The case against nuclear weapons has always been strong. What’s changing is a growing global resolve to eliminate them, writes Dr Sue Wareham*.
Nuclear weapons – the only man made threat that could virtually destroy our planet in an afternoon – have hit the news again, in two ways that represent polar opposites of the struggle to banish them forever.
In New York at the United Nations we have just witnessed historic progress towards realising the goal of a nuclear weapons free world. Late last week, the UN adopted the new ‘Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons’, to prohibit states from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, deploying, stationing, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, under any circumstances.
That’s a fairly comprehensive thumbs down to the weapons, the strongest collective statement yet from governments that they are totally illegitimate in every respect.
Meanwhile, in Washington DC and Pyongyang, two people – chronologically adults but in other respects displaying no signs of maturity – are squaring off at each other, each with a finger on a button that can incinerate cities.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un display the very reason that the new UN treaty is so critically important, because it categorically rejects any role for any nuclear weapons in anyone’s hands. As Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary-General said, “There are no right hands for the wrong weapons”.
The treaty leaves no doubt that its prohibitions apply not only to actually using nuclear weapons but also to their possession. The myth of nuclear “deterrence”, which tells us that nuclear-armed nations will not go to war against each other because the response from their adversary would make it a suicidal gesture, is exposed as being not only immoral but also fraught with danger.
Enter Trump and Kim Jong-un to demonstrate the point. If the deterrence theory holds true, why all the fuss now, when these two leaders clearly have it all under control?
“Stable nuclear deterrence”, that notion so beloved of Australia and a minority of other governments, might sound comforting, but in the real world – a very messy place with some grossly deficient and unstable people – it’s a total fraud.
Australia’s position is stark. Like a drunkard preaching abstinence, our government strongly supports US nuclear weapons in keeping us “safe” (even as officials scurry to reassure the public that North Korean nuclear missiles couldn’t really reach Australia) and insists shamelessly on disarmament for others. So supportive are we of US nuclear weapons that Australia did not even show up at the UN treaty talks.
Foreign Minister Bishop disingenuously argued that, for the process to be effective, the countries with the weapons must be part of it right from the start. By that logic, we would insist on criminals helping draft any legislation that might curtail their activities.
In any event, all UN member states were strongly encouraged to attend and have input; any empty seats were not from a lack of invitation. And judging by the determined – but unsuccessful – efforts on Australia’s part to see the talks fail, one suspects that our government knows exactly how powerful an instrument this global prohibition treaty will prove to be.
Criticisms that the treaty will be a “toothless tiger” miss the whole point of it. The key to its utility was encapsulated last week by Tim Wright, the Asia-Pacific Director of ICAN*, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an organisation which played a pivotal role in achieving the treaty.
“[It] will stigmatise possession of nuclear weapons by any state, provide a source of legal, political, ethical, economic and civil society pressure on nuclear armed states to disarm, and encourage financial institutions to divest from companies that produce nuclear weapons.”
As one example of this stigmatising effect, how different the discussion of Trident’s renewal in the UK might have been last year if the nuclear weapons submarines fell into the “illegal” category at that stage. A government voting to renew weapons that most of the world has prohibited would be one step too far, even for many of those stuck in a Cold War mindset.
In the meantime, what do we do about North Korea, or, more to the point, about North Korea and the US?
There is in fact plenty that could be done. Rather than turning up the volume on our echoes of Washington, Australia could urge a reduction of tension by the cessation of provocative military exercises by both sides. The North Korean leader has called for an end to US hostility and nuclear threats. Unless we regard the current situation as stable – nuclear deterrence just giving us a little fright as it tends to do – then an end to nuclear threats by both sides is absolutely critical.
History is granting us another chance to get rid of what Indian writer Arundhati Roy called “the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made”.
A strong civil society movement and a majority of the world’s governments working through the UN have just provided the best tool we’ve had for a long time with which to do this, a tool that delegitimises every one of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons.
The stand-off between two dangerous nuclear-armed leaders, each of whom places his ego above the welfare of humanity, possibly even that of his own people, demonstrates that these weapons have no place in human society.
* Dr Sue Wareham is the Vice-President of ICAN Australia.