a legally binding instrument, we could avoid the ambiguity surrounding whether nuclear weapons are legal or illegal. We have carefully listened to the arguments made within this group and note that there is a clear desire to move towards negotiating a legally binding instrument delegitimizing nuclear weapons.

While the nuclear-armed nations may have boycotted the UN working group, their diplomats are paying close attention to the progress of this initiative.

Tim: Do you think they’re worried about its potential?

Richard: I think the nuclear-armed states saw the potential of this humanitarian consequences initiative right from the start. They saw where it would lead and what it would mean. And that’s why they were so concerned about it. They saw the potential, I think, much more clearly than anybody else. They do fear the stigmatization and delegitimization of nuclear weapons. Of course, it affects them all very differently. And I think it’s perhaps the western states – the United States, the UK and France – that are perhaps most susceptible. But all of them are following this very carefully. They’re worried about it. Every country likes to think that its defence policies are legitimate and legal and moral and so on. It’s a big part of the national image in many countries. And they are deeply concerned about what’s happening here, which I think is great.

Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who addressed the working group from the podium, was scathing of the United States’ decision to boycott the talks. She cited President Obama’s much-lauded speech in Prague in 2009, in which he had declared that his country has a moral responsibility to lead on disarmament:

Setsuko Thurlow: Yet, the US cannot even send a representative to this conference. Where is the moral responsibility or leadership in that?

Malaysia argued that a ban treaty would prompt nuclear-armed nations to take seriously their disarmament obligations:

Malaysia: If nuclear-weapon states are unwilling to even have discussions on nuclear disarmament issues, then a catalyst for action is needed, and a prohibition treaty does that. It addresses an important issue for nuclear disarmament. It clearly says that nuclear weapons are unacceptable and that such weapons would be illegal.

As this process moves forward, the pressure on nations to participate constructively will only intensify. Already, in some of the more hesitant nations, many parliamentarians have voiced strong support for a ban.

Richard: We had some very interesting developments in the parliaments in Norway and the Netherlands, in particular, where in both cases the parliaments have decided that the governments should be doing more to make progress with nuclear disarmament. And we see the governments in both those countries now coming under quite a lot of pressure not just from civil society but also from the parliamentary majorities – so we’re optimistic that this kind of pressure is going to spread to other countries, and some of these weasels are going to have to start addressing their policies.

In their statements to the working group, the Dutch and Norwegian delegations each noted the parliamentary debates that had taken place. And each appeared somewhat more open to possibility of supporting a ban – albeit perhaps not imminently. This is Norway:

Norway: A world without nuclear weapons will have to be regulated by a legally binding framework which should include a comprehensive prohibition on possession, production, transfer and use. At what stage such legal measures should be introduced remains up for debate, as we have seen today.

But campaigners from these and other umbrella nations were clearly dissatisfied, holding protests outside the permanent missions of their governments in Geneva: 

Richard: We went to Canada and Norway and Japan and Australia just to make the point that we thought these governments were pursuing contradictory policies and that they should be doing more to support the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We’re very disappointed that they’re obstructing progress towards a new legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons. We had no problems with these protests until we got to Japan, where the Japanese government … remembering here that Japan is the only country that’s actually been attacked with nuclear weapons. And we had with us two survivors from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, who spoke passionately about their desire to do more on nuclear disarmament and their unhappiness with the Japanese government’s policy. And the response from the Japanese mission was to c all the police, and to have these quite elderly survivors, along with the rest of us protestors, detained for 40 minutes or so in the rain. And I think that sends a very poor signal about Japan’s commitment to pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons.

Setsuko, in her testimony to the working group, criticized the Japanese government for ignoring the pleas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, known as hibakusha:

Setsuko Thurlow: The Japanese government and other nuclear alliance states are being obstructionist in these proceedings. And not only hibakusha, but the majority of the Japanese public, fervently desire nuclear abolition. Our sense of abandonment is real. We should all be working together to find the way to make disarmament a reality. And the most expedient way – according to the majority of the nations represented here – is to move forward to a ban on the nuclear weapon.

