This Valentine’s Day, instead of splurging on roses and chocolates, why not do something different and take a moment with that special someone to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the most important multilateral treaties, of which you have probably never heard: the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Read more
With the passing of Judge C.G. Weeramantry on 5 January the peace, disarmament and sustainability movements have lost a monumental figure. Judge Weeramantry dedicated his life to strengthening and expanding the rule of international law and demonstrated how the rule of law can be used to address critical global challenges such as the continued threat of nuclear weapons, the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment.
In addition to being one of the brightest legal minds on these issues, he was a tireless activist. Nuclear weapons were always a particular concern of his. As we face a future still marked by the nuclear threat, his wisdom and activism will be sorely missed. Fortunately, in the five decades spanning his career he has produced some of the most pioneering, convincing and eloquent analysis and arguments on the need to eliminate nuclear weapons.
We would do well to revisit some of Judge Weeramantry’s treatises and learn from them as we continue to make the case for a world free of nuclear weapons. These include:
As relevant today as when he wrote it, Judge Weeramantry’s strong dissent from the majority’s decision to leave undetermined the legality of the use of nuclear weapons in self-defence when the survival of the state would be at stake, is one of the most authoritative and comprehensive arguments on the illegality of nuclear weapons “in all circumstances and without reservation.”
See here for a summary.
The World Future Council co-published this informative booklet with the Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research on the occasions of the 2005 and 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conferences. In concise yet convincing arguments, Judge Weeramantry highlights the uniqueness of the nuclear threat and how our complacency risks the human future: “Never in the history of humanity has such urgency existed in relation to any issue and never were the consequences so devastating to the human future and to all that we hold dear. The danger grows not from year to year or from month to month but from day to day.”
As long as nuclear weapons exist, Judge Weeramantry’s unique insights and arguments remain powerful and pertinent. Using the legacy he has left us to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons would be the greatest tribute we can pay him.
From October 1-3, a three-dimensional street painting of a nuclear missile being fired from the ground was unveiled next to the German Parliament. The art project occurred in conjunction with the opening of an international conference Disarm! For a Climate of Peace – Creating an Action Agenda.
You probably don’t know but today marks the UN International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Not to be confused with the UN International Day Against Nuclear Tests – that was on 29 August (don’t feel too bad if you totally forgot about it).
UN ‘International Days’ are designed to promote international awareness and action on certain issues. For the most part, they deal with key security, development and health issues that the international community is facing – e.g. water security, slavery and environmental degradation, just to name a few examples.
Over the years, the number of such days has ballooned – to date, there are 130 such observances (not counting the UN 2016 International Year of Pulses and 6 UN Decades in which we currently live). The main reason for this growth is that it’s low-hanging fruit for member states to propose a commemorative day as many are dedicated to lofty ideals that few others would want to oppose (what country wants to go on record as not caring about migratory birds?).
That’s why you can now have your awareness raised about child labour, albinism, blood donation, elder abuse, family remittances and desertification and drought – all in one week in June! You cannot help but feel that packing the calendar with so many commemorative days devalues and defeats the purpose of awareness raising.
And so today it’s nuclear weapons’ turn, as we mark the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. A lofty goal if there ever was one, a world free of nuclear weapons has been a shared vision of the international community since the first nuclear weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, 71 years since those attacks it’s safe to say that the goal has proven elusive.
When in 2013 the UN General Assembly voted in favour of designating 26 September as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, few thought it would be a game changer. That’s not to say it’s without value. Intended to enhance “public awareness and education about the threat posed to humanity by nuclear weapons and the necessity for their total elimination, in order to mobilize international efforts towards achieving the common goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world”, the day rightfully highlights the critical gap in public awareness on the dangers on nuclear weapons.
But it was never going to constrain the actions of any of the nuclear-armed states. For them it has been business as usual.
