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The back story of the ban treaty

April 2, 2022

[This book review, which originally appeared in Medicine, Conflict and Survival in December 2021, has been updated and slightly revised. MCS is IPPNW’s designated journal.]

Banning the bomb, smashing the patriarchy, by Ray Acheson
The treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons: how it was achieved and why it matters, by Alexander Kmentt

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017 and entered into force in January 2021, was the end product of a highly effective partnership of non-nuclear weapons states, civil society, and international organizations who engaged in a “humanitarian initiative” to advance the goal of nuclear disarmament. The process, which was simultaneously visionary and practical, well planned and improvised, organized and—occasionally—chaotic, played out over a relatively short seven-year period. As of this writing, the TPNW has 86 signatories, 60 of which have ratified it. The First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) is now scheduled for June 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and heightened threat of nuclear war as the backdrop.

The story of how the ban treaty process began and evolved, how and why it worked, who participated (and who did not), how it successfully challenged the status quo, what the TPNW does, and the impact it could have on the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, is told in two recent books by central participants, one a high-level diplomat, the other a civil society analyst and activist. Read in tandem, these important books help explain why so little progress had been made up until now to eliminate the world’s worst weapons of mass destruction, how a transformative treaty could change that, and why the nuclear-armed states consider the TPNW and its supporters so disruptive to their sense of geopolitical status and entitlement.

Ray Acheson is director of the Disarmament Program at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and represents WILPF on the international steering group of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. As the irreverent title of her book suggests, she not only presents a civil society perspective on the campaign to ban nuclear weapons but also argues—convincingly, in my view—that the humanitarian initiative and the work of ICAN were rooted in feminist principles of inclusion, empowerment of marginalized voices, and a broader understanding of security and social justice that leaves no space for militarism and its most destructive weapons.

Acheson places the decades-long effort to eliminate nuclear weapons in the context of the long, ongoing struggles for human rights (particularly LGBTQ rights), gender equity, racial justice, and economic justice. “Feminists,” she writes, “have long explored the ways in which gender norms, particularly militarized masculinities, drive conflict and violence and the acquisition and proliferation of weapons.” How a reframing of gender norms and the inclusion of marginalized voices can change the way we think not only about nuclear weapons but also about human security in general is an underlying theme of her book. Acheson explains how “mainstream” language about nuclear weapons primarily serves the interests of those who currently possess them, reviews past efforts at nuclear disarmament and discusses why they fell short. She devotes an entire chapter to a granular examination of the nuclear weapons discourse, exposing myths about deterrence and the need to substitute a reality-based understanding of the destructive capabilities of the weapons themselves—a task made more difficult by the dominance of the nuclear-armed states in the UN institutions charged with negotiating nuclear disarmament.

ICAN was launched by IPPNW in 2007, and the nascent campaign drew early lessons from other humanitarian disarmament campaigns, such as those to ban antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. The eventual decision to focus on achieving a ban treaty was a departure from increasingly unproductive civil society efforts to work within official arms control and disarmament institutions. ICAN needed to be not only a campaign with new ideas, Acheson tells us, but a global mass movement elevating the voices of the victims (and potential victims) of the nuclear weapons era, while diminishing those who use their ownership of nuclear weapons as a means to maintain self-interested political power—or, as she expresses it, “smashing the patriarchy.”

Subsequent chapters deal with ICAN’s rapid growth and its growing pains; its complex, sometimes fraught, yet ultimately effective partnership with states trying to find their own voices on an issue from which they themselves had been marginalized; a careful analysis of the TPNW’s prohibitions and obligations; and reflections on power, violence, hope, and resilience. Campaigners on other progressive issues will find Acheson’s sharp but fair assessments of ICAN’s missteps and shortcomings, along with its successes, trenchant. Her take on the formidable challenge of balancing effective leadership and decision-making with transparency and respect for the knowledge, viewpoints, and needs of grassroots campaigners in a global coalition is especially insightful.

Alexander Kmentt is director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Department at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was one of the stage managers of what would come to be known as the “Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons (HINW).” He is also President-designate of the upcoming 1MSP. His analysis overlaps with and reinforces Acheson’s in many ways, but as one of the leaders of the core group of states that shaped the initiative and eventually coordinated the treaty negotiations, his clear-eyed perspective on how states themselves gradually came together around a process to transform the international discourse about nuclear weapons and to establish a new pathway towards nuclear disarmament is indispensable.

For seven decades, the nuclear-armed states have controlled the debate about nuclear disarmament by framing it exclusively as a national security issue. While those who are member states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have paid lip service to their disarmament obligations under Article 6, they have insisted that nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee of their own security and that of their allies while demanding that all other states adhere to a non-proliferation regime. They have said repeatedly that they are unprepared to eliminate nuclear weapons until their security can be assured by some means other than nuclear deterrence, while refusing to acknowledge the devastating consequences if and when deterrence fails. Prioritizing their own national security and the role of nuclear weapons within it, however, has been a direct affront to non-nuclear states, which have already renounced nuclear weapons and whose people would suffer the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war.

