The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), extended indefinitely in 1995 when it was due to expire, provided that five nuclear weapons states which also happened to hold the veto power on the Security Council (P-5)– the US, Russia, UK, France, and China– would “pursue negotiations in good faith”[i] for nuclear disarmament. To buy the support of the rest of the world for the deal, the nuclear weapons states “sweetened the pot” with a Faustian bargain promising the non-nuclear weapons state an “inalienable right”[ii] to so-called “peaceful” nuclear power, thus giving them the keys to the bomb factory. [iii] Every country in the world signed the new treaty except for India, Pakistan, and Israel, which went on to develop nuclear arsenals. North Korea, an NPT member, took advantage of the technological know-how it acquired through its “inalienable right” to nuclear power and quit the treaty to make its own nuclear bombs. Today there are nine nuclear weapons states with 17,000 bombs on the planet, 16,000 of which are in the US and Russia!
In 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross made an unprecedented breakthrough effort to educate the world that there was no existing legal ban on the use and possession of nuclear weapons despite the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from nuclear war, thus renewing public awareness about the terrible dangers of nuclear holocaust. [iv] A new initiative, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) [v] was launched to make known the disastrous effects to all life on earth should nuclear war break out, either by accident or design, as well as the inability of governments at any level to adequately respond. They are calling for a legal ban on nuclear weapons, just as the world had banned chemical and biological weapons.
Norway also took up the call of the International Red Cross in 2013, hosting a special Conference on the Humanitarian Effects of Nuclear Weapons. The Oslo meeting took place outside of the usual institutional settings such as the NPT, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and the First Committee of the General Assembly, where progress on nuclear disarmament has been frozen because the nuclear weapons states are only willing to act on non- proliferation measures, while failing to take any meaningful steps for nuclear disarmament. This, despite a host of empty promises made over the 44 year history of the NPT, and nearly 70 years after the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The P-5 boycotted the Oslo conference, issuing a joint statement claiming it would be a “distraction” from the NPT! Two nuclear weapons states did show up—India and Pakistan, to join the 127 nations that came to Oslo and those two nuclear weapons states again attended this year’s follow-up conference hosted by Mexico, with 146 nations.
There is transformation in the air and a shift in the zeitgeist in how nations and civil society are addressing nuclear disarmament. They are meeting in partnership in greater numbers and with growing resolve to negotiate a nuclear ban treaty which would prohibit the possession, testing, use, production and acquisition of nuclear weapons as illegal, just as the world has done for chemical and biological weapons. The ban treaty would begin to close the gap in the World Court decision which failed to decide if nuclear weapons were illegal in all circumstances, particularly where the very survival of a state was at stake. This new process is operating outside of the paralyzed institutional UN negotiating structures, first in Oslo, then in Mexico with a third meeting planned in Austria, this very year, not four years later in 2018 as proposed by the non-aligned movement of countries which fail to grasp the urgent need to move swiftly for nuclear abolition, and has not received any buy-in from the recalcitrant P-5. Indeed, the US, France and UK didn’t even bother to send a decent representative to the first high level meeting in history for heads of state and foreign ministers to address nuclear disarmament at the UN’s General Assembly last fall. And they opposed the establishment of the UN Open Ended Working Group for Nuclear Disarmament that met in Geneva in an informal arrangement with NGOs and governments, failing to show up for a single meeting held during the summer of 2013.
At Nayarit, Mexico, the Mexican Chair sent the world a Valentine on February 14, 2014 when he concluded his remarks to a standing ovation and loud cheers by many of the government delegates and the NGOs in attendance saying:
The broad-based and comprehensive discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should lead to the commitment of States and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument. It is the view of the Chair that the Nayarit Conference has shown that time has come to initiate a diplomatic process conducive to this goal. Our belief is that this process should comprise a specific timeframe, the definition of the most appropriate fora, and a clear and substantive framework, making the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons the essence of disarmament efforts. It is time to take action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks is the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal. Nayarit is a point of no return (emphasis added).
One obstacle that is becoming apparent to the success of achieving a broadly endorsed ban treaty is the position of “nuclear umbrella” states such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and NATO members. They ostensibly support nuclear disarmament but still rely on lethal “nuclear deterrence”, a policy which demonstrates their willingness to have the US incinerate cities and destroy our planet on their behalf.
Achieving a ban treaty negotiated without the nuclear weapons states would give us a cudgel to hold them to their bargain to negotiate for the total elimination of nuclear weapons in a reasonable time by shaming them for not only failing to honor the NPT but for totally undermining their “good faith” promise for nuclear disarmament. They continue to test and build new bombs, manufacturing facilities, and delivery systems while Mother Earth is assaulted with a whole succession of so-called “sub-critical” tests, as these outlaw states continue to blow up plutonium underground at the Nevada and Novaya Zemlya test sites. The P-5’s insistence on a “step by step” process, supported by some of the nuclear “umbrella states”, rather than the negotiation of a legal ban demonstrates their breathtaking hypocrisy as they are not only modernizing and replacing their arsenals, they are actually spreading nuclear bomb factories around the world in the form of nuclear reactors for commercial gain, even ”sharing” this lethal technology with India, a non-NPT party, an illegal practice in violation of the NPT prohibition against sharing nuclear technology with states that failed to join the treaty.
With a follow up meeting coming in Austria, December 7th and 8th of this year, we should be strategic in pushing the impetus forward for a legal ban. We need to get even more governments to show up in Vienna, and make plans for a massive turnout of NGOs to encourage states to come out from under their shameful nuclear umbrella and to cheer on the burgeoning group of peace-seeking nations in our efforts to end the nuclear scourge!
Check out the ICAN campaign to find out how you can participate in Vienna. www.icanw.org
Alice Slater is NY Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and serves on the Council of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.