All nine have been involved in renewing and extending nuclear weapon programmes or modernising forces, none of them have lowered the role of nuclear weapons in their defence policies (quite the contrary – in some cases, nuclear weapons have enjoyed increased salience in military posturing), one carried out a nuclear test as recent as 9 September (less than a fortnight after the UN International Day Against Nuclear Tests no less!) and the majority has forcefully resisted multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts—case in point being that the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and Israel voted against the resolution that designated 26 September as the International Day as well as, inter alia, “calls for urgent compliance with the legal obligations and the fulfilment of the commitments undertaken on nuclear disarmament.”
And so it has been left to the non-nuclear weapon states to take up the baton and advance nuclear disarmament. By definition, what they can achieve as countries without nuclear weapons is limited in the push for a world free of nuclear weapons. But two recent initiatives are worth highlighting – worth raising awareness about, if you will.
On Wednesday, Austria announced that it would join other UN member states in tabling a resolution next month at the UN General Assembly to convene negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons in 2017.
The move follows a recommendation adopted last month by the UN Open Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva for the General Assembly to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. The recommendation was supported by 62 countries (all non-nuclear weapon states).
The recommendation was part of a more detailed report that will be presented to the UN General Assembly, and which also includes a recommendation for States to undertake measures to reduce and eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons use, increase transparency about nuclear weapons and enhance awareness about the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. In yet another sign of their reluctance to implement their nuclear disarmament obligations, none of the nine nuclear weapons possessors participated in the OEWG.
The second initiative is a bold legal action that puts the legal obligations on nuclear disarmament back at the heart of the debate and action.
In April 2014, the tiny Pacific Island state of the Marshall Islands took the nine nuclear-armed States to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming they are in violation of their nuclear disarmament obligations, as rooted in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Customary International Law.
The unprecedented legal action requests a declaratory judgment of breach of obligations relating to nuclear disarmament, cessation of the nuclear arms race, and good faith as well as an order from the Court directed at the nine nuclear powers to take, within one year of the judgment, all steps necessary to comply with their nuclear disarmament obligations.
The cases have proceeded against the three nuclear-armed states that have accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ – the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. In March this year, the Court held hearings in these cases on preliminary issues. Next week, on 5 October, the Court will issue its judgement on these issues and whether the cases are to proceed to the merits phase.
What the Austrian-led push for a legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons and the Marshall Islands’ nuclear disarmament cases have in common is that they are born of frustration about the ongoing inaction of the nuclear-armed states to implement their disarmament obligations and advance the nuclear disarmament enterprise in any meaningful way.
Although it remains to be seen where both initiatives will go and what effect they will have on the policies of the nuclear-armed states, they are being pursued in the full spirit of today’s goal – the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
George Orwell famously wrote in his novel 1984 that, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, the words we choose can shape our thinking. We should therefore make sure that our language accurately conveys our intentions and thoughts and is as reflective of reality as possible.
Ever since former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in a cynical attempt to exploit divisions in the Labour Party, announced less than a fortnight ago that the House of Commons would vote on the renewal of the four submarines that carry Britain’s nuclear warheads (a system collectively known as “Trident) on 18 July, debate about Britain’s future as a nuclear-armed state has filled the country’s airwaves and newspapers (Parliament voted in favour of renewal by a majority of 355). This, in itself, is a good thing as a robust public debate on such an important issue is needed. However, some of the terms used in this debate are inaccurate or misleading.
Let’s look at three such terms and consider how they have skewed the Trident debate.
One of the most misleading terms used in the debate on nuclear weapons is “deterrent” to describe a nuclear weapons capability or system. The term comes from the belief that nuclear weapons deter against aggression or a nuclear attack through the promise of retaliation—a security doctrine known as “nuclear deterrence”.
Although the primary geopolitical circumstances for its existence have ceased with the end of the Cold War (when nuclear deterrence took on the shape of “Mutually Assured Destruction”), the doctrine continues to permeate strategic thought in the nuclear-armed states and allied states covered by “extended nuclear deterrence”. For many in the defence and security elites in these states the doctrine is sacrosanct.
