At some point between the NPT Review Conference in May and the general debate of First Committee, the United States decided to rebrand its preferred “step-by-step approach” to nuclear disarmament as the “full-spectrum approach”. Like before, it contrasts this approach with the pursuit of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, which it says is neither practical nor realistic. At some point during this same period, the US also decided it should make the wild claim that any potential ban treaty would undermine international security so much that it could actually lead to the use of nuclear weapons.
In a rather shocking example of victim-blaming, the US government seems to be suggesting that if countries that do not possess or value these horrific weapons of mass destruction get together and prohibit them, the nuclear-armed states might just be so destabilised by this that they would use their nuclear weapons. And that, I guess, will be our fault. We asked for it, because we challenged their possession of these weapons—weapons that they are legally obligated to eliminate and that threaten the existence of all life on earth.
The full-spectrum approach thus sounds a lot more like full-spectrum dominance. This doesn’t just refer to the US military’s aspirations to control land, sea, air, outer space, and cyber space, as espoused in its “Joint Vision 2020” document. Its full-spectrum approach to nuclear weapons seems to mean complete dominance over discourse, law, and violence.
This power projection isn’t just about nuclear weapons. We see the same approach in the practice of bombing in other countries. Nuclear-weapon possessors France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States are dropping bombs in Syria and Iraq; nuclear-armed Israel routinely bombs Gaza and Lebanon; the Saudi-led coalition, armed primarily by the UK and the US, is bombing and shelling Yemen; the US and now the UK are using armed drones inside and outside of armed conflict to kill without due process or respect for international law. These countries argue that their arms transfers, their bombing and shelling, and their drone strikes are in the interest of security, stability, and even peace.
At the fourth annual humanitarian disarmament campaigns forum held this past weekend, NGO representatives heard about what it is like to live under bombing from Osama Dano, who lived in Gaza for 17 years while working for Save the Children. He spoke about a nine year old girl who could differentiate between bombs dropped from helicopters and jet fighters, between the sound of an AK-47 and an M-16. He spoke of the fear, anxiety, and apathy alike that arise in populations scarred by bombings in their cities, towns, or villages.
This is the lived reality of weapons, experienced by civilians. Rhetoric about the security and deterrence provided by weapons is not only hollow, it is callous when considered in light of this lived reality.
It is this reality that must guide our actions that must motivate progressive change in policy and practice. At first, change might only be able to take place without those who deny reality, deflect responsibility, and defer action. Change might only be possible if others come together, say enough is enough, and begin to shape policies and practices that actually address reality.
Non-nuclear-armed states can develop a treaty banning nuclear weapons. They can stigmatise nuclear weapon possession, prevent financial investments in nuclear weapon maintenance and modernisation, and end military alliance postures that include the threat of nuclear weapon use. As Ms. Richards of Jamaica said, “The time has come for us to cease considering nuclear weapons only through the narrow lens of state security and instead pay due attention to the humanitarian aspect, as a first step to filling the glaring legal gap that exists in the absence of an explicit prohibition of these weapons.”
Governments appalled by the killing and maiming of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure from bombing in towns and cities can develop prohibitions and restrictions to end the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Austria recently hosted a meeting with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs where, as Ambassador Hajnoczi reported at First Committee, “significant support was expressed by participants … to start working on an international political declaration to prevent civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”
Those who are frustrated by the relentless transfer of arms to those who bomb, murder, rape, and torture can develop mechanisms to hold arms exporters and users to account, including by addressing the production of weapons. They can also work together to ensure the strictest implementation of existing tools on arms transfers and develop stronger standards and norms against the international arms trade. “The express prohibitions of the [Arms Trade Treaty] are not suggestions,” emphasised Ms. Chan of Costa Rica. “They are obligations. Thus, irresponsible transfers to conflict zones should be stopped, and should be stopped immediately.”
Those who are concerned with the use of armed drones, which as Costa Rica warned is leading to the reinterpretation of human rights, dehumanisation of conflict, and lowering of the threshold for the use of force, can develop clear international standards and restrictions to tackle the specific problems drones pose to human rights, humanitarian law, and international peace and security.
There is much work to be done. The intransigence of the most militarily aggressive states must not prevent progress. The failure to set boundaries, implement law, and make new commitments to prevent humanitarian suffering undermines the credibility of international community to uphold shared values on protection of civilians and human rights. This is a collective responsibility.
The US and other violent states may wish to project full-spectrum dominance, but they have, in their hubris, created a false perception of reality in which war leads to peace, in which nuclear weapons bring stability, and in which profits trump people. This vision is unsustainable. It can and must be challenged by those who live in the real world.
“Neither guns nor bullets will bring about a life of dignity for all humanity,” said Ambassador Manongi of Tanzania. “Neither nuclear weapons nor other weapons of mass destruction will guarantee world peace and security. And, neither words nor declarations or resolutions will bring us closer to the goal of general and complete disarmament. Only determined actions, clear objectives and solid political will will get us there. Let us therefore summon the necessary strength and courage and commit to action.”
By Ray Acheson