Report from the 2019 International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
Ray Acheson, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
1 October 2019
On 26 September, the UN held a high-level event to mark the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The event brought together some of the staunchest supporters of nuclear disarmament—which meant that nuclear-armed states and their Western allies were, for the most part, conspicuously absent. It also meant, as is becoming increasingly normal in nuclear disarmament discussions, that those advocating for a nuclear weapon free world held court while those who continue to defend these weapons of terror stayed hidden in the shadows.
Almost every delegation that took the floor during the International Day event remarked on the importance of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Describing it as a landmark instrument towards the prohibition, stigmatisation, and elimination of nuclear weapons, the vast majority of those who spoke highlighted the Treaty’s value in drawing a clear principled and legal line against nuclear weapon possession, use, and threat of use. Many also highlighted its importance for demonstrating what is possible when governments, international organisations, and activists come together to stand up for humanity. As Liechtenstein’s representative said, the TPNW offers a beacon of hope and a lesson in multilateralism in a world suffering from big power politics.
One of the other lessons from the TPNW is the importance of diversity in disarmament. The negotiations, as well as the conferences and meetings leading up to them, featured unprecedented levels of sponsorship and participation of diplomats from the global south and particularly of women. Unfortunately, at the UN event on 26 September, only nine out of 55 speakers were women, about 16 percent of those taking the floor. Delegations need to do more to live up to their responsibilities to diversify participation in nuclear weapons discussions—including responsibilities under the TPNW itself, which recognises that “the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men is an essential factor for the promotion and attainment of sustainable peace and security,” and commits its parties to “supporting and strengthening the effective participation of women in nuclear disarmament.”
Negotiated in 2017 by those governments who reject the idea that nuclear weapons bring security, the TPNW posits that nuclear weapons have catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that can only be prevented though the weapons’ total elimination. The majority of countries involved in the Treaty’s development firmly believe that, as Lebanon’s representative said on 26 September, that the danger of nuclear weapons will not dissipate through containment but only through complete elimination. She urged all states to change from a narrow security mindset to a broad humanitarian approach, which is one of the key things the TPNW has brought to the fore.
This framing has helped expose the dominant discourse on nuclear weapons for what it really is: an illogical justification for a few states to maintain an illusion of privilege and power at the expense of the rest of the world. “The concept of nuclear deterrence does not stand up to scrutiny,” noted Austria’s representative—a concept that the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines aptly described as “muscular masculinity”. The idea that nuclear weapons make the world safer or more stable was described as pure nonsense by most governments participating in the event. Nuclear weapons continue to breed mistrust among their possessors, noted the representative of Fiji. With nuclear weapon modernisation, he noted, more weapons equals more mistrust. “We must not yield to the pressures of those who profit from the production of these horrific weapons of mass destruction,” said the prime minister of Samoa, calling for a stable security without nuclear weapons and nuclear waste.
China and India, the only nuclear-armed states to address the event, offered lip service to the importance of nuclear disarmament. China, for example, said that the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons would serve the interests of humankind. Which begs the question, why not lead the way for nuclear disarmament? Unfortunately, these countries continue to invest in the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals, claiming that they will work for disarmament when the other nuclear-armed states do as well. But as Nepal’s foreign minister suggested, cooperation for disarmament should take primacy over competition for armament. It is beyond time for the nuclear-armed to get serious about their obligations to protect their own citizens and the planet, especially in a time of climate chaos. As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said in its statement to the event, humanity faces the twin threats of nuclear war and climate change. The two are interconnected, as one could exacerbate the risks of the other. And, the money spent on nuclear weapons could instead be going to develop renewable energy and other efforts to mitigate and prevent the worst of the climate crisis. “An alternative future is possible,” said ICAN. “A future that drastically cuts carbon emissions and a future that eliminates nuclear weapons.”
For the latter, this future lies with the TPNW. As the event heard from final speakers, elsewhere in the UN building several states joined the TPNW at a special ceremony. Nine countries signed the Treaty—Botswana, Dominica, Grenada, Lesotho, Maldives, St. Kitts and Nevis, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zambia—while five deposited their instruments of ratification—Bangladesh, Kiribati, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, and Trinidad and Tobago. This brings the number of ratifying states to 32, and signatories to 79. These countries are prioritising people and peace over profits. As the prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said in his remarks to the General Assembly on 27 September, smaller states have been “mere irrelevant pebbles in the eyes of some of the large, the rich and the powerful who ought to know better.” And now, these states “form part of the new foundation of international cooperation. Our challenges must be acknowledged, and our voices—long humoured but unheard—must be listened to as the consistent advocates on behalf of people, progress, partnership and principle.”