Incessant use of these terms in previous decades has meant that few people nowadays question the appropriateness of using “deterrent” as a synonym for any given nuclear weapons system. Every single British news gathering source—print media, broadcast news and online sources—covering the Trident debate referred to the weapons system as the UK’s “nuclear deterrent” or “deterrent”. Interestingly, and revelatory of just how successful the defence and security elites have been in controlling the terms on which the debate is had, even commentators with reservations about the Trident programme, or opposed to it, often use the term.
The problem is that the term “deterrent” is infused with meaning. The designation of a nuclear weapons system as a “deterrent” is invariably accompanied by the implication that it indeed does what the term suggests—that it deters. By using such terms, we tacitly acquiesce to this belief and invest considerable purpose and meaning into these inanimate instruments.
Yet, we cannot prove deterrence works. The fact that there has not been a nuclear war or a major war between the nuclear-armed states does not prove that deterrence work.
The contrary argument—that nuclear weapons and deterrence-fuelled nuclear brinkmanship has a considerable probability of triggering conflicts, possibly of the nuclear kind—is equally difficult to prove. However, there is considerable evidence within historical occasions where nuclear deterrence did not prevent war, as well as occasions where nuclear war was only narrowly avoided. There is further credible analysis that the deterrence doctrine has lost any relevance it may once have had in today’s multipolar world and changing security landscape.
As such, the use of “deterrent” to describe a nuclear weapons system is a sly way to shape people’s thinking on the utility, legality and acceptability of such a system. Just consider the difference in the following two ways to ask about Trident: (1) Should the UK give up its nuclear deterrent?; (2) Should the UK give up its thermonuclear bombs? The use of “deterrent” makes the former practically a leading question, while the latter is factually more correct. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume more people would answer “Yes” to the second one.
Nuclear weapons are instruments of terror and mass destruction. That’s what we should call them.
Furthermore, we should remind whomever attempts to get away with shrouding them in terms such as “deterrent” or “strategic stability” of the catastrophic consequences their use would cause and the risks inherent to their existence.
Newly minted Prime Minister Theresa May opined on the eve of the debate that voting against Trident renewal would be “A gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take.” She, and many of those who voted in favour of Trident, also called the nuclear weapons system the UK’s “ultimate security guarantee”.
She, quite simply, has it backwards.
She was repeating a well-rehearsed mantra. The primary reason given for retention of nuclear weapons is that they are regarded as a vital part of a nation or alliance’s security. What defenders of nuclear weapons often fail to realise is that their country is of course not alone in caring about its security and the more they tout the indispensible role of nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantor, the more they are in the business of convincing other countries to acquire these weapons. No nation or group of nations can have a monopoly on “security”.
Luckily, the vast majority of states recognise that their security is better served by renouncing nuclear weapons. Indeed, through national and regional nuclear weapon-free policies, the entire southern hemisphere, as well as parts north of the equator, have sought security without nuclear weapons.
So, whose security are nuclear weapons supposed to serve? They don’t serve planetary security; they don’t serve human security; instead, they are used by a few to advance narrowly devised national security interests or those of military alliances. But even that is a false security. Recent research into the ever-growing list of cases of near nuclear use has revealed the kaleidoscope of risks inherent in nuclear operations.
The truth is that because the effects of use of nuclear weapons cannot be controlled within space or time and their employment in operations and deterrence policies are vulnerable to errors, their wielding by a few comes at the price of insecurity for the rest. This is a blatant form of inequality and injustice.
We thus have to recapture the meaning of security.
Through fear-mongering and misinformation, nuclear weapon advocates have permeated our collective thinking with the dangerous notion that these weapons have kept us safe and that their disarmament will bring with it insecurity and risks. It is imperative that we turn this on its head: nuclear disarmament comes at the benefit of our shared security. Greater security, not insecurity, for all lies in prohibiting and eliminating these instruments of terror. The security challenges coming from interconnected threats such as climate change, environmental degradation, demographic changes, resource scarcity and pandemic disease cannot be met by nuclear weapons. If anything, the adversarial deterrence policies in place are a great obstacle to achieving the unprecedented cooperation needed to address this host of transnational threats.
Crispin Blunt MP, one of the few Conservatives who voted against renewal had it right when he said in the debate yesterday:
“I oppose the renewal of Trident because I care about the security of my country. I’m not prepared to be party to the most egregious act of self-harm to our conventional defence. This is a colossal investment in a weapons system that will become increasingly vulnerable and for whose security we will have to throw good money, after bad – in fact tens of billions of it more than already estimated – to try to keep it safe in the decades to come.”
In the Trident debate, it was regularly suggested that the UK should continue to “possess” nuclear weapons. Merriam-Webster defines “possession” as “the condition of having or owning something”, which would undoubtedly apply to UK and other nuclear-armed states. But the term falls woefully short of accurately describing the nuclear enterprise.
The reality is that these weapons are being used every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day.
Merriam-Webster defines “use” as “the act or practice of employing something”. With regard to nuclear weapons, “use” is generally understood as the actual detonation of a nuclear warhead. But their threatened use is part and parcel of the policies of the nuclear-armed states and nuclear alliances.
Indeed, this “threat to use” underpins the deterrence doctrine. Nuclear deterrence relies on a perceived willingness to use these weapons, without which the credibility of the doctrine would implode. Nuclear weapons are thus best understood as continually “employed” by possessor states to project threat and power.
An analogy with firearms is enlightening in this respect. Falling short of actually pulling the trigger (thereby using a gun in the strictest sense of the word), pointing a gun at someone to secure a certain decision or type of behaviour or advance your own interests should surely also be regarded as use of said gun. Consider, for example: “He used a gun to rob me!”
The reality is that the nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear-armed states are not like a gun locked away in a cabinet at home or even holstered on the person. They are not residing in inert stockpiles. Rather, they are at all times employed in dynamic military policies and exercises to intimidate, coerce and extort.
They thus more resemble the drawn gun pointed at someone. As I write this, thousands of nuclear weapons are aimed at cities, with some of them on “hair-trigger alert”, ready to be fired at a moment’s notice. It is a “security system” predicated on the constant readiness and preparations to wage all-out nuclear war, which is riddled with risks, including unauthorized launch, mistaken launch on warning, accidental detonation and inadvertent escalation.
Talking about countries that “possess” nuclear weapons runs the risk of depicting a static situation that is under control. It lulls people into a false sense of security. It is our responsibility to remind people that “possession” actually entails a dynamic enterprise that breeds an existential form of insecurity for all, including their possessors.
There is no greater tactic of exclusion and obfuscation than bombarding (for lack of better word) someone with technical terms. For too long, those in the establishments committed to continue brandishing nuclear weapons have successfully employed this tactic. It has further allowed them to sanitise a discussion that should be had primarily on humanitarian grounds.
The widespread usage and dissemination of terms that, rather than state the facts, manipulate thinking, is all too prevalent in the nuclear weapons debate.
Some of these terms need to be challenged or exposed, while others need to be recaptured to represent their true meaning.
Instead of describing the systems and policies that rely on nuclear weapons in terms of “deterrent” and “strategic stability”, we should expose the risks they are rife with and underline the catastrophic consequences any use would have.
Instead of letting a few monopolise and corrupt the concept of “security” in narrowly devised goals that come at the detriment to the security of the rest, we should recapture the meaning of security as one that recognises that human and planetary security are better served through the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, words don’t even begin to capture the horror of nuclear weapons. Anyone shown what these instruments of terror do—the destruction, the death, the burns, the birth deformities, the tumours—should be at a loss for words…
As the fallout of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union continues to spread through Britain and abroad, the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system has become the latest issue to be sucked into the ‘Brexit’ vortex.
At what would prove to be his last international engagement, David Cameron announced last Saturday at the NATO Summit in Warsaw that the parliamentary vote on renewing the four nuclear submarines that make up the nuclear programme will be held on 18 July. Yes, next Monday.