In recent years, Japan has come under intense pressure to change its stance, Richard says:

Richard: I do think the Japanese representatives at the meeting did try to some extent to engage in the discussion, and try and answer some of the concerns raised but they really had no answer to the main questions put to them. Why don’t they accept there’s a legal gap? Why don’t they want to fill this gap with a new instrument? Why would Japan, which knows better than any other country the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, why then doesn’t Japan support this move to prohibit them? And the Japanese delegation just has no answer to these questions.


Time to fill the legal gap

For most of the world’s nations, the necessary course of action is clear: move ahead now with a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. It is time to fill the legal gap. All 54 African nations support this approach:

South Africa: The African group strongly supports the call for banning nuclear weapons – the only WMD not prohibited by an international legal instrument.

So too do the 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as most nations throughout Asia-Pacific. The Pacific islands of Palau, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa and Tuvalu submitted a paper to the working group proposing elements for inclusion in the ban. This is Palau:

Palau: The overwhelming majority of UN member states have indicated their readiness to work together to prohibit nuclear weapons. And so the question that we should ask is not whether a global ban on nuclear weapons is necessary, but rather how it can be negotiated and what provisions it should contain.

Several nations specifically proposed that negotiations on the ban should begin in 2017:

Richard: This is the most exciting development from the open-ended working group. There’s now a specific proposal to convene a negotiating conference in 2017 that would negotiate this new legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. It’s really the first time there has been such a specific and clear proposal made on how to go forward with this. It’s supported by a number of countries from several regions directly, and quite a few others have endorsed it as well, so it now looks like it will indeed go ahead.

Brazil was the lead author of this proposal. In its assessment, there is now a critical mass of support to make ban treaty negotiations a success:

Brazil: The significant majority of states has, in one way or another, voiced support for the start of negotiations on the prohibition of nuclear weapons with a view to their future total elimination. Brazil is convinced that this is the most viable option for unlocking the current stalemate on nuclear disarmament negotiations.

It remains to be seen whether the contents of the Brazilian-led proposal will be fully reflected in the agreed recommendations of the working group. But, in the end, it hardly matters. If a group of nations are determined to take forward this initiative, who is to stop them? The pursuit of a ban does not hinge upon the approval of nuclear-armed nations or their allies. It is simply up to like-minded nations to act.

This is New Zealand:

New Zealand: The fundamental division in this room is not between those who favour one particular pathway over another for these negotiations – after all, the exact form and scope of an instrument is not too difficult to determine during the course of its negotiation. The fundamental divide is, instead, between those who do want to proceed with nuclear disarmament negotiations and those who do not. Those of us who do want to proceed with a negotiation are not trying to insist that all others must join with us in this enterprise. Conversely, however, those who do not want to proceed with a negotiation seem very determined to try to put barriers in the way of those of us who do.

The UN working group will convene for its third and final session in August, at which delegates will debate what recommendations to make to the UN General Assembly in October. I asked Richard what he expects will happen then:

Richard: Presumably, a resolution will be put forward to convene the negotiation. I think we can say that we’re on track now to start the negotiations next year, and this is just going to put further pressure on the opponents, on the weasels, who now will have to explain domestically and to their citizens why they are resisting this idea. First, they’ll have to decide whether to vote for or against the resolution that establishes the negotiating conference. Then they’ll have to decide whether to participate in the negotiations. And, in the end, when the treaty is negotiated and finished, they’ll have to decide whether to sign it.

And we, the public, must help them decide.


This podcast was produced by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and recorded in the studios of 3CR Community Radio, Melbourne. Special thanks to Mat Kelly, Melissa Wong and Michaela Stubbs.

  • aiweiwei

    “Let’s act up! Ban nuclear weapons completely and unconditionally.”

    Ai Weiwei Artist and activist

  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate