Why ethics is important to the politics of nuclear weapons

On 8 May 2015, Reaching Critical Will’s Director Ray Acheson spoke at a side event during the NPT Review Conference that examined the challenge of cultivating a political consensus around the view that nuclear weapons are so singularly inhumane we ought categorically to reject their use, whatever purposes they may be said to serve. The event was organised by the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

Thank you very much for UNIDIR and ILPI for inviting me to speak at this event.

I would like to pick up on one of the threads Nobuo Hayashi introduced, which is that “the inhumane consequences of nuclear weapons reduce victims of nuclear violence to the status of mere sacrificial instruments for the “benefit” for the rest of humanity.”

We are confronting this same challenge in other disarmament and arms control discussions, for example that on autonomous weapons, where some states are actually considering the development of weapons that can identify, select, and engage targets without a human being in the loop.

This kind of violence lacks meaning. So does nuclear violence.

What gives violence meaning? Anthropologists have described violence as a form of communication. Its meaning then is developed through the social practices that generate all meaning; through the processes of human interaction by which we form moral, cognitive, and conceptual understandings of our world.

What meaning could be derived from violence administered entirely by machine? What meaning could be derived from violence of a nuclear weapon, which is indiscriminate, which is designed to annihilate entire populations?

This type of violence represents a social acceptance that human beings can be processed or put in harm’s way simply as objects, subjected to an abstract calculus.

And it is this type of violence that is reflected in the previously dominant discourse about nuclear weapons.

This discourse is reflected in the 26-state joint statement that seeks to balance the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons with “security considerations” of nuclear weapons. This discourse is reflected in the positions of the nuclear-armed states, who continue to claim purported benefits from nuclear weapons in terms of national security

These countries argue that nuclear weapons are not immoral per se—yes nuclear weapons have terrible consequences, but they are still necessary, justified, legitimate, and acceptable. They are really for “deterring” attacks and are not meant to be used. The UK described them last week as “political weapons”.

This discourse represents exactly the consequentialist, security-driven frame of mind that Nobuo has problematised so well. It has distorted our view of weapons, weapons that represent massive, unfathomable levels of violence. And it has made progress on disarmament seem impossible.

It will make it politically difficult for nuclear-armed states, once they are compelled to disarm, to make the case that nuclear disarmament that does not in some way rely on arguments that getting rid of nuclear weapons would make them more secure. This likely means also making arguments in favour of nuclear disarmament that relies on bolstering other technologies of violence. The pursuit of disarmament may become tied to the search for reassurance through technical, strategic, and political substitutes for nuclear weapons. These policy decisions are still based on conceptions of power, mistrust, threat, fear, and violence.

Adding morality to the mix is necessary. And just as in autonomous weapons debate where human rights and dignity are being brought into the discussion, in the NPT context, we are bringing in the humanitarian discourse. We are thinking about and talking about nuclear weapons for what they are—not for what they could potentially do but what they really do, to human bodies, societies, and systems.

This fundamental shift has empowered many governments and civil society and international organisations—159 states supported the joint statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons arguing that nuclear weapons have catastrophic humanitarian consequences and must never be used again under any circumstances. These states have affirmed that elimination is the only way to prevent use. 84 states so far have signed a pledge committing to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Resistance to this new discourse is fierce. There is a push by a few states to remove the word humanitarian from the text in the NPT outcome document reflecting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the nuclear weapons, even though that language was agreed by consensus in 2010.

We all know how much the nuclear-armed states love saying that the consensus in 2010 is sacrosanct. But not when it comes to efforts and initiatives and language that confront and challenge their assertion of power and monopoly over violence.

They are also pushing back extremely hard, as we know, about effective measures for nuclear disarmament, timelines, new commitments, etc.

And I want to highlight how this plays out in a gendered discourse about rationality and emotion.

Those talking about humanitarian consequences and calling for prohibition are accused of being divisive, polarising, ignorant, and even emotional. They say they support “reasonable,” “realistic,” “practical,” or “pragmatic” steps that anything else is irrational and irresponsible.

This is highly gendered. When men want to assert their power and dominance and make women feel small and marginalised, they accuse us of being emotional, overwrought, relentless, repetitive, irrational. This technique has been employed for as long as gender hierarchies have existed.

And this is true within the traditional nuclear weapon discourse, which is full of terms with loaded meanings. This discourse continues to be mired in dichotomies such as hard versus soft security, strong versus weak, active versus passive, and national security versus human security. With remarkable consistency, the masculine-identified sides of these pairs are tacitly attributed more value than the other.

Nuclear weapons are themselves loaded with symbolism—of potency, protection, and the power to “deter” through material “strength”. For many, such symbolism obscures the real point of the existence of these arms—to destroy—and their horrendous effects.

Taking a human-focused approach to disarmament, and thereby challenging a state-centered approach to international peace and security, is a good first step. An understanding of the gendered meanings and characterizations embedded in the discourse and politics of nuclear weapons will support that process.

Just as the humanitarian discourse undermines the perceived legitimacy of nuclear weapons, a gender discourse undermines their perceived power and currency. It also helps illuminate possible solutions. By challenging the discursive equation of nuclear weapons with masculine strength and power, we confront approaches to nuclear governance that work in favour of the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons by a handful of states.

The dominant arms control and non-proliferation paradigm asserts security through possession of all-destructive arsenals and seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, particular to ‘irrational’ actors. A gender analysis that highlights the patriarchy and social constructions inherent in this valuation of nuclear weapons helps to multiply, amplify, and deepen arguments for nuclear disarmament and question the role of a certain kind of masculinity of the dominant paradigm. Disarmament, which is sometimes accused by its detractors as weak or passive, can instead be shown for what it is—as rational, just, moral, and necessary for security.