“While Britain may be leaving the EU, we are not withdrawing from the world”, Cameron confidently proclaimed. What gall to tout these weapons as a sign of Britain’s good faith participation in global affairs, especially considering the vast majority of the world’s peoples and nations are desperately looking to the UK and the other eight nuclear-armed states to finally remove the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our shared future.
And yes, this too is related to Brexit. It’s related in three ways: first, the vote to renew Trident is being used by the Conservative Party to close its ranks after a bitter EU Referendum campaign and subsequent leadership election, which has regurgitated Theresa May as his successor, has left it divided; second, the vote is being used to exploit divisions in the Labour Party, which is currently embroiled in an acrimonious leadership battle of its own and remains split on the issue of Trident; third, the vote is being used by the outgoing Cameron to make it clear to the rest of the world that despite the Brexit vote, Britain has no intention of retreating from the global stage.
To use an issue as important as Trident renewal as a political football – like the Conservative Party has done with the EU Referendum – is bad enough. However, there is something uniquely sinister and cynical about proclaiming the renewal of a system designed to kill millions as demonstration of Britain’s commitment to remaining ‘open for business’ and globally engaged. “While Britain may be leaving the EU, we are not withdrawing from the world”, Cameron confidently proclaimed. What gall to tout these weapons as a sign of Britain’s good faith participation in global affairs, especially considering the vast majority of the world’s peoples and nations are desperately looking to the UK and the other eight nuclear-armed states to finally remove the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our shared future.
There are plenty of reasons for British elected representatives to vote against Trident renewal come Monday. Rather than being the bulwark of British security, the retention of Trident ensures the UK remains exposed to the hydra-headed risk of its nuclear deterrence policy, not least the very real risk of launch by accident or miscalculation. The risks have only been compounded in recent years, with non-state actors seeking to acquire or develop nuclear capabilities and evolving cyber security threats exposing vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons systems.
Meanwhile, the costs of renewing Trident – estimated to be anywhere between £167 and £205 billion – at a time when vital public services are suffering far-reaching budget cuts is inappropriate at best, irresponsible at worst.
Then there are the well-known moral concerns about continuing to brandish and threaten with weapons that are designed for one purpose only: to kill large numbers of civilians, set cities ablaze and spread the horrific trans-generational health effects of radioactive fallout.
As the effects of these weapons cannot be contained in time or space, the UK’s decision to renew Trident does not exist in a political domestic vacuum – the international community has a stake in it. And it’s clear where the vast majority of this world’s peoples and nations fall on the question of whether the UK’s nuclear weapons offer more benefit than harm: an overwhelming majority of UN Member States have continually called for the UK and other nuclear-armed states to disarm their nuclear arsenals for the good of international peace and security.
Neither does the decision exist in a vacuum free of the rule of law. The UK is under clear international legal obligations, enshrined both in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law, to eliminate its nuclear weapons. In fact, the Pacific island state of the Marshall Islands has taken the UK and fellow eight nuclear-armed states to the International Court of Justice for its alleged breach of its nuclear disarmament obligations. The Court has yet to decide on whether the case against the UK is to proceed to the merits phase but it should give MPs pause for thought that they are about to vote on something that is currently under review by the highest judicial organ in the world and which may be found as evidence of the UK’s continuing breach of international law.
Despite these arguments, it is expected that Parliament will overwhelmingly vote in favour of renewing Trident on Monday. Many MPs will do so as they dread the prospect of the UK losing the power and prestige Trident is perceived to convey. In particular, they are gripped by the fear that the UK may lose its seat on the UN Security Council if it disarms. For all their proclamations of commitment to internationalism, they have nothing but contempt for international law and the global community’s desire for a world free of nuclear weapons. Others will do so because they remain convinced Trident is the ultimate security guarantor, despite the clarion of calls and expert reports highlighting the risks involved with these weapons. And yet others will vote in favour as the manufacturing of the Trident submarines will take place in their constituencies and in their twisted arithmetic a few thousand jobs outweigh the peace and security of the nation and rest of the world.
