Who could regret banning nuclear weapons? (As if you didn’t know)
The High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament, which took place this past Thursday at the UN General Assembly, was a trip to the woodshed for the nuclear-weapon States. One after another, the Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Foreign Ministers of countries large and small, from every inhabited continent, told their deterrence-blinded peers that nuclear weapons are a global humanitarian disaster waiting to happen, and that the only way to prevent such catastrophe is, as Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Viola Onwuliri said, “to outlaw, eliminate and consign nuclear weapons to the dustbin of history.”
Reaching Critical Will has produced an excellent summary and analysis of the HLM, touching on all the major themes, including the widespread emphasis on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the failure of established negotiating forums to come to grips with nuclear disarmament for several decades, and the responsibility of non-nuclear States to demand action and accountability.
This meeting was the first General Assembly conference on nuclear disarmament since the founding of the UN in 1946, when the very first UNGA resolution called for “the elimination from national arsenals of atomic weapons” as a matter of the highest priority. The irony wasn’t lost on the President of the 68th General Assembly, John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, who wondered why, “as we endeavour to improve the lives of people around the world, we devote significant attention and investment to vehicles that would destroy them?”
That question was echoed again and again by speakers who know perfectly well that nuclear weapons threaten not only catastrophic casualties and environmental devastation, but economic ruin. Here’s how Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, put it:
“[A] handful of nuclear weapon states, insensitive to the security of the majority, tragically continue to choose the path of destruction. Valuable resources that could feed and provide decent lives to the deprived humanity are still being used to create yet more sophisticated nuclear weapons having power to annihilate the mankind and the world. Could we for a brief moment ponder on the kind of world that we wish to leave for our children and grandchildren? If we do, a universal and spontaneous response would be to do away with all nuclear weapons, and establishment of a nuclear free world.”
Well, maybe not universal and, good golly, let’s not rush into anything we’ll regret. And what might that be, gentle reader?
“[W]hile we are encouraged by the increased energy and enthusiasm around the nuclear disarmament debate, we regret that this energy is being directed toward initiatives such as this High-Level Meeting, the humanitarian consequences campaign, the Open-Ended Working Group and the push for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.” [emphasis added]
“We” being, in this case, the UK, the US, and France (henceforth, the Pee3), who were so put out by having to attend this meeting at all that the highest level officials they (and Russia and China, to round out the Pee5) were willing to send for the day were somewhere around the assistant secretary level. All they had to offer in their joint and national statements were stale, coordinated recitations of their commitment to the “hard, step-by-step,” concrete actions that eventually, some century from now, will create the conditions that might allow them to contemplate nuclear disarmament.
Oh, and I don’t want to forget the glossary. Talk about impressive concrete actions! “Under China’s leadership,” reported US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Anita Friedt, “we are developing a common glossary of nuclear terms.” Before you know it, we’ll have a thesaurus, then a rhyming dictionary. Could a disarmament agreement be far behind?
The Pee3/Pee5 were echoed by some of the countries that endanger themselves with extended deterrence arrangements. All told, however, they found themselves in a minority, and in a forum where, for once, they could not dominate the discussion.
The nuclear-armed States have not sounded so defensive and out of their element and…well…challenged…in all the years I’ve been working on this issue. The effort to reframe the discourse about nuclear weapons in terms of their abhorrent consequences and to consign their owners — all of them — to the status of global outliers, has produced a narrative that is energizing what is looking to become — to borrow a term from that glossary — a critical mass. Once that critical mass of States, with the backing of civil society, makes the connection between humanitarian consequences and the Ban Treaty championed by ICAN, the Pee5 will really have something to regret.
Or they could put all regrets behind them and do the right thing by banning and eliminating nuclear weapons themselves without having to be shamed and compelled into doing it.
A sampling of quotes from HLM statements, which are available at Reaching Critical Will:
The notion that governments are rational enough to handle nuclear deterrence and that nuclear deterrence works because it makes governments act rationally is a dangerous circular argument. Nuclear deterrence is just as fallible as any other human concept. Relying on mutually assured destruction as the foundation of international relations and stability is neither responsible nor sustainable. Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned and eliminated before they abolish us.”
– Heinz Fischer, Federal President of the Republic of Austria
The so-called “humanitarian consequences” narrative steps beyond traditional disarmament Treaty discussions to consider, first and foremost, the practical effects on mankind of any nuclear weapons detonation. These consequences would involve death and suffering on an unprecedented scale among our civilian populations. They would wreak incalculable damage upon our environment, our ecological and agricultural systems, our economies and our way of life as we know it.”
– Mr. Eamon Gilmore T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland
The existence of nuclear weapons continues to pose a threat to the very survival of humankind. Renewed international focus on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has led to a reinvigoration of international efforts to achieve and maintain a world free of nuclear weapons. Such efforts are based on the understanding that the only guarantee against the use or the threat ofuse ofnuclear weapons is their total elimination.”
– Nabil Fahmy, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt (on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition)
[T]hese weapons can…inflict widespread, severe and long-term damage to the environment, human health, food security and the global economy. For Brazil, nuclear disarmament is not only a legal obligation under international law. It is an urgent moral and humanitarian imperative….We shall renew our efforts within the multilateral system to achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. This is a task incumbent not only on States, but on civil society and on every citizen in our world that does not and cannot remain indifferent to the horror posed by weapons of mass destruction, no matter who holds them.
– Carlos Antonio da Rocha Paranhos, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ministry of External Relations, Brazil