The UN will ban nuclear weapons in 2017

IssueDecember 2016 - January 2017
Feature by Janet Fenton

Here’s the good news from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) – from a Scottish internationalist campaigner.

The decision to hold the conference was taken at the annual meeting of the first committee of the UN general assembly, which deals with disarmament and international security.

The vote on 27 October supported the holding of a conference to ban nuclear weapons by 126 countries to 38. There were 16 abstentions, including China, India and Pakistan. These nuclear-armed states may at least be willing to enter the room.

In the days before the vote, US ambassador to the UN Robert Wood and his bosses insisted to the first committee that a ban treaty would be meaningless without the imprimatur of the five permanent members of the UN security council.

“The effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging and degrade enduring security relationships.”

At the very same time, the US was writing to its NATO allies in an unclassified briefing spelling out exactly how the treaty could limit and impact on their nuclear military doctrines and capability.

An abolition treaty could make it impossible to undertake ‘nuclear-related transit through territorial airspace or seas’ of the signatories to the abolition treaty, and could force US allies to ‘repudiate US statements that it would defend the signatory with nuclear means’.

It could force dual-capable US naval vessels and aircraft to avoid ports and airports in signatory countries (because the US refuses to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on its ships or airplanes).

If NATO members became signatories to the abolition treaty, this could badly affect NATO exercises and planning, according to the US briefing (available on the ICAN website).

Overall, the US wrote to its NATO allies: ‘The effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging and degrade enduring security relationships’, and the impact had the ‘potential to grow more severe over time’.

The UN conference will start in March 2017 and extend over 22 days.

The conference will negotiate a nuclear weapons ban treaty that can ensure compliance with Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ‘negotiations in good faith’ to bring about ‘nuclear disarmament’, which is the stated objective as well as the legal obligation of the UK government.

One of us cannot be wrong

The recommendation to hold the conference came from an open-ended working group set up by UN general assembly to address the gap in Article VI of the NPT (which does not prohibit nuclear weapons or define a method of achieving its goal of nuclear disarmament).

Though the working group was open to all states, the UK chose not to participate, and therefore Scotland was not represented in the working group either. The UK says it won’t come to the abolition conference either.

Bill Kidd, a member of the Scottish parliament and co-president of Parliamentarians for Non Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament (PNND), attended the UN first committee meeting, not as a state representative but along with the NGO representatives. A tireless supporter of ICAN, he has presented messages from Scotland’s first minister to the UN secretary-general to convey Scotland’s heartfelt wish for nuclear disarmament.

In the UK parliament’s vote on modernising and upgrading the UK’s nuclear arsenal, an arsenal which is sited in its entirety in Scotland, only one MP from Scotland supported them. Our own parliamentary position in Scotland is unambiguously against such upgrading and modernisation.

The UK government could have acknowledged the diversity of opinion in the UK with especial regard to Scotland, where the UK’s weapons are hosted. The views expressed by Scotland’s elected representatives at Westminster and in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood could have been included in negotiations. The UK government could have ceased their efforts to prevent the negotiations from taking place.

Had they been present at the UN working group, the UK government (and other nuclear weapon states) would have had the opportunity to explain their plans for the elimination required of them by Article VI of the NPT.

They would have heard from many states that have an intelligent security doctrine that does not rely on being able to threaten the world with poison and incineration. These are states that see this as a time when we must collectively address the urgent problems that we face together.

After a suspension of standing orders at the First Committee meeting, to ensure comments were off the record, the UK ambassador to the UN, Matt Rowling, said that all the states which support the abolition treaty are ‘foolhardy’, and lack understanding of ‘international security doctrines’. He declared that the UK had made a ‘democratic decision to renew our nuclear capability’ before sharing an insouciant high five with the US ambassador – a hubristic and distressing display of the democratic deficit Scots (and others) experience daily.

Brexit is small beer compared to this misrepresentation.

Who by fire

There is a sinister and potent symbiosis between climate change and nuclear weapons that must be addressed if we are to survive the effects of either. Firstly, nuclear weapons have the potential to trigger and accelerate climate change very significantly for everyone, not just for the states the nuclear-armed states choose to target.

Secondly, money and resources are needed to address climate change, but also co-operative and open communications and strategies between and across governments. Nuclear weapons require secrecy and hierarchical controls.

Finally, climate change increases the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used. Severe weather crises cause food and fresh water scarcity. Increasing rates of human migration adds pressure on fragile governments, and these factors all increase conflict.

“Nuclear weaponry’s jacket is on a shoogly nail”

For these reasons, combating climate change must include the global banning of nuclear weapons. Scottish legislation on climate change is ambitious (despite Westminster’s control of our share of our economic resources, and difficulties in implementing it) and critical.

The UK government has used every means at its disposal to ensure that Scotland did not become independent, certainly working harder on that than it ever did in resisting Brexit.

So, in the face of Theresa May’s insistence on great(Britain)ness and despite Donald Trump’s pledge to promote nuclear proliferation, we need to stand firm, because progress is happening.

As we would say in Scotland, nuclear weaponry’s jacket ‘is on a shoogly nail’.

There may not be an obvious path forward, but in seeking and supporting Scottish independence, in tackling the very real risks to local communities presented by the warhead convoys, by focusing on the implications relating to climate change and remaining connected to the intergovernmental possibilities, we can find the cracks and drive the wedges in.