Ultimately, the issue of nuclear disarmament is best understood as a social and justice struggle like the abolition of slavery, the end of apartheid and the suffragette movement. While the Conservative Government and many Labour MPs will play fast and loose with Britain’s security and global standing by voting for Trident renewal on Monday, the minority voting for Britain to live up to its nuclear disarmament obligations and being a responsible stakeholder will have to settle for the scant comfort of knowing they will be on the right side of history.
The establishment of Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) in the past has made invaluable contributions to global nuclear disarmament. The further spread of such zones as well as adoption of domestic nuclear prohibition and divestment policies can pave the way for multilateral solutions. The World Future Council has developed proposals on how to further foster nuclear disarmament through national and regional policies.
Nuclear weapons are a global threat which requires a global solution. However, domestic and regional policies can make a vital contribution to advancing universal nuclear disarmament. While the treaties establishing the existing regional Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones are well known and generally regarded as critical contributions to global nuclear disarmament (together covering 114 states), the instances of national nuclear prohibition legislation and nuclear divestment policies have not received the same amount of attention or, indeed, credit. This is unfortunate as these policies have advanced nuclear disarmament, can inspire other countries to follow suit and contain lessons for the global disarmament endeavour.
Between 2 May and 13 May 2016 the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) met for a second round in Geneva to discuss proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons. The OEWG was established on the basis of a UN General Assembly resolution. Among the participants were numerous countries (though notably absent were all the nuclear-armed states), advocacy groups, research institutes, academic institutes and think tanks, including the World Future Council.
From domestic to international law – Stories of successful legislation
Some countries, such as New Zealand, the Philippines, Austria and Mongolia have banned nuclear weapons through national legislation. These policies have contributed to strengthening the nuclear prohibition norm and addressed specific security challenges.
Some of the laws contain innovative elements such as individual responsibility and extraterritorial application in the case of the New Zealand law, which prohibits New Zealand’s citizens and residents to manufacture, to acquire, to possess or to control nuclear weapons as well as to aid and to abet any other person to do so anywhere in the world. These aspects of the policy could be useful to multilateral efforts to criminalise nuclear weapons employment such as through the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.
In the case of Mongolia, the country’s subsequent work to have its nuclear weapon-free status recognised and respected through acquiring assurances by the nuclear-armed states they won’t target Mongolia with nuclear weapons, means its policy is seen to have acquired the status of ‘Single State NWFZ’.
All policies contain elements and lessons that could be considered in the pursuit of similar policies elsewhere. The triggering effect of single countries building a regime of domestic regional nuclear disarmament law should not be underestimated.
For example, Belgium adopted national legislation banning landmines and cluster munitions as well as any investment in such weapons, before the international processes that would ultimately culminate in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions had started. This demonstrates how domestic legislative initiatives can inspire, strengthen and shape the international processes that culminate in international disarmament treaties.
Banning investment in nuclear weapons
Divestment of landmines and cluster munitions producers has successfully been adopted in a number of countries. Divestment from corporations involved in the production of key components of nuclear weapons has not been pursued with the same vigour, though the Norwegian and New Zealand Government Pension Funds have implemented such schemes. More recently, the Swiss War Materials Act was revised to prohibit, inter alia, the financing of nuclear weapon producers. The effect of such divestment policies should not be underestimated. They contribute to stigmatising nuclear weapons and address the financial streams tied up in their production.
An interesting aspect of both nuclear prohibition and divestment policies is that they can lead to the democratisation of the nuclear disarmament debate, as they often originate from public movements and require legislators to become active on the issue. Furthermore, such policies can institutionalize nuclear disarmament expertise and commitment through the creation of organs committed to promoting policy objectives as well as become educational tools, both domestically and abroad. Perhaps most importantly, they offer a way for non-nuclear weapon states to take the initiative out of the hands of the nuclear-armed states, brandish their nuclear disarmament credentials, codify nuclear disarmament norms and in the process exert pressure on the possessor states.
