Perspectives on the 2016 disarmament “Open-Ended Working Group, ” now beginning

The following letter was sent on January 29, 2016 to fellow campaigners working toward prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Subject: Perspectives on the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group, now beginning (background)

1. A Ban Treaty is needed for progress in multilateral disarmament diplomacy
2. A Ban Treaty would be very powerful, including in the U.S., without U.S. participation

1. A Ban Treaty is needed for progress in multilateral disarmament diplomacy

As the first session of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) begins, I wanted to convey our profound gratitude to everyone who has helped advance the humanitarian perspective on nuclear weapons and the prospects for a treaty-based ban on (possessing, developing, manufacturing, transferring, and using) such weapons. Tremendous progress has been made.

We can’t be there but wanted to send a few perspectives about this process as it begins.

There are only 15 working days allocated for the OEWG. We can be sure that the nuclear weapon states and their weasel allies will try to de-focus, dilute, delay, distract, and divide our efforts – now, during the sessions, between the sessions, and afterwards.

Some nuclear weapon states, the U.S. in particular, will promise the moon to prevent negotiations that could lead to any effective disarmament measure, including the very dangerous ban treaty. In the 20 years since the NPT was indefinitely renewed, none of those promises has meant anything.

Empty promises flavored with delicious idealism are a specialty of this U.S. administration. “Mirages,” one author called them. “A world free of nuclear weapons” is one of these empty and dangerous platitudes.

There will be plenty of efforts to broaden the discussion, say to “the risks and challenges ahead,” or to induce irrelevant technical discussions (e.g. of verification), or to otherwise rehash terrain traversed repeatedly over past decades.

Another form of distraction is speculation about a treaty to guide the details of a hypothetical future multilateral disarmament process. Newsflash: the nuclear weapon states will not sign such a treaty — not now, or for the foreseeable future.

There surely also will be efforts, well-intentioned and otherwise, that have the effect of running down the clock.

The nuclear weapon states believe their arsenals are fully legitimate – fully supported not just by international law but also by reason, morality, and their own governments’ responsibilities to prevent war. That is how they see it. Why should there be good faith negotiations to get rid of something as legitimate and important as nuclear weapons (in their view)? So there haven’t been any such negotiations, and won’t be.

Nothing significant will be possible in disarmament diplomacy until this perceived legitimacy is removed.

The voluminous testimony, legal analysis, and activism that has been done so well since the Cold War has not accomplished this.

Facts, no matter how brilliantly they are presented, haven’t availed – and won’t.

The dictates of public conscience, no matter how voluminous, prestigious, and authentic the appeals, haven’t availed – and won’t.

Declarations by “the great and the good” haven’t availed – and won’t.

Legal decisions haven’t availed – and won’t.

Mere gestures by states which cost little and bind nobody – U.N. resolutions, for example – haven’t availed – and won’t.

Why? Because none of these excellent activities are consequential – that is, binding – decisions taken by states for the purpose of making nuclear weapons illegal.

Only states can remove the present de facto legitimacy, which is very real to the nuclear weapon states and therefore to everybody, and this can only be done by making nuclear weapons illegal.

States can only accomplish this through law, conventional law, which is to say by a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. By definition, there is no other way.

Nuclear weapons will be legal – de facto legal, and de jure legal as well as morally necessary in the eyes of those who possess them – until they are made illegal.

This work of delegitimation has to be done by non-nuclear weapon states, not by nuclear weapon states. The latter will resist.

Without a treaty on the table, the various well-intentioned and indeed excellent statements by diplomats are really just opinions and postures.

Given the short working time of the OEWG, I hope that all involved will make every effort to help leading states focus on negotiating, or more realistically laying the groundwork for negotiating, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Anything else will play into the hands of the nuclear weapon states and their weasel allies – again, by de-focusing, diluting, delaying, distracting, and dividing our efforts.

If the OEWG fails to achieve a clear path to make nuclear weapons illegal, there are other ways forward.

We think the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik summit (October 11-12, 1986) would be a good time to unveil a ban treaty for signature.

The nuclear weapon states obviously oppose prohibiting nuclear weapons and can play no constructive part in negotiations. These states have never played any constructive part in multilateral disarmament negotiations over the past 25 years, full stop. Their weasel allies generally also have opposed and will oppose practical disarmament measures, for now.