Like Acheson, Kmentt has intimate experience with the UN’s formal disarmament mechanisms, primarily the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He describes candidly how the nuclear-armed states have rigged the system to thwart any meaningful progress on nuclear disarmament, sometimes making commitments to action plans only to renege on them later, at other times abusing the consensus rule in order to veto unwanted proposals, at all times dominating the discussion and excluding other voices. In recent years, he reminds us, they have more openly claimed that nuclear disarmament—when, how, and under what conditions—is for them to decide and that non-nuclear states should concern themselves exclusively with non-proliferation.

The TPNW—and the process that produced it—changed that dynamic by placing the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons at center stage, giving voice to largely ignored groups of stakeholders, and creating a new set of international norms with which the nuclear-armed states must sooner or later engage. Victim narratives were essential to this paradigm shift. ICAN worked, Acheson tells us, “to ensure that [survivor testimony] was a central part of its organizing by including survivors from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as of nuclear testing in Australia, the Pacific, and Kazakhstan, as part of its delegation to meetings in the humanitarian initiative and nuclear ban processes.”

The process itself, as described by both authors, went something like this. With the CD in decades-long gridlock and the nuclear-armed NPT member states persistently flouting their disarmament commitments, a small group of non-nuclear-armed states decided to try a different approach. Bolstered by new language about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons inserted into the outcome document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference at the urging of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), this core group of states organized three international conferences—in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna—to assemble and present the scientific evidence about those consequences, while, on a parallel track, building support for a UN joint resolution calling for urgent action to complete the task of nuclear disarmament in order to prevent catastrophe.

Meanwhile, ICAN, with the help of a grant from Norway, began mobilizing thousands of campaigners, in both nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states, in support of the humanitarian initiative and, specifically, in support of a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Ironically, many non-nuclear-armed states were hesitant to endorse the ban treaty and remained so until much later in the process, while the nuclear-armed states believed from the beginning that such a treaty was undeniably the political goal. ICAN, therefore, found itself in the unusual position of knowing that the nuclear-armed states were right and relishing that fact, while supporting their non-nuclear state allies who were not yet convinced about the ban treaty, and giving them adequate time and space to embrace it themselves. This did not always go smoothly. Kmentt discusses the difficult task of managing expectations on the state side while continuing to build momentum; Acheson explores how ICAN leaders and grassroots campaigners were challenged—and sometimes made mistakes—when it came to pushing their state partners to do more than they were prepared to do at any given moment. “For the diplomats, a ban treaty seemed an attractive but unlikely, disruptive idea and certainly a politically risky proposition, given the opposition that such an approach would trigger,” Kmentt adds.

At the conclusion of the Vienna HINW conference, Austria released a national pledge to pursue a new legal instrument, built on the scientific evidence, that would stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons. The “Austrian Pledge,” drafted by Kmentt, was the tipping point for the humanitarian initiative and was soon renamed the “Humanitarian Pledge” after dozens, and eventually more than 100 countries endorsed it. “It was ICAN,” Kmentt writes, “that turned the ‘Austrian Pledge’ into the effective campaign tool that we had hoped for in the Austrian Foreign Ministry. ICAN understood the potential of the ‘Pledge’ to create momentum behind the idea of the ban-treaty.”

Two UN Open-Ended Working Groups (OEWGs)—in 2013 and 2016—discussed the options and possible frameworks for a new legal instrument. The second OEWG recommended that the General Assembly mandate negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Those negotiations commenced and were successfully concluded the following year.

In the end, the trust established over several years of working together held, and the TPNW became a reality. Acheson and Kmentt agree that without the vibrant, close-knit, and mutually respectful cooperation of states, civil society groups, and international organizations, the humanitarian initiative would likely have failed and there would have been no treaty. Kmentt repeatedly cites the influential work of the ICRC, and credits ICAN with mobilizing the public support that made it possible for many states to withstand the relentless opposition of the nuclear-armed ban treaty opponents. “Without ICAN’s advocacy there would be no TPNW, as rightly recognized by the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.” His principal focus, however, is the yeoman’s work that was required to build and sustain a large coalition of non-nuclear-armed states around ‘a different type of process and a goal they could achieve without, if necessary, the involvement of the nuclear-armed states.”

The humanitarian initiative confronted an abstract, elitist view of security with medical and scientific evidence about real consequences to human lives, to ecosystems, to the global economy, and to the security of billions of people whose countries have already foresworn nuclear weapons. Acheson and Kmentt both cite the work of climate scientists and IPPNW in providing new, chilling evidence that even a limited, regional nuclear war would result in a nuclear winter that would threaten the food security of billions of people. They both make cogent arguments that the nuclear status quo—the contention by the nuclear-armed states that deterrence prevents the use of nuclear weapons, that they are “responsible” managers of their nuclear arsenals, and that nuclear disarmament is their business and no one else’s—cannot survive exposure to this evidence about real-world consequences.

