Making Britain non-nuclear

On 7 July 2017, negotiators representing 122 countries agreed a treaty which seeks to lead to the destruction of all nuclear weapons and the permanent prohibition of their use. The treaty is called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and it has now been formally adopted at the United Nations. It will now be open for signature by any United Nations member state from 20 September, and it will go into international law when it is officially signed by 50 countries. In the words of Elaine G. Whyte Gomez, the Costa Rican Ambassador to the United Nations who chaired the conference which agreed the treaty: ‘The world has been waiting for this legal norm for 70 years’.

The vote on 7 July was 122 countries in favour of the treaty and only one against -the Netherlands. Unfortunately, there was no participation in the negotiations by the world’s nine nuclear armed states including Britain. Within Scottish CND and the wider Scottish peace movement, there is no surprise that Britain and other nuclear weapon states have not backed the treaty. However, what the British government and the other nuclear weapon states cannot ignore is that there is a widespread acceptance and support for the treaty across the world. Scottish CND and our partner organisations will be using this international support for the treaty to increase public pressure on the Government to review its position.

As Beatrice Finn, executive director of the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said: ‘This treaty is a strong categorical prohibition of nuclear weapons and is really rooted in humanitarian law. It provides a path for nuclear-armed states to join. We are not necessarily expecting them to sign the treaty right now, but it is a good starting point for changing perceptions’.

Within Scottish CND, we also take heart from other treaties such as those that banned biological and chemical weapons, land mines and cluster bombs. There is now clear evidence that that shows how these types of weapons once regarded as acceptable are now widely reviled. Scottish CND is of the firm view that whilst the treaty will not immediately eliminate nuclear weapons, it can over time further de-legitimise nuclear weapons and strengthen political and legal norms against their use. The treaty is also very timely and relevant given present day tensions between the US and North Korea.

Supporters of nuclear weapons often use the idea of deterrence to support their position. Deterrence is based on the idea that the only way to prevent an attack is to assure the destruction of the attacker. However, again as Beatrice Finn from ICAN has said: ‘Deterrence theory only works if you are ready to use nuclear weapons otherwise the other side will call your bluff. Deterrence is also based on a perception that leaders are rational and sane’.

It is time to applaud those countries who have voted for this important treaty. It is also time to use the treaty as a further mechanism to rid our country and our world of the scourge of nuclear weapons. The force and power of any modern day nuclear weapons exchange would not only affect the attacking country and the country being attacked. Organisations such as Medact, an NGO of medics against war, weapons and environmental destruction, have pointed out nuclear weapons explosions anywhere in the world will have extreme and long lasting environmental consequences as well as damaging agricultural productivity.

Scottish CND and the wider peace movement in Scotland will be working hard to pressurise individual politicians and political parties to support this very important Nuclear Weapons Global Ban Treaty. A small team of activists from Scotland attended the negotiations as civic society representatives and they are currently reporting back at various meetings which are taking place in different parts of the country. Scottish CND has also set up a special working group so that work on the treaty is given sufficient focus within our overall activities. It is also to be hoped that those who claim to take a multi-lateralist view in relation to the abolition of nuclear weapons will find themselves able to support the treaty.

The treaty is truly ground breaking as it has the potential not only to outlaw nuclear weapons use but would also outlaw the testing, production, possession and transport of them. Additionally the very important message to nuclear armed nations is that the treaty outlines a process for destroying stockpiles and enforcing commitments made to remain free of nuclear weapons. It is sad that the current British Government remains disengaged from such a positive development which is supported by so many countries. However, political pressure and the speed of events can mean that things change very rapidly in today’s world.

Arthur West is chair of Scottish CND