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WOULD A BAN TREATY BE AN EFFECTIVE DISARMAMENT MEASURE? HOW?

May 13, 2016

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, published in Reaching Critical Will's, OEWG Report, Vol 2, No. 14

There are no panaceas in multilateral nuclear disarmament. No one at this OEWG who has spoken in favor of prohibiting nuclear weapons has claimed that such a treaty would be sufficient in itself for complete nuclear disarmament, or in the meantime for eliminating the risk of nuclear war.

Instead, what a large majority of states have articulated here, in impressive and increasing detail, is that a universal prohibition of nuclear weapons is inescapably and urgently necessary, as a foundational step and within the framework of the NPT, for further disarmament measures. It is necessary because there is no legal and normative clarity regarding the possession of nuclear weapons, as the General Assembly recognized when it created this working group.

Disarmament can proceed by many paths: parallel and sequential; unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral. All of them would be enabled—and none impeded—by a clear and universal prohibition of nuclear weapons. The steps in the so-called “progressive’ agenda are impractical without first clearly stigmatizing nuclear weapons. A ban treaty would turn public opinion worldwide against nuclear weapons more strongly, including in nuclear-armed states that do not subscribe to the treaty.

The reality of a ban treaty would occasion a massive breakthrough in the world’s awareness of nuclear weapons. It would reconfirm and strengthen humanity’s negative valence toward these instruments of mass murder, releasing into consciousness and politics the pent-up frustration and animus against these weapons that many people, including political and opinion leaders, have carried their whole lives.

A ban would awaken and inspire civil society, with crossover benefits to civil society efforts in human development, solidarity, and human rights. A ban would provide a tangible source of hope for humanity and a bulwark against cynicism. Political and opinion leaders would have to take this new reality into account and incorporate it into their worldviews, actions, and identities. The status of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons careers would fall.

It would affect corporate investments and decisions, as we have seen with other weapon systems that have been prohibited. It will affect political values and spending priorities in the nuclear-armed states, whether or not they sign the treaty. All the nuclear-armed states have limited public funds and have competing demands for those funds both from within the military sector and from outside it. Nuclear investment decisions are often contested and will be increasingly so. Key destabilizing modernization decisions are being taken, in the U.S. at least, by relatively narrow margins.

As we see in this OEWG meeting, such profound changes are difficult for some people to contemplate. Such change up-ends their political assumptions—and for some, their career assumptions and identities. It is especially difficult for some people to imagine that non-nuclear-armed states could act on this issue without the permission or participation of nuclear-armed states. Unconsciously but visibly, these people and these states accord unassailable status and power to nuclear weapons and those who wield them. That is just the problem we are trying to solve.

The resistance we see here in this meeting to formally and legally condemn and prohibit nuclear weapons is a measure of the effectiveness of such a treaty, and of the diplomatic breakthrough it would bring.

Part of the OEWG mandate is to “examine additional measures to increase awareness and understanding of … the humanitarian consequences” of nuclear detonations. Such efforts have been underway for more than 70 years. Negotiations to ban nuclear weapons would more fruitfully increase awareness of nuclear weapon dangers than any other measure. Conversely, lack of disarmament progress by diplomats and statesmen is a major factor against awareness, from the top to the bottom of society.

A ban treaty would not be just another bit of news. It would change the framework in which all nuclear weapons information is evaluated, processed, and disseminated. It would awaken the news media to many interesting stories of which they are currently unaware, or which are—in nuclear-armed and dependent states—taboo.

A ban treaty would reach directly into individual consciences, affecting career decisions for scientists and engineers, a crucial factor in weapons maintenance and modernization. Even militaries would be forced to reevaluate the role of circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used. And it would increase, to some extent immediately, so-called “self-deterrence,” thus decreasing the risk of nuclear war.

In these ways and others a ban treaty would powerfully affect the actions and policies of the nuclear-armed states as well as other states that might contemplate a nuclear option. Even without acceding to the treaty, the new norms it established would affect nuclear states powerfully. A ban treaty imposes nothing on anybody, but demands, through its undeniable political and legal reality, that everyone re-evaluate and re-conceptualize nuclear weapons.


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