Lifelong Canadian disarmament campaigner Douglas Roche has said that “the anti-nuclear weapons campaign is following the classic lines of other great social movements, such as the end of slavery, colonialism and apartheid: at first, the idea is dismissed by the powerful, then when the idea starts to take hold, it is vigorously objected to until, by persistence, the idea enters the norm of public thinking and laws start to be changed.” Countries should ensure they end up on the right side of history by adopting laws that strengthen and speed up the global effort to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Two principal threats of our time
While humanity faces a range of interconnected transnational threats and crises in the 21st Century—including extreme poverty, hunger, pandemic disease and demographic change—climate change and the continued existence of nuclear weapons stand out as the two principal threats to the survival of humanity. On the long arc of human existence, both threats are relatively new to the scene, having only appeared over the last century. Both threaten the survival of life on earth as we know it and both are of our making.
As the Word Future Council has highlighted in a recent report, climate change and nuclear weapons interact with each other in a range of ways. Conflicts induced or exacerbated by climate change could contribute to global insecurity, which, in turn, could enhance the chance of a nuclear weapon being used, could create more fertile breeding grounds for terrorism, including nuclear terrorism, and could feed the ambitions among some states to acquire nuclear arms. Furthermore, as evidenced by a series of incidents in recent years, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and major seismic events can directly impact the safety and security of nuclear installations. Moreover, a nuclear war could lead to a rapid and prolonged drop in average global temperatures and significantly disrupt the global climate for years to come, which would have disastrous implications for agriculture, threatening the food supply for most of the world (see Figure 1). Finally, climate change, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy pose threats of intergenerational harm, as evidenced by the transgenerational effects of nuclear testing and nuclear power accidents and the lasting impacts on the climate, environment and public health from carbon emissions.
The need for global action
Negotiations and initiatives for tackling the climate and nuclear threat are reaching a critical stage. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 (COP 21), the global community reached an unprecedented agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement sets out a global action plan to peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C with the aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. However, there is some concern about whether this agreement can be enforced effectively. Countries are required to communicate Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to mitigation of and adaptation to climate change which will be regularly reviewed. However, meeting the goals set in the INDCs is not legally required.
Meanwhile, calls from a majority of states for a legally binding instrument or package of measures to achieve the universal prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons—a goal as old as the nuclear age—have languished. Despite a recent series of interventions setting out the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons by high-level statesmen—including from the nuclear armed-states—concrete action toward its achievement has lagged, although this has the possibility to change with a new process for nuclear disarmament deliberations and negotiations currently taking place at the United Nations in Geneva.
This lack of progress on nuclear disarmament has been starkly contrasted by a renewed focus on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and recent revelations on the kaleidoscope of risks inherent to nuclear policies and postures. The sobering conclusions are that: a) as long as nuclear weapons exist, their use, whether accidental or intentional, will be a matter of when, not if; b) any use of nuclear weapons in a populated area would have catastrophic consequences on human health, the environment, infrastructure and political stability; and c) the use of just a small percentage of the global nuclear arsenal would create climatic consequences that dwarf the current and projected impact of carbon emissions.
The availability of solutions
Overall, the discrepancy between long-term goals and concrete steps undermines the conditions for international cooperation in security and climate policies. Despite growing awareness of the urgency of tackling the climate and nuclear threat among policy-makers, academics and civil society, concrete action is lagging behind.
Why is this so, when considering that renewable energy technologies provide viable alternatives? (see Figure 2) By harnessing local renewable energy sources, jurisdictions increase their political and energy independency, while the degree of local and international cooperation needed to transition to 100% Renewable Energy can act as a catalyst for cooperation in tackling other transnational security threats. This helps solving geopolitical crises, avoid future armed conflicts triggered by climate instability and resource scarcity, and build cooperative security mechanisms. Similarly, regional initiatives could attempt to tackle both climatic and security threats. For example, Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (which already cover the entire Southern Hemisphere – see Figure 3) can, in turn, promote regional environmental and climate protection policies, as exemplified by the Antarctic Treaty System. Such action could also be sought in the Arctic, where the effects of climate change and the dangers of nuclear weapons come together as increased competition over resources and the opening up of routes for military maneuvering and posturing, including with nuclear weapons, can heighten tensions between the region’s powers.
