Last week something historic happened at the United Nations.
Despite enormous pressure from the United States, 123 nations, all with equal standing at the UN General Assembly, voted to start a process in 2017 to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons. Why isn’t this news circulating like wildfire? Why aren’t there parties on the street?
Well, one reason is that no one takes the threat to humanity from nuclear weapons seriously any more. And when we say “no one” what we mean is the mainstream media, which gives the subject almost zero space in their newspapers, radio stations, websites and TV stations. And so “no one” in this case means the media moguls who are in league with the banks, the politicians and the military-industrial complex to keep the status quo going for as long as possible, regardless of the consequences to humanity, because these people are only capable of thinking about how much money they can make in the present and maybe a few years into the future.
Another reason (actually an extension of the first reason) is that most people would surely think that nuclear weapons are already illegal. If chemical and biological weapons are illegal, if landmines and cluster bombs are illegal, surely nuclear weapons, being several orders of magnitude more destructive, were outlawed years ago? Didn’t the world eliminate nuclear weapons when the Berlin Wall came down?
Well, actually, no. Despite Gorbachev’s offer to Reagan to eradicate nuclear weapons, it never happened, although there were reductions in the number of bombs through various treaties. Today the USA and Russia have around 14,000 bombs (depending on whose estimates you believe), which is a lot less than the 80,000 at the height of the cold war, but still a huge number when you understand that 100 bombs dropped on cities would lead to a nuclear winter that would eliminate 25% of the world’s population, who knows how many other species, and essentially lead any survivors to most likely take the more preferable course of action of committing suicide.
But regardless of the media silence and the lack of street parties, history was made and in a most extraordinary way.
Ever since the end of the 2010 NPT review conference – the 5-yearly conference that reviews progress of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to see how disarmament is developing and to recommend further steps – a few governments and civil society have been refocusing the debate regarding disarmament away from the alleged “security concerns” of the P5 and onto “humanitarian concerns”: the fact that a nuclear war will wipe human beings, and probably all forms of life – except perhaps a few short-lifespan insects and bacteria – from the face of the earth.
In other words, according to this new strategy, regardless of security concerns, if a nuclear war breaks out, we all lose. Einstein famously said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” However, it seems, with the new knowledge available thanks to advances in climate science, that Einstein may have been over-optimistic: there won’t be a World War IV – ever.
The NPT was a grand bargain: you guys without nuclear weapons will never get them, you guys with nuclear weapons will give them up and all of us will have the right to develop nuclear energy. It was a great idea at the time (1968) because no one fully understood the dangers of nuclear energy, something that only really hit human consciousness with the accidents at Three Mile Island and the subsequent disasters at Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima.
The problem with the grand bargain was that it has not been fulfilled 47 years later and countries without nuclear weapons are fed up of being held hostage by the nuclear-armed states to the threat of huge nuclear violence. And it doesn’t matter that the P5 say that they are “responsible” countries; their security doctrines allow for the use of these weapons and like a bank-robber brandishing a gun around, it doesn’t matter if there are bullets in it or not, the fact that he or she has one in their hand constitutes use.
The process of getting this resolution approved has been tough. Despite the supposed equality of member states at the UN, there are clearly some states that are more equal than others. The P5 have a veto at the Security Council and economic differences are such that developed countries are capable of manipulating developing countries.
However, to everyone’s delight in the civil-society anti-nuclear movement and among those 57 governments who sponsored the resolution, very few countries submitted to the pressure and 123 countries voted to start negotiations next year.
And the position of the nuclear weapons states and those who exist under a so-called “nuclear umbrella” defence agreement has never been more divided. Of the 9 countries with nuclear weapons, five (The USA, The UK, France, Russia and Israel) voted against the resolution, three (China, India and Pakistan) abstained and one (North Korea) voted for the resolution.
Of the nuclear umbrella states, the Netherlands were forced to abstain as a result of an increasingly effective civil society campaign in the Dutch parliament, also abstaining were Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.
Japan voted against a ban: something that constantly leaves observers astounded given that it is the only country with first-hand knowledge of what it means to have a bomb dropped on their cities.
At the end of the vote, countries used their usual speeches to support their positions. Some countries said that they fear that the new process will undermine the NPT, despite the fact that supporting countries have expressed time and time again that this resolution will do nothing but strengthen article VI of the NPT. Others say the new process is divisive, being happy to stick with the status quo in which nothing has moved in disarmament talks in 47 years: The Test-Ban Treaty has not come into force, the Fissile Material treaty has not been written, the USA has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and we are still waiting for talks about a zone free of all weapons of mass-destruction in the Middle East. On top of this ALL nuclear weapons states are drawing up plans for, or are in the process of, modernising their arsenals, at an astronomical cost to the global economy and the world’s poor.
The new treaty will certainly not put one nuclear weapon out of use on the day it’s ratified, but it will make them effectively illegal in the eyes of international courts and multinational corporations and banks who will not want the general public to know that they are involved with something illegal and so the treaty will ratchet up the pressure to divest. Civil society campaigns to stigmatise nuclear weapons will be hugely boosted and no politician will ever be able to say that the NPT gives their country the legal right to keep nuclear weapons: and ultimately this is why the United States (and their friends) were so anxious to avoid this resolution being brought to the General Assembly.
And this is why its approval is so historic. Those who have for decades accused other states of being “irresponsible” and “pariah” nations will now find themselves on the receiving end of those accusations and for a very good reason.