ICAN’s Executive Director Melissa Parke, delivered the following statement to the high level opening session of the second Meeting of States Parties to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition:
Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,
The Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy once wrote:
It is such a supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they’re used. The fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behaviour. Administer our societies … They are the ultimate coloniser.
Today, as we gather in this Trusteeship Council chamber, her words are a powerful reminder that our work for disarmament is, in a sense, a continuation of the project of decolonisation.
Through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, we are seeking to emancipate humanity from the ever-present and growing threat of nuclear annihilation – a threat perpetuated by a small number of states to the detriment of us all.
We are also working, through this treaty, to assist communities still suffering from the toxic legacy of nuclear tests conducted decades ago, more often than not by colonial powers that showed little or no concern about the devastating human and environmental toll.
They selected their test sites for their supposed remoteness – the deserts of Australia and Algeria, Pacific atolls, the steppes of Kazakhstan – but remoteness from whom? Not from those living nearby or downwind or downstream, some of whom will testify here this week.
Remote, certainly, from the decision-makers in national capitals, who deemed the local populations expendable, their lands and waters worthless, as they worked to perfect their ability to kill and destroy on a massive scale.
It is this same colonial attitude – the belief in one people’s superiority over another, the desire to dominate and control, the flagrant disregard for the consequences of one’s actions upon others – that guides much of the ongoing work to enhance nuclear armaments today.
Full-scale nuclear testing may have ended – at least for now – but the quest to develop ever-deadlier weapons of mass destruction continues apace.
Nuclear-armed states, instead of pursuing disarmament in accordance with their legal obligations, are squandering tens of billions of dollars every year to “improve” and expand their arsenals. A theft from the world’s poor. An insult to all who value peace.
Some of these same states are also waging wars of aggression – with staggering death tolls and undeniable nuclear risks.
Against this backdrop of bloodshed, we must renew our call not only for nuclear disarmament, but also, more broadly, for multilateral approaches to peace and security, and for adherence to the international rule of law, based on the UN Charter.
As these conflicts demonstrate, nuclear weapons not only inflict violent destruction in a direct sense; they also enable it in more ways than is often acknowledged.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, to which you are admirably committed, provides a guiding light out of this darkness. It is our best hope, the most practical and realistic means, of achieving real progress in eradicating the worst weapons from the world.
Certainly, it complements and reinforces the Non-Proliferation Treaty – but, in many respects, it is a much stronger instrument. For it prohibits nuclear weapons comprehensively, not selectively. It provides a legal framework for disarmament, not merely an obligation to pursue that goal. It includes novel provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation.
This treaty dispenses with the double standards inherent in the NPT, applying the same standard to all: zero nuclear weapons. A nuclear bomb is, after all, a nuclear bomb no matter whose flag it bears. The heat, blast and radiation kill and destroy just as indiscriminately if the country that drops it is a “recognised” nuclear-weapon state.
The mass starvation from nuclear winter will affect all countries and peoples, regardless of where the nuclear war takes place. So all peoples and all states have a stake in this.
But when different rules apply to different states, or the same rules are applied unequally, dangerous policies and practices inevitably spread. Russia’s recent deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus, in mimicry of NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements, is a case in point – and should be a wake-up call to all who have defended this unacceptable practice.
Where the NPT is ambiguous, the TPNW is crystal clear: such deployments are prohibited, in all circumstances. No state under the TPNW can claim a licence to possess or host nuclear weapons.
Through its wide-ranging prohibitions, the TPNW rejects the dangerous fallacy of “nuclear deterrence”, which serves only as a deterrent to disarmament – and breeds fear and mistrust among nations.
The theory of deterrence is just that – a theory. It is based on an assumption of 100% rationality and predictability of all actors, including one’s enemies, 100% of the time. This theory may provide some psychological comfort but it cannot deter accidents, miscalculations, unhinged leaders, terrorist groups, cyber-attacks or simple mistakes. And as we know there have been many nuclear near-misses over the decades.
The fact that we are here today is more a result of dumb luck than good management or inherent system integrity. Civil society and states parties to the TPNW have decided we do not want to continue to rely on dumb luck; we much prefer to take action to eliminate the risk.
The TPNW also does not allow for so-called “nuclear umbrellas”, which offer only an illusion of protection. For it is certain that when nuclear deterrence fails, as inevitably it will, there will be no shelter to be had under a nuclear umbrella.
Like other weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons are now internationally banned. And that in itself is a great stride forward. Our treaty has been in force for less than three years, but already it is having a demonstrable impact.
It has solidified the international consensus that nuclear threats are inadmissible. It has brought the fight for nuclear justice to the fore. It has prompted financial institutions to divest billions of dollars from the companies that manufacture these weapons – because they are now banned.
But the pace of progress to date has not matched the urgency of the task at hand. More work is needed, in particular, to universalise the treaty and popularise its norms. With each new ratification or accession, the TPNW grows stronger and more effective. Its norms become more deeply entrenched. We chip away at the legitimacy that nuclear weapons still enjoy in some quarters.
To all TPNW states parties: We thank you for your principled leadership. You are standard-bearers for a nuclear-weapon-free world. Through this treaty, you are laying the foundations for a more secure, just and peaceful future for all.
To the signatory states: We urge you to expedite your ratification processes. Make this treaty a higher priority given the gravity of the threat it seeks to eliminate.
To the non-signatory states: Your constructive engagement is valued. But it’s time to take a stand and put the interests of humanity first. One mustn’t dither in the face of this existential threat.
To the survivors of nuclear weapons: We thank you for your wisdom, courage and determination. For sharing your painful testimonies time and again. For warning the world of what can happen if we fail to eliminate these horrific weapons now.
When people consider the many threats facing our planet today, too often the threat of nuclear weapons is overlooked. Yet it is perhaps the most acute of them all, because the existential danger is ever-present for as long as the weapons exist.
Anyone concerned about the climate crisis, about environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, needs to take up the cause of disarmament with equal passion, as these are interconnected issues.
Indeed, everything that we are striving to achieve at the United Nations, on a wide variety of fronts, including environmental protection, health, human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals, could be undone in an afternoon if the unspeakable were to happen.
Delegates, every species will be harmed in a nuclear war; only one species can stop it.