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2015 No. 3

Editorial: Humanitarian incantations
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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Disturbed by “humanitarian activists” raising expectations for nuclear disarmament, Russian delegate Vladimir Yermakov argued that we cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle with “mere humanitarian incantations”. He is not the first to complain about raising expectations (though he is the first to suggest a link between the humanitarian initiative and witchcraft). The idea that those in favour of disarmament are falsely raising hopes of progress was put forward by the nuclear-armed states and some of their allies in advance of the NPT Review Conference in May. What’s interesting about this argument is that, just like the US warning that it might be provoked to use nuclear weapons if they are prohibited, it places blame on those wanting progress as opposed to those preventing it.

The real concern, of course, is not with false expectations. It’s with pressure. The nuclear-armed states have felt increasing pressure over the last few years to comply with their legal obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons. The humanitarian discourse has placed the spotlight on the illegitimacy of possessing nuclear weapons and perpetuating the concept of nuclear deterrence. One of the key conclusions from the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was that similar to torture, “which defeats humanity and is now unacceptable to all, the suffering caused by nuclear weapons use is not only a legal matter, it necessitates moral appraisal.”

This pressure is exactly why some nuclear-armed states seem to have reversed their position on an open-ended working group (OEWG) for nuclear disarmament and now appear to support such a group (as long as it operates by consensus and only has a discussion mandate). In 2012, when Austria, Mexico, and Norway tabled a resolution establishing such a group, the nuclear-armed states vehemently opposed it. Those party to the NPT argued it would undermine the implementation of the NPT action plan. Those not party to the NPT argued it would undermine the Conference on Disarmament (CD).

Suddenly, faced with the outcome of three major international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, a growing group of 121 states endorsing the Humanitarian Pledge commitment to fill the legal gap on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and a groundswell of support at First Committee for a ban, the nuclear-armed states appear desperate for an OEWG. Perhaps they see such a body as a way to slow down the diplomatic process to negotiate a ban treaty. If so, it is testament both to the dismay amongst some nuclear-armed states at the remarkable progress towards a ban treaty and to their concern at the power such a treaty would have in eroding the legitimacy they seek to ascribe to their continued wielding of weapons of mass destruction.

Regardless, the ban treaty appears to be coming. Whatever resolutions are adopted here at First Committee, whatever bodies are established (or not established) to address nuclear weapons, those actors committed to progress will be able to move forward with a legally-binding prohibition.

Ambassador Wood of the US argued, “History shows that a practical and full-spectrum approach to disarmament has proven to be the most effective means to reduce nuclear dangers and make progress on nuclear disarmament.” Yet the US has made it clear that the prohibition of nuclear weapons is not part of this spectrum. In fact, history shows that legal prohibitions of weapon systems facilitate their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and, along with it, the money and resources for their production, proliferation, and perpetuation.

A ban treaty doesn’t seek the “overnight” elimination of nuclear weapons, as the US delegation mistakenly asserted. Making a weapon system disappear overnight would indeed require an act of witchcraft (and a welcome one at that). But the ban treaty is a practical step states can actually take to help create the conditions for elimination. It is certainly more likely to support nuclear elimination than clinging to the concept of nuclear deterrence and maintaining the means to inflict massive nuclear violence.

The idea that having the capacity to destroy entire cities and annihilate entire populations provides security is remarkably perverse. This is nevertheless the argument made by the nuclear-armed states and some of their allies. Ambassador Rowland of the UK said last week that his government’s “approach to nuclear arms control is linked to the international security environment,” and argued that eliminating nuclear weapons now “will not fulfil the requirement of undiminished security for all.” The overwhelming majority of states have argued that nuclear weapons do diminish their security. What right do a handful of states have to possess the ability to destroy entire cities and blacken the planet’s skies with the press of a button? How does that not diminish security for all?

“This year, the international community gathered at Ypres in Belgium to commemorate the first use of a chemical weapon in warfare,” said Ambassador O’Brien of Ireland. “One hundred years later can we not agree, for the sake of all humanity and our fragile planet, to agree to put all weapons of mass destruction finally beyond use, for all time?”

We can, and we must. A prohibition treaty will not come about through magic spells or incantations. It will come about through resolute normative leadership by states determined to make the world more safe and secure for all. It would seem that even the United States should be able to agree with such an approach. “Let's not wait until the day when we can agree on everything,” said the US delegation. “Instead, let us take action where and when we find agreement, to create a safer, more secure world.” This was in reference to biological weapons. There is no compelling reason why action on nuclear weapons should be any different.

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