The legal imperative
Finally, there exist international legal obligations both with regard to curbing climate change and achieving universal nuclear disarmament. It is thus not surprising that on both fronts, litigation has been pursued to ensure these obligations are implemented. Climate cases have been filed in several countries, including in the Netherlands, where the Court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, noting that the State has a legal obligation to protect its citizens, ordering the Dutch government to reduce its CO2 emissions by a minimum of 25% (compared to 1990) by 2020.
On the nuclear front, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed applications in 2014 in the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear-armed states (US, UK, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea), claiming that they are in breach of obligations relating to nuclear disarmament under the NPT and under customary international law. Cases are proceeding in March 2016 against the three of the nuclear-armed states that have accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ—the UK, India, and Pakistan.
A cautionary tale
For the people of the Marshall Islands, and a rising number of people in other parts of the world, the effects of these two threats are not a theoretical, future issue of concern. Behind the facts and figures are stories of real suffering from climate change and nuclear weapons programmes.
The plight of one group in particular is illustrative of the human impact of the nuclear enterprise and climate change. The inhabitants of the remote Pacific island chain of Bikini Atoll were forced from their homes in the 1940s so that the United States could test its atomic bombs there, bringing with it a legacy of transgenerational effects of radiation exposure, including high cancer rates, birth deformities and environmental poisoning. The lands they had called home were declared uninhabitable. Now, the tiny patches of earth they were relocated to in the Marshall Islands are at risk of suffering the same fate, as rising sea levels are breaching sea walls, washing over their islands, killing crops and forcing the Bikini Atoll refugees to consider relocating again – this time to foreign continents thousands of miles away. As if to underline the potentially catastrophic convergence of both perils, there is even the danger that rising sea levels could spill the radioactive waste from testing, which has been stored on the islands, into the ocean. Their experience should serve as a cautionary tale. If we don’t seize the opportunities soon to rid the world of these threats, we will drift toward a similar fate.
Please note that the report was updated in April 2016 to reflect the outcome of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference as well as include developments on the front of climate change litigation efforts.
This article was originally published in the World Commerce Review.
The Nuclear Abolition Forum was established in 2011 as a joint project of eight civil society organisations to facilitate dialogue between academics, governments, disarmament experts and NGOs on key issues regarding achieving and sustaining a nuclear weapon-free world. Hosted by the WFC, the Forum is able to rely on over 70 high-level consultants to ensure quality contributions.
Oral hearings on the preliminary phase of the nuclear disarmament cases brought by the Marshall Islands against India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom took place at the International Court of Justice in The Hague from 7-16 March. Members of the World Future Council have been involved in this unprecedented legal action since its launch in 2014 and some were present during the oral arguments at the Court. This Q&A, created by the Nuclear Peace Foundation, explains the cases.
What is the source of the International Court of Justice’s legal authority?
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It was established in 1945 by the UN Charter. The seat of the Court is at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized UN bodies and agencies. The Court’s 15 judges are elected by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.
Which countries are the Marshall Islands suing, and why?
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) has a unique and devastating history with nuclear weapons. From 1946 – 1958 the United States conducted 67 nuclear weapons test explosions over the Marshall Islands, the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs daily for 12 years. Castle Bravo, the largest bomb ever tested, was 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Birth defects never seen before and other radiation-related health effects continue to plague the Marshallese people.
On April 24, 2014 the RMI filed individual Applications in the ICJ instituting proceedings against the nine nuclear-armed States: the U.S., Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea. The RMI contends that each of these States is in breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and/or customary international law to end the nuclear arms race and to engage in negotiations on nuclear disarmament.
Article VI of the NPT states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The UK is a founding member of the NPT, which entered into force in 1970. The U.S., Russia, France and China are also nuclear-armed members of the NPT; nuclear-armed India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea are not. The RMI joined the Treaty in 1995 as a non-nuclear-weapon State and in turn received the binding legal promise of the States parties to the Treaty, including the nuclear-armed States.
In