So calls to make negotiations “universal” are quite premature and misplaced.

Godspeed to everybody. Our thoughts and prayers are with those of you who are there.

2. A Ban Treaty would be very powerful, including in the U.S., without U.S. participation

A ban treaty would be the natural culmination of the decades of brilliant civil society work that have brought us to this point.

Such a treaty would be voluntary and non-coercive, yet ever more normative as more countries joined. It would grow in importance only in the most democratic manner. It would affect nuclear arsenals in an indirect and therefore flexible manner, and only according to the evolving unique security circumstances of each state. It would not conflict with any existing or future disarmament or nonproliferation agreement or treaty, but rather would support them all. It would not add new obligations for NPT non-nuclear weapon states that are not in nuclear security relationships, which is most of the countries in the world. All these states have nothing to lose in a ban — apart from whatever nasty forms of leverage some nuclear weapon states (like the U.S.) and their allies might try to apply.

A ban would stimulate and empower civil society in many countries, with benefits across humanitarian issues.

Here in the U.S., a ban treaty would tremendously empower everything we are doing against nuclear weapons. I would like to explain this further because many people think that a ban would have no effect on U.S. policy, given that the U.S. won’t sign it.

Nuclear policy in the U.S. is not made in a smooth, top-down, confident manner. There are many reversals and problems. The nuclear weapons establishment has many adversaries inside government and outside, not least its own bureaucrats and fat-cat contractors, who struggle to hide the scandals and ongoing fiascos. Key mid-career people are quitting early at facilities we know from job frustration, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Retirements left one plant (Y-12) without knowledge of how to make a critical non-commercial material at industrial scale. At the only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly plant, in Texas, snakes and mice infest one or more key buildings, which date from World War II. Rain comes through the roofs and dust through the doors. In Oak Ridge, huge pieces of concrete have fallen from ceilings and deep cracks have appeared in a structural beam in a key building. All this infrastructure may, or may not be, fully replaced. It is contested in many cases, difficult, and expensive.

At Los Alamos, the main plutonium facility has been largely shut down for almost three years because of inadequate safety and staffing. Approximately seven attempts have been made since 1989 to construct a new factory complex for producing plutonium warhead cores — all have failed. It might just be that nuclear weapons production, in the final analysis, is not compatible with today’s safety and environmental expectations and laws. Transmission of nuclear weapons ideology and knowledge under these conditions is a difficult challenge.

A growing ban would reach deep into the human conscience, affecting everything, including career decisions. It would affect corporate investments as well as congressional enthusiasm for the industry. I have spoken with nuclear weapons CEOs who know it is a “sunset” field with only tenuous support in the broader Pentagon, despite all the nuclear cheer-leading we see. Modernization of the whole nuclear arsenal is very likely unaffordable, even assuming current economic conditions hold (they won’t).

A ban would also affect the funding, aims, and structure of the U.S. nonprofit universe and think-tank “ecosystem,” as well as media interest and coverage.

Beyond all this, I believe a ban would also help decrease popular support in the U.S. for war and war expenditures in general. Why? There is a tremendous war-weariness in the U.S., right alongside our (real, but also orchestrated) militarism. A growing ban on nuclear weapons would be a powerful signal to political candidates and organizations that it is politically permissible to turn away from militarism somewhat, that there is something wrong with the levels of destruction this country has amassed and brandished so wildly and with such deadly and chaotic effects. Ordinary people here in the U.S. are seeing greater and greater austerity and precarity. They work extremely hard and have less and less to show for it. Polls (decades of them) show the public has never really supported the scale of nuclear armaments we have. One 1990s poll disclosed that most Americans think we have more than ten times fewer warheads than we actually do, more like the U.K., France, and China! Our economy is in bad shape and our infrastructure is visibly declining, sometimes with fatal results. A ban could help this benighted country recognize its folly, at least to some degree. It would be a wake-up call signalling that widely-held U.S. assumptions about our place in the world might need just a teensy bit of adjustment.

I hope this helps fill in the picture somewhat for those far away who may not see why a ban would be powerful here in the U.S.

The case for such a simple, totally flexible, and powerful treaty, with relatively low diplomatic cost for most states, is to our eyes unassailable.

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