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2013 No. 3

Editorial: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ban the Bomb
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will


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With the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty, said Ambassador Ulibarri of Costa Rica, we have “generated a healthy ‘spirit of New York,’ which we hope will help drive additional successes.”

What best reflects this “spirit of New York”? Is it present in First Committee?

This month, outside of the UN, the internationally renowned graffiti artist Banksy is tagging the streets of New York City. His art offers political and social commentary, often relevant specifically to the locale in which he is working. In that spirit, his work “Bomb Hugger” is portrayed on the cover of this week’s First Committee Monitor. It is there to reflect the biggest obstacle preventing concrete action on nuclear disarmament: love for the bomb.

Based on the initial thematic interventions on nuclear weapons, it is clear that some governments have an (unhealthy) attachment to nuclear weapons. As Ambassador John W. Ashe, the President of the General Assembly, said, “Where we put our time, resources and energy is an indicator of what we truly value. And so when we say we value education, healthcare, poverty reduction, and sustainable development, our actions and choices must likewise offer proof of that.” When we say we value nuclear disarmament, our actions and choices must facilitate that objective, not undermine it. But the actions and choices of some governments are not consistent with their stated goal of achieving a nuclear weapon free world.

Instead, it is clear that some governments do value nuclear weapons. These include the nuclear-armed states as well as their allies who protect the continued existence of nuclear weapons by relying on them in their security doctrines and who preserve the status quo by insisting that the only way forward is the “step-by-step approach,” which the nuclear-armed states consistently fail to implement.

Some of these governments seem exhibit extreme dissonance about nuclear weapons. They recognize the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that nuclear weapons cause when detonated. They worry about proliferation because they know that more nuclear weapons would make the world even more insecure. Yet at the same time, they act as if the nuclear weapons that do exist—at least some of them, the ones in the “right hands”—keep them safe. 

The incongruity of these positions and policies means that while these governments know that nuclear weapons are dangerous, destructive, and despicable, they want to keep them around because the world is insecure. The tools they see as being the best response to insecurity are those that themselves cause the most insecurity. These governments are, by defending the continued existence of nuclear weapons and their inclusion in security doctrines, saying that they are ready to use nuclear weapons while knowing full well the inevitable results. They refuse to draw the ineluctable conclusion that the way to increase security, prevent proliferation, and preclude the unspeakable suffering that would be caused by the use of nuclear weapons is to prohibit and eliminate these weapons once and for all.

“The inconsistency is obvious and the conclusion clear,” said Ambassador Kmentt of Austria. “All WMD—particularly nuclear weapons—cannot be reconciled with today’s understanding of international law and international humanitarian law (IHL). They should have no place in the 21st century and we need to redouble our efforts for a world without nuclear weapons or any other WMD.” 

So what is the “spirit of New York” when it comes to nuclear weapons? Is the spirit best reflected in “those who always want to have a dominant position for the purpose of national security to the exclusion of the interests and concerns of others,” and “those who wish to continue maintaining their own set of rules outside of international norms,” as Ambassador Andanje of Kenya described? Or does the “spirit of New York,” as Ambassador Ulibarri hopes, represent “a renewed optimism of our capacity to confront humanity’s greatest challenges”?

The ATT was adopted at a time when the global arms trade is increasing. The prohibition and elimination of other weapon systems have taken place in regions of conflict and in countries with financial investments in those systems. The destruction of chemical weapons in Syria is taking place in the midst of a bloody civil war. Now is the time to confront the challenge of nuclear weapons. Excuses that the “conditions” are not yet “ripe” are unjustifiable and unacceptable. The conditions that the nuclear-armed states want—such as the solving of all other international and national challenges—will likely never exist. Are we then to assume that nuclear disarmament is never to be achieved?

According to the UK delegation, we need an environment “in which no state feels the need to possess nuclear weapons.” The overwhelming majority of countries in the world do not feel the “need” to possess nuclear weapons already. Those that do feel this “need” are outliers of the robust international norm against the possession of such abhorrent weapons. What is this “need” based on—a need for power, for violent coercion? The rest of the world, like Costa Rica, uses the multilateral system and international law as “its only instruments of defense.” Why do a few states insist that they “need” anything more than that?

“It is the conviction of Kenya that it is time States considered a legal ban on nuclear weapons, even if nuclear armed States refuse to participate,” declared Ambassador Andanje. As highlighted at last Thursday’s side event hosted by Indonesia and Switzerland along with Reaching Critical Will and Article 36, banning nuclear weapons is a necessary and practical step towards a world in which all weapons of mass destruction have been outlawed and are being eliminated.

Suggestions that the humanitarian initiative to prohibit nuclear weapons is unproductive or unrealistic are meant to distract governments from the reality that the days of nuclear weapons are over. So are the days of the rest of the world putting up with rhetorical commitments to disarmament without any meaningful accompanying actions.

It is time for states to decide, now, if they want nuclear weapons to be legal or illegal, for them to exist or not exist. They cannot have it both ways. As Ambassador Andanje warned, “So long as we continue to practice Orwellian double-speak, we may end up blowing ourselves to extinction.”

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