How to Get Out of the Nuclear Swamp

By Xanthe Hall

This week I read an email exchange that made me think. Actually, it worried me deeply. In one of the messages an old friend described the Nuclear Weapons Convention – an idea many of us fought for since the early nineties – as a “fairy tale.” A second mail called it a “distraction.”

The authors of these mails are not government representatives from nuclear weapon states or their allies, although you might be forgiven for thinking so. Both those descriptions have been used by states that want to brush aside the idea of a convention summarily, as if only for the very stupid or naïve. No, these were colleagues.

Since the strategy of pursuing a so-called Ban Treaty has been advocated by the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear weapons (ICAN), at least by its International Steering Group and staff, a fierce debate has been raging between two groups. These are principally the younger and the older generation, although that doesn’t quite fit, since there are older disarmament campaigners decidedly in favor of a Ban Treaty, including myself. Probably there are also younger campaigners who are skeptical of the concept of a Ban Treaty. The email exchange I describe above made it clear to me that this debate is being conducted in a manner that is neither conducive to change, nor is it respectful to the work others have done before that the Ban can build upon.

Of course, just banging on about a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention that was written nearly twenty years ago is not an effective strategy and very few of us would advocate it. About fifteen years ago I realized that the Model NWC had become synonymous with certain states that were not being taken seriously and many governments put it aside without even looking at it. Many of us understood at that time that we needed a new grouping that would cut across the board and unite those in middle power countries seriously pursuing disarmament. The New Agenda Coalition became the new driving force at that time. Reservations about the Model meant that it was necessary to separate the idea of a convention from the Model we, as a movement, had created – to let go of it. However, it was a useful document to show what such a convention might look like and many fruitful discussions with governments centered around the Model as a discussion paper.

As a mother, learning to let go of things you brought into the world is the hardest lesson to learn. But it is the most important. However, letting go of the Model does not mean that the idea of a convention should be rejected. That would be the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

What the NWC Means and Does Not Mean

The Nuclear Weapons Convention is simply another name for a treaty banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. It remains the goal for all of us: for ICAN, Mayors for Peace, Abolition 2000, PNND, Middle Powers Initiative and all the other International Disarmament Organizations that I work with and some more. What it will look like at the end of the day is still wide open. But that is not really what is under discussion here.

The real debate is about how to get to elimination. (That is another phrase that could have come from the mouth of a government, I think even Germany has said something like it, although they are advocating the step-by-step process). ICAN has put the idea on the table that we do not have to wait for the possessor states to be able to take action. In fact, this is really what we have been doing: banging at the wrong doors. Trying to persuade the smokers to introduce a smoking ban, when it is the non-smokers who are the real mass we need to mobilize.

When Ron McCoy proposed the idea of an international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons to IPPNW all those years ago, this is what he said: We need a campaign like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. At the time, many were immediately skeptical – nuclear weapons are different from landmines, they said. Nuclear weapons are instruments of power, political weapons. But the point of the landmine campaign was to make the humanitarian dimension a priority, so that any security or political advantages were superseded by the catastrophic humanitarian effects. This is what we meant by changing the debate. By stigmatizing the possession of an unacceptable weapon you disempower those who wield them. Politics can change, the effects of the weapon do not. This is the idea behind humanitarian disarmament and is the strategy that is underlying the process that began as the humanitarian initiative and is now transforming into the humanitarian imperative.

What we term the “Ban Treaty” is a synonym for beginning a process to eliminate nuclear weapons by creating a critical mass of like-minded states ready to go forward with a ban. It is important that these states have already renounced nuclear weapons and do not believe them to be of any political value. In declaring nuclear weapons to be banned, they strengthen their commitment to the NPT which states that it is illegal for any countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons and those who possess them should get rid of them (albeit without setting a time-frame).

A Ban: A Major Legal Step

So what is stopping this group of states forming? In my view, it is the same problem that we are facing in civil society. The majority of states are supportive of a convention, meaning that they expect a commitment from the nuclear possessor states to negotiate before embarking upon a process. Cuba declared in Vienna that they would try to force this process to begin by introducing a resolution to the UN General Assembly this year, to establish an open-ended working group with a negotiating mandate to begin work on a convention. While this is music to some ears, the very fact that it is Cuba that is the proponent could mean that –  if the working group is established – it will be boycotted by the nuclear possessor states (perhaps with the exception of India and Pakistan).

Should, however, states come together with the purpose of negotiating a convention and then find themselves unable to negotiate with the nuclear possessor states – what then? This is the moment where they can agree to go forward with a ban. It may, indeed, not be a “shortcut” to elimination, as the allied states are so fond of saying. It may take just as long to get to a full convention as before, who knows? There is no empirical evidence to show that one path is shorter than the other. But a ban is in itself a major legal step that will have the effect of stigmatizing nuclear weapons, in the same way that chemical weapons, although banned and not yet eliminated, are. Remember the outcry over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the resulting drive for elimination.

The analogy with smoking is one of my favorites, having given up smoking more than ten years ago. I remember how my sister locked me out of the house while I was having a secret smoke on her veranda. I felt like a pariah, ringing the bell to come back in. And the look on her face was one of disgust at what I had been doing (probably also because of the smell). Once there is a ban in place, even though cigarettes are still with us, the non-smokers have the law on their side to live in a smoke-free atmosphere. Yes, it makes the relationship with our smoking friends more difficult – but each time someone gives up, we can have a helluva celebration to welcome them into the international community.

The purpose of this blog is to advocate that we – as non-governmental actors – should not mirror the divided world of nuclear disarmament diplomacy, but we need to hack our way through the jungle and find a path that we can offer states as an alternative to the plodding step-by-step process that has led them into a deep swamp that they cannot get out of. Changing the debate was the stick that can help lift them out of the mud. It is important that they keep their eye on the goal which is the elimination of nuclear weapons and unite to close the legal gap, as the Austrian Pledge puts it. A ban would be a powerful instrument that would give enormous strength to nuclear weapon-free states to lead the way. Nuclear possessor states must then choose to stay behind and sink in the nuclear swamp or follow their lead to a nuclear weapon-free world.

All change has to begin within ourselves. We cannot always wait for others to change the world.Φ

Xanthe Hall is a disarmament expert and long-time antinuclear campaigner for IPPNW-Germany. Her views are sought and respected on topics ranging from missile defenses to a nuclear-weapons-free Europe.

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