NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 9

Editorial: “Emotional Distractions” from “Serious States”
22 August 2022

Ray Acheson 

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Today’s Main Committee II and plenary meetings were the last open meetings of this Review Conference until Friday. The rest of the negotiations will be closed to civil society.  States parties will meet in “informal plenaries” and the Chair will also hold bilateral and group consultations. Come the end of the week, they will have either agreed or not agreed on a final text—which will depend entirely on how much certain states are willing to compromise. As discussed in the previous editorial, compromise is not neutral or equal. In the situation the nuclear-armed states have established, compromise can mean letting a handful of governments get away with violating international law.

In its remarks to the plenary meeting today, France said it believes in a global order based on international law, not military power. It said this in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this stated belief is undermined by France’s own violation of international law—by its refusal to comply with its legal obligations under the NPT. This assertion is also undermined by France’s refusal to accept the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which it repeatedly has said does not establish international customary law. And, this assertion is undermined by France’s continued possession of nuclear weapons. Refusing to disarm makes it clear that, for all of the nuclear-armed states, the global order is indeed based on “military power”.

Similarly, in its remarks to the Main Committee II meeting today, the US delegation endorsed remarks from Czechia about needing to reflect reality and not put on blinkers that prevent states from seeing the genuine issues. This, too, was in relation to Russia’s illegal and devastating war. But this, too, is undermined by the US refusing to allow reality to be discussed when it comes to its failure to comply with Article VI or the 1995 decision on the Middle East, or the reality of the dangers posed by the AUKUS partnership, or the reality of nuclear sharing and alliance doctrines.

After three weeks of dealing with the double standards imposed by all of the nuclear-armed states on this Conference, several delegations expressed frustration during the plenary meeting. South Africa even noted that in some of the Committees, it’s as if non-nuclear armed states are not even real states parties. Their views are just discarded while the views of those that possess nuclear weapons or include nuclear weapons in their doctrines are rewarded with representation in the draft texts.

France responded to this frustration by accusing some delegates of being emotional and called on them to be “diplomatically intelligent”. (Which presumably means, accept whatever crumbs we decide to throw your way?) France often accuses diplomats of being emotional: if they talk about humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, or if they call for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, or if they try to hold the nuclear-armed states to account for their legal obligations—these are all things that France considers to be “emotional”. It’s not just France, of course—Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States have often commented on how emotional or irrational countries without nuclear weapons can be; a former Swedish foreign minister once even referred to countries supporting joint statements on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons as not being “serious states”.

Which brings us to Sri Lanka’s comment from the plenary meeting, that discussions about gender in the NPT context are a distraction from the “real issues”. A few other delegations made this argument last week. But France’s comments show exactly why talking about gender is not a distraction. As Carol Cohn has been pointing out since the 1980s, the way people think and talk about nuclear weapons matters—and the way people think and talk about nuclear weapons is highly gendered.

Whether it’s the way the physical aspects and attributes of nuclear weapons are discussed, or the way that possessors of nuclear weapons and proponents of nuclear disarmament are coded in gendered terms (i.e. realistic, unrealistic; strong, weak; etc), or the ways men are often shamed into pretending that they do not care about millions of people dying horrible agonising deaths because it makes them “like women”—Cohn has taught us much about how relevant gender is to understanding how the incredibly absurd and morally reprehensible support for nuclear weapons persists. A joint RCW-Ireland side event on Tuesday will explore this further.

Gender is not a distraction. But it also not what is going to bring this Review Conference down. If states parties fail to agree on an outcome at the end of this week, it will not be because some courageous states tried to advance diversity and inclusivity at this meeting. It will be because the nuclear-armed states have failed, for now fifty-two years, to comply with their legal obligations. It will be because the states possessing nuclear weapons, despite all their claims that they care about the security concerns of all, care much more about their own sense of privilege and power than they do about protecting people and this planet from nuclear annihilation.

As the joint statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, signed so far by 145 “unserious states,” reiterated today, “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances,” This end, this vast majority of delegations argued, nuclear weapons must be eliminated. “We owe it to future generations to work together to do just that.”

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