“What if?” (part 2)
Yesterday, I asked what would happen if a leader of a nuclear-armed state decided to use nuclear weapons and they (thankfully) didn’t work. Here’s another “what if” question: What if we were to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons and remove that threat to our existence at the source?
Calls to “ban the bomb” are nearly as old as the bomb itself. The first large demonstrations against nuclear weapons were organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain in the early 1960s (photo right), and quickly spread worldwide. (CND also gave us the peace symbol, which, in its original incarnation, was semaphore for “ND”—nuclear disarmament.)
Within about 10 years, we had managed to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere and under water, while the NPT effectively prohibited nuclear weapons for most countries that didn’t already have them. Rather than ban their own nuclear weapons, however, the US and the Soviet Union went on to building binge—acquiring more than 70,000 between them at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.
Banning nuclear weapons as a prelude to their elimination was the basic idea behind the World Court Project (WCP), launched in 1992 by IPPNW, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), and the International Peace Bureau (IPB). An early WCP discussion paper put the question bluntly. Chemical and biological weapons had already been banned. What if the International Court of Justice (ICJ) were to ban nuclear weapons, as well?
“Within nuclear weapon states, an advisory opinion by the…ICJ confirming any nuclear weapon threat or use to be illegal would change the common perception of nuclear weapons from a security asset to the same proscribed status as chemical and biological weapons. Their governments and military leaders would face growing domestic and international pressure to review their reliance upon nuclear weapons as instruments of national policy.
“This would have major repercussions for their foreign and defense policies. It would affect non-nuclear states allied with them or providing support for nuclear weapon deployments. Those working within aspiring nuclear weapon states for non-nuclear weapon policies would be empowered….Nuclear disarmament initiatives would be encouraged and strengthened.” [emphasis in the original]
If those decades-old arguments sound familiar, they should. They are being revived today by proponents of a ban treaty based upon an understanding of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
The ICJ issued its advisory opinion in 1996. Peter Weiss, who was co-president of IALANA and a WCP leader at the time, called the opinion “close to perfect” in a commentary published in Medicine & Global Survival. “The decision…affirms that the threat and use of nuclear weapons are subject to humanitarian law, environmental law, and human rights law; that the threat and use of nuclear weapons are generally prohibited under international law, subject to an extremely narrow and highly speculative possible exception; that nuclear deterrence cannot be said to be sanctioned by law; and that there is a solemn obligation to conduct and conclude negotiations leading to the complete abolition of nuclear weapons—not at some distant date in the next century, but now, before the advent of holocaust by inertia.”
The ICJ stopped short of an explicit, comprehensive ban, however, and 20 years later the nuclear-armed states and their allies are still taking full advantage of the legal gap left by the Court’s narrow but politically exploitable indecisiveness regarding the case of “an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake.” They just keep finding ways to postpone nuclear disarmament to “some distant date in the next [now the 22nd] century.”
So what if the gap were closed with a treaty that banned nuclear weapons in every circumstance?
ICAN has made the case that a treaty prohibiting the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, threat of use, or use of nuclear weapons—with no exceptions—could define expectations and timelines for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. With the legal gap closed by the overwhelming majority of states that actually want to rid the world of nuclear weapons, the nuclear-armed states would be faced with a choice: comply fully and promptly with their nuclear disarmament obligations, or be condemned as international outlaws.
The nuclear-armed states have been asking themselves this same question—“what if nuclear weapons were banned?”—and they clearly don’t like the answer. Nothing else explains their relentless and increasingly aggressive attempts to stop the movement for a humanitarian-based ban treaty in its tracks. More about that in a future blog.