Addressing the open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament, Dr. Nick Ritchie of the University of York thoughtfully and systematically dismantled any supposed justification for the retention of nuclear weapons. In so doing, he also providing a searing critique of the step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament. His arguments that the choice is either delegitimising nuclear weapons or supporting massive nuclear violence provide a compelling motivation for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. A few nuclear-supportive states continued to argue that the step-by-step approach is the most “practical” way forward, but as Dr. Ritchie set out, this approach simply privileges the nuclear-armed and others that perceive a benefit from threatening other societies with nuclear violence.
Distinguishing between reducing the perceived value of nuclear weapons and reducing their perceived legitimacy, Dr. Ritchie explained that focusing on the security “value” devolves agency to the nuclear-armed states and leaves the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence undisturbed. On the other hand, delegitimising nuclear weapons shifts the focus to nuclear violence and challenges the very legitimacy of giving any value whatsoever to nuclear weapons in the first place.
“Nuclear disarmament diplomacy has now arrived at a ‘stick or twist’ moment,” Dr. Ritchie suggested. “Stick with the prevailing pathway of step-by-step or building blocks that cedes disarmament agency to the nuclear-armed; or twist and pursue a pathway of delegitimation alongside other traditional steps.” A prohibition treaty, he suggested, would have the effect of delegitimising and stigmatising nuclear weapons. It “would constitute an unequivocal delegitimation through a legal instrument that categorically prohibits the possession and use of nuclear weapons based on universal principles of unacceptable harm.”
A number of states, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Mexico welcomed this framing and highlighted the importance of delegitimising and stigmatising nuclear weapons. Others, such as Sweden and Poland, questioned the potential effectiveness of a prohibition treaty and argued that the step-by-step approach should not be dismissed. Both of these states also suggested that nuclear weapons are already considered illegitimate, despite one of them including nuclear weapons in its own security doctrine.
However, as Dr. Ritchie noted in his response to Sweden, while the NPT itself does not codify the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, its recognition of the special status of the five states that tested their nuclear weapons before 1967 is used by nuclear-armed states to justify their continued possession of nuclear weapons. He quoted former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who in 2007 clumsily claimed that the NPT “makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons.”
In terms of the relationship of a prohibition treaty to other steps, delegation after delegation has offered reassurances to the nuclear-supportive states that the prohibition will support rather than undermine these steps. Not a single delegation supporting a prohibition has suggested, ever, that developing such an instrument would mean they no longer support measures to increase transparency, reduce risk of accidents or use, or end nuclear testing. On the contrary, a prohibition would support each of these measures by providing normative, political, economic, and legal clarity about the illegitimacy of nuclear weapon related activities.
As Jamaica noted, the step-by-step approach has consistently failed, for twenty years, to achieve the social change that non-nuclear-armed states seek. States supporting a prohibition are not suggesting that it will be a panacea resulting in the immediate elimination of all nuclear weapons, but rather that it is the next logical—and only currently possible—step that can help facilitate nuclear disarmament. If logic, principle, and multilateralism count for anything, Jamaica argued, the OEWG must make new recommendations that go beyond steps that have failed to generate change for so long. “One of the most pertinent lessons of history,” New Zealand pointed out, is “that you cannot indefinitely prevent others from doing what they believe to be in their best interests.” Moving forward with multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations is in the interest of all and states now appear to be in the final stages of their preparations for such negotiations.
At this moment, prohibiting nuclear weapons seems like a difficult pill to swallow for states that support their existence yet at the same time want to be seen as progressive and responsible members of the international community. As Dr. Ritchie said, the prospect of a prohibition treaty brings to the fore a profound and ultimately untenable cognitive dissonance for those states that support nuclear weapons, but that also claim to support humanitarian principles, human rights, the sustainable development goals, and other initiatives and frameworks that seek to advance human security, justice and equality.
It is important for these states to keep in mind that prohibiting nuclear weapons is not just about challenging and undermining the perceived legitimacy of committing or threatening to commit massive nuclear violence. Banning nuclear weapons also has implications for broader social change. It is about deciding how states conduct themselves in international relations, in terms of power and dominance. It is about the choice to operate through violence or through cooperation. It is about how we communicate as human society: do some of us continue to threaten to annihilate others or do we declare such an absurd and massively violent relationship to be an unacceptable relic of the past and instead build up a sense of community based on equality? Those seeking negotiations for a legally binding instrument on nuclear weapons are urgently expressing a desire for the latter. The OEWG this month has furthered their cause significantly and should lay the groundwork for a process to come that could well be decisive on the path toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.