Vienna Conference vigorously advances efforts to ban nuclear weapons

Dear friends –

Hello everybody! We – Study Group staff, i.e. Trish and Greg – are currently on a speaking and alliance-building tour in Germany and the UK after the Vienna conferences, mostly staying with friends.  We are currently in Darmstadt.

Thanks to frequent flier miles, Trish and Greg were present at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, attended by about 800 government representatives from 158 countries (more countries than usually attend conferences of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, NPT) plus about 200 civil society representatives.

The Conference was a smashing success.  See our “Forty-four states call for nuclear weapons ban at third major diplomatic conference” (press release, 12/10/14).

The government conference was immediately proceeded by a 600-person civil society forum organized by the Austrian branch of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).  Greg had the honor of addressing this gathering on the opening panel on the topic of nuclear weapons modernization.

It is ICAN – a coordinated campaign of 360 NGOs in 93 countries – that has been largely responsible, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross and a few key states, for the rapid growth over the past three years in the attention given to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the associated growth in civil society – and government – efforts to see them banned.  The Vienna Conference was a big step forward in this movement.

It is difficult to adequately express for U.S. audiences, and difficult to overstate, the all-round competence, intellectual and political clarity, good will, and zeal of the ICAN team that has been working to ban nuclear weapons.  It is unlike, and far exceeds in all these ways, anything we have ever seen in the United States.

The effort to ban nuclear weapons isn’t appearing out of nowhere, but rather builds upon many fine efforts made over the decades since the Cold War.  While actively incorporating the efforts of U.S. experts and many long-time campaigners, this is a movement in a new key.  It can be distinguished from prior U.S. efforts we have known in these positive ways:

  • It is not based in the U.S. and not subject to the adverse political conditions that prevail here;
  • Its leadership is a full generation younger than that in U.S. nuclear policy organizations, which by and large have not been successful in generational renewal;
  • Its funding does not come from, nor is it hostage to, U.S. foundations;
  • Its leadership is multinational, naturally diverse, and does not lie in any particular organization;
  • Indeed instead of being “institution-centric” or even “network-centric,” which invariably lead to strong inside/outside dichotomies and turf battles, the campaign is organized around a clear moral vision and a clear political objective, namely a ban;
  • Many of the leading organizations involved are not primarily or exclusively focused on nuclear weapons but rather on broader humanitarian and development objectives in peace and/or war; and most crucially,
  • Achievement of a ban on nuclear weapons does not depend on the sympathy or even the participation of nuclear weapon states.

I want to linger on this conference a bit more, and provide a few references to convey its flavor, because it is a rather different kind of effort than that to which most of our members, most U.S. experts, and most U.S. journalists are accustomed.  That difference begins in the basic framing of the issues.

In the “nuclear deterrence” paradigm of discussion familiar to most U.S. parties, nuclear weapons are seen as having security value.  The non-military destruction they entail is relegated to “collateral damage” if it is discussed at all.

By contrast in the “humanitarian law and morality” or “weapons of mass destruction” paradigm, it is the morally- and legally- transgressive qualities of nuclear weapons, as almost universally regarded, which are the starting point for discussion.  In this paradigm, any security “benefit” supposedly gained by nuclear possessor states by nuclear threats (i.e. deterrence), or by nuclear use, is inherently immoral, corrosive of existing law, and anticivilizational.  However uncomfortable it may be to the nuclear weapon states and the states which participate in nuclear deterrence through nuclear sharing or extended deterrence arrangements, it is a matter of settled law that mass murder, genocide, or the global destruction of life that would result from nuclear winter, can never be justified by any supposed political or military outcome.

Needless to say, we believe the second paradigm is a more factual and fertile starting point for discussion.  It does not exclude the universal need for security in all its aspects, but in doing so it does not privilege the security desires of one set of countries over others.  It puts human security, not state power relations, in the foreground.

The fruitfulness of the humanitarian approach can be seen in the far-reaching arguments for an explicit ban on nuclear weapons and deterrence that were read to the Conference from His Holiness Pope Francis by Papal Nuncio Silvano Tomasi.  It is a powerful testament.

An excellent and detailed overview of the conference and its meaning is available from Reaching Critical Will.

The following three articles by Dr. Rebecca Johnson (shown here with summaries) are recommended:

Driven by “the imperative of human security for all”, Austria pledged at the HINW conference to work to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”.

Participants at the HINW Conference were screened for nuclear contamination yesterday, before listening to testimony from survivors mobilising for the abolition of nuclear weapons in what Pope Francis called “our common home.”

The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) opens in Vienna today, with arguments for humanitarian disarmament growing in strength. This time the UK and the US will attend. What will be the likely outcome?

We can also recommend these blog posts from the conference by John Loretz of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW):

The whole Vienna Conference can be seen on YouTube here.

Immediately following the Conference, the 14th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates was held in Rome.  The Nobel Peace Laureates issued this explicit call for a ban on nuclear weapons.

There are over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. As the recent 3rd International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons concluded: the impact of the use of just one is unacceptable. A mere 100 would lower the earth’s temperature by over 1 degree Celsius for at least ten years, causing massive disruption of global food production and putting 2 billion people at risk of starvation. If we fail to prevent nuclear war, all of our other efforts to secure peace and justice will be for naught.  We need to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Meeting in Rome, we commend Pope Francis’ recent call for nuclear weapons to be “banned once and for all”. We welcome the pledge by the Austrian government “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”

We urge all states to commence negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time, and subsequently to conclude the negotiations within two years. This will fulfill existing obligations enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which will be reviewed in May of 2015, and the unanimous ruling of the International Court of Justice.  Negotiations should be open to all states and blockable by none. The 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2015 highlights the urgency of ending the threat of these weapons.

I hope you appreciate that this is NOT a vague call for nuclear disarmament in general – sort of disarmament or nuclear abolition “not otherwise specified.”  Still less is it a “vision” of disarmament, or a vision of a hypothetical “world without nuclear weapons.”  Such vague clichés have little value today.

Neither is this statement an endorsement of step-by-step disarmament under a paradigm in which nuclear deterrence is considered legitimate.  It is silent on bilateral or multilateral disarmament negotiations.   It is not an endorsement of reciprocal unilateral disarmament steps.  It is not an endorsement of “confidence-building measures,” or of entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  It is not an endorsement of a comprehensive binding nuclear disarmament treaty – a nuclear weapons convention.

All these measures, attractive as some of them are, require the support and cooperation of nuclear weapon states.  Negotiations to achieve them are rooted in the security policies of nuclear weapon states, and begin on the basis of the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.  That is not what the Nobel Peace Laureates said.

By contrast, most U.S. reporting about the Vienna Conference, led by this statement submitted to the Conference by the Arms Control Association and others, and by this statement from 118 notable arms control and disarmament figures, is rooted in current security policies and hence the tacit validity of nuclear deterrence.  Such reporting completely omits mention of what was novel in the Vienna Conference, namely an explicit call for a ban on nuclear weapons expressed by dozens of states, the Pope, hundreds of NGOs, and now the Nobel Peace Laureates.

We will write more on this difference and on the value of a prohibition on nuclear weapons next time.

A wonderful holiday to all,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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