Acheson devotes a great deal of attention to the victims of nuclear weapons—the Hibakusha who survived the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the largely indigenous peoples sickened by more than 1,000 atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests, uranium miners and other nuclear industry workers, women and children who are disproportionately affected by radiation. She chronicles the ways in which ICAN, in particular, championed their voices and arranged for their full participation in the conferences that preceded the treaty negotiations, as well as in the negotiations themselves. Her argument that restoring agency to marginalized people has been a hallmark of movements for women’s rights, racial justice, and LGBTQ rights, and was central to the success of the ban treaty process, is persuasive.

As both Acheson and Kmentt observe, however, majorities can also be marginalized. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the very large majority of non-nuclear-armed states has been cut out of decision-making about nuclear disarmament through a brazen yet remarkably effective abuse of consensus. The UN disarmament machinery, specifically the CD and the NPT, has been seized up for decades because a single veto can block adoption of any proposal, regardless of how much support it has. In effect, no step towards nuclear disarmament has been able go forward without the endorsement of the nuclear-armed states, who have consistently impeded all such steps. For this reason, Kmentt explains, running the negotiations with General Assembly rules, where voting is the norm rather than consensus, “create[d] more of an incentive to actually negotiate and find a consensus, thus making voting unnecessary, whereas a forum that applies a strict consensus rule often creates a ‘veto-mindset’ which makes a consensus result less likely.”

The TPNW had to be negotiated without the participation of the nuclear-armed states, who boycotted the negotiations and have loudly proclaimed their refusal to join. Some have portrayed this as a liability. Kmentt and Acheson argue that a process that could not be dominated and undermined by states opposed to its goals produced a new set of legal, political, and moral norms that are both clear and strong. This is not to say that the negotiations did not require compromise. There were arguments about specific prohibitions, about the obligations that states parties would incur, and about how much or how little detail to include about a future nuclear disarmament process once nuclear-armed states decide to comply. “[G]iven the boycott of the negotiations by nuclear weapons possessor States,” Kmentt writes, “it was important to set out parameters for a process whereby such States could join the TPNW….By providing such avenues without prescribing the elimination process in too much detail, the TPNW negotiators acted prudently in my view.”

I should say a few words about deterrence, not only because the irrational notion that nuclear weapons in the hands of some prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others is at the heart of the problem, but also because Acheson and Kmentt both recognize that refuting deterrence as a concept and as a policy is imperative. Deterrence, stripped of all pretense, is simply a threat made by one nuclear-armed country to destroy the world in answer to the same threat coming from a nuclear-armed adversary: if I go, we all go. As a system for global security—or even national security—this is both insane and morally bankrupt. The leaders of the humanitarian initiative and many TPNW negotiators understood that one of the Treaty’s essential objectives had to be exposing deterrence as a fraud and prohibiting it along with the weapons themselves. Kmentt writes, “Irrespective of the question of whether the TPNW becomes customary international law, it is no longer possible to argue—or to pretend—that a policy of nuclear deterrence based on the threat of inflicting unacceptable humanitarian devastation, is considered legal or legitimate by a majority of States.” Whether to specifically prohibit threat of use—i.e. deterrence—in the TPNW was a contested point during the negotiations. After much debate, the language was retained in the final text. As Acheson notes, “Outlawing the threat of use helps us start to unravel the idea that threatening to use nuclear weapons, through deterrence doctrines or through direct threats, is some kind of benign behavior” rather than “an aggressive action that can lead to absolute catastrophe.”

The question now—made more fraught and more urgent by the crisis in Ukraine—is whether the nuclear-armed states and those who claim “protection” through extended deterrence relationships, despite their current hostile attitude toward the treaty, will ultimately find it necessary to comply. As Kmentt archly observes, “the nuclear weapon States do not like the TPNW because it is divisive, but it is only divisive because they do not like it.” Acheson suggests an answer in the continued development of alliances across issues and across movements in order to achieve a humanitarian-based framework for global security that supports all people and not just a self-selected few. “We actively sought to break down barriers, build up capacity, and bring people along, particularly those not normally engaged in thinking or acting against nuclear weapons. I think this needs to be at the core of our work moving forward.”

Kmentt, who is currently developing the agenda for the 1MSP, devotes his closing chapter to a series of recommendations about how the TPNW can and must be strengthened and implemented if it is to realize its potential to eliminate nuclear weapons. He urges more states to join as soon as possible and, having worked so hard to transform the narrative, to keep the true nature of nuclear weapons and their consequences at the centre of all future deliberations about their abolition. “The key question that may well ultimately determine the importance of the TPNW will be to what extent the supporters of the TPNW can refocus the discourse on the humanitarian consequences and risk arguments that underpin the TPNW and maintain this issue as a political priority.”

That question will be answered, if only provisionally, during the all-important First Meeting this June.

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