Nuclear Ban Daily, Vol. 1, No. 5

Pathways to the ban and beyond
31 March 2017

Ray Acheson

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On Wednesday afternoon, states participating in the conference to prohibit nuclear weapons found themselves ahead of schedule, so the President suggested that they engage in an interactive dialogue with experts on some of the issues discussed so far. Thursday’s conversation amongst states, civil society, and the ICRC provided a dynamic space in which to consider several of the key issues upon which there are differing views.

The format seemed extremely useful to allow thoughtful deliberation and exchanges, which will hopefully lead to increasing convergence in the months ahead. It also offered a useful example of how the United Nations could and should operate in terms of open, fluid conversation amonst states, international organisations, academics, and non-governmental organisations. The pursuit of a treaty banning nuclear weapons has been a joint effort between states and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), so it feels natural for civil society to be engaging with states in discussing the elements of the future instrument.

While some points of divergence remain, it does seem clear that the elements of this instrument are really about pathways: closing off the pathways to develop, retain, or support nuclear weapons; and opening pathways for disarmament.

The nuclear weapon ban treaty is a categorical rejection of nuclear weapons. Its overarching objective is to help facilitate the elimination of nuclear weapons. This means it needs to set out prohibitions and obligations that stigmatise nuclear weapons such that doctrines of “nuclear deterrence” are no longer legally, politically, and socially sustainable; affect the economic incentives for nuclear weapon production and maintenance; and provide legal prohibitions of any activity that supports the existence of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, as several states and civil society presenters pointed out on Thursday, this treaty can and should be seen as part of the larger architecture of general and complete disarmament, and of peace, security, and human rights more broadly. Essentially all supporters of the ban treaty have articulated that this treaty is not an end itself, but a tool to advance peace, justice, and the prevention of humanitarian and environmental harm. In this sense, it is a disarmament treaty—an instrument that should be crafted with an eye on its objective of being a useful mechanism to help achieve and maintain a nuclear weapon free world.

Getting there requires creativity, especially when the nine states that possess nuclear weapons have exhibited no good faith commitment to nuclear disarmament, and, quite the opposite, are investing economically, politically, and culturally in the reinvigoration of the nuclear arms race. Creating a pathway to disarmament in this environment may appear impossible, but it is not.

Getting to the point where we are now may have seemed impossible to some not that long ago. Yet here we are. Agreeing to negotiate a prohibition treaty is, as the Brazilian delegation said today, a breakthrough. It is nothing more than a lack of imagination to believe that changing the status quo is impossible. Change is possible, and it is necessary, but we have to work for it. We have to take risks and be bold.

It was clear from the dialogue on Thursday, and from other sessions during the past week, that some states may be constraining themselves to existing frameworks, methods of work, and understandings about the world. It might be useful for us all to consider how to got to where we are now, what changes were required to see 123 states voting in favour of a resolution in the UN General Assembly against the wishes (and in some cases, the strict orders) of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

What does this mean for the so-called status quo? What does this mean for what is possible?

States engaged in these negotiations in good faith have an opportunity to do something that perhaps has not been done before. This is not the time to set up a new treaty that is either implicitly or explicitly permissive of the behaviour of a comparatively small number of states that have either chosen or been instructed not to participate in the negotiations. This is the time to set out a new treaty that fundamentally changes the way we do business when it comes to nuclear weapons.

This about delegitimising deterrence and outlawing possession. It is about stigmatising the weapons that risk catastrophic human suffering and potentially the end of the world. That seems like a good pathway for us to be on collectively.

The final edition of the Nuclear Ban Daily, which will provide coverage of Friday’s meetings as well as a wrap-up of the week, will be released online early next week. To receive it by email, please subscribe.

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