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2017 No. 3

Editorial: The nuclear catch-22
16 October 2017


Ray Acheson 

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“Technology is not neutral,” said Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. “Ultimately, technology is a magnifier of human intentions, aptitudes and biases.” He was speaking in the context of the high-level panel on emerging technologies at First Committee on 11 October, but the sentiment is true of all weapons, from small arms to nuclear bombs. Whether it is the mass shooting in Las Vegas or the mass slaughter of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the weaponisation of technology magnifies the worst of humanity’s intentions, aptitudes, and biases. It is the material form and explicit exercise of racism, sexism, and classism; of oppressions of all shapes and sizes.

The solution is disarmament. The solution is the development of norms and laws that compel our better intentions and aptitudes to flourish. The solution is collective, collaborative engagement amongst governments and civil societies. The solution is dialogue.

The solution is understanding and promoting disarmament as security, not disarmament or security.

One of the most concerning developments over the past few years that has emerged apparently in response to the movement to ban nuclear weapons is the assertion that a) nuclear weapons are necessary for (some states’) security and that therefore b) the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons undermines global security and stability.

These assertions are repeated ad nauseam by states that currently possess nuclear weapons and those that currently include nuclear weapons in bilateral or alliance relationships with the United States.

These assertions damage the non-proliferation regime. They depict nuclear weapons as the platinum credit card of state security, necessary for survival. The irony of it, however, is that these states do understand the insecurity that nuclear weapons create—but only in the hands of states they perceive as enemies.

The US delegation argued last week, “ban treaty proponents would have us believe that we can do away with nuclear deterrence despite—to cite just one example—the danger posed by North Korea's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems, which stand in flagrant violation of international law.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, nuclear deterrence is not a material object. It is a concept, an idea created in the minds of men determined to justify massive economic investments in a weapon of mass destruction that is designed only to incinerate entire populations of civilians and leave future generations with cancers and other devastating health issues.

There is also the “question what nuclear deterrence means for security in the first place,” said the Austrian delegation. “Nothing good, as Austria and the supporters of the [Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons] believe.”

Secondly, pitting “North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons” as something that deterrence could prevent is empty rhetoric. If nuclear deterrence “worked,” then how would North Korea have succeeded in developing nuclear weapons or delivery systems? How could they have conducted six nuclear weapon tests underground on their own territory and now be threatening to drop a hydrogen bomb on the Pacific—which has already been used in horrifically racist ways as a testing ground for other states’ nuclear weapon programmes?

Third, the idea that only North Korea’s nuclear weapons are in flagrant violation of international law is not just bad faith, it’s blatantly lawless itself. The United States, along with the other nuclear-armed states, is obligated under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to eliminate its nuclear weapons. The International Court of Justice was clear in its 1996 advisory opinion that “good faith” meant that the NPT states parties had to successfully conclude multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

Fourth, as Bangladesh’s delegation pointed out, the arguments in favour of retaining nuclear weapons are made exclusively by those states that are part of “exclusive groups or initiatives that tend to prescribe the norms and standards for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation” in ways that clearly seek to maintain the prerogatives of the nuclear-armed states.

The idea that the nuclear-armed states can have their nukes and eat their non-proliferation too is a reckless fantasy. And for it to simultaneously suggest that those supporting the prohibition of nuclear weapons are undermining security, by trying to devalorise weapons of mass destruction, is baffling. If the United States, United Kingdom, and France want to prevent proliferation, why on earth would they try to deter states from negotiating or joining an international agreement to never acquire them or use them?

“Progress in nuclear disarmament has always been the leading force for improving the international security environment and the levels of international cooperation,” argued the Egyptian delegation last week. “Thus the stalemate in nuclear disarmament could be viewed as one of the root causes of the deteriorating security environment which is paradoxically used as a pretext for not making progress in nuclear disarmament.”

This is a classic catch-22. By the narrative of the nuclear-armed, we can’t eliminate nuclear weapons because they bring the security that is necessary to prevent other states from acquiring or using nuclear weapons, which would bring insecurity; and we can’t make progress on disarmament because the “security environment conditions” are unstable, even though disarmament would make those conditions more stable.

This situation grows in Orwellian dimensions when you add in the stated argument that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will not lead to the elimination of even one single nuclear weapon. Of course, it’s up to the states with nuclear weapons to decide to get rid of them. It’s their choice, not the Treaty’s, about whether or not disarmament happens.

Furthermore, the Austrian delegation explained, by this logic, the NPT could be regarded as a failure, because it has not prevented non-members from acquiring nuclear weapons. “Certainly such an assumption is not a valid excuse for nuclear weapon possessors not to join” the TPNW, said Austria. “Suffice that any one of them actually joined and the assumption would eo ipso be proven wrong.”

So then, according to the nuclear-armed and nuclear-supporters, what is then the way to achieve nuclear disarmament, if it is not through nuclear disarmament?

What is the best way to prevent proliferation if the staunchest “non-proliferation advocates” disavow or refuse to comply with non-proliferation agreements—whether it’s the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran or the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself?

What is the best way to “deter” nuclear war if our systems are set up to encourage others to acquire nuclear weapons and threaten to use or to use them?

How can we expect North Korea to join a dialogue let alone make an agreement with the United States when it is tearing up agreements with other countries?

Samoa, noting the “scars of terror and mistrust” that comes from being used as a nuclear weapon test site, described its region’s nuclear weapon free zone as “deterrent” against nuclear weapons. Is not the prohibition treaty, in this sense, also a “deterrent” against the development, acquisition, possession, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons? Should we not be putting all of our efforts into these types of prevention measures, rather than classically-understood “deterrence” measures that rely on the very possibility of the occurrence of what it is trying to prevent?

“The progress finally reached in nuclear disarmament this year represents fresh hope in a time when all too many have lost their lives and livelihoods to violence and conflict, and a time when unbridled threats can all too freely flow,” said the Irish delegation last week. The threats are flowing, and we will all suffer the consequences if left unchecked. The nuclear-armed states have, as Liechtenstein eloquently said, mistaken responsibility for privilege.

Their responsibility is to disarm. Instead, they accuse those of trying to make positive change of being “divisive”.

India said there is a “rift between those who believe that nuclear weapons can be made to vanish by fiat and those who believe that nuclear weapons must be asserted even more vigorously.” Pakistan referred to the “divisive approach that trivializes security considerations and excludes them altogether by banning nuclear weapons on humanitarian and ethical grounds.” While Canada said it shares the sentiment behind the Treaty, it believes it has “contributed to a further divide in the international community.”

In reality, as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said in its statement to First Committee on 10 October, it’s not the Treaty that divides us, but nuclear weapons. And while they may divide us now, our better humanity—our better aptitudes and intentions—must prevail. It’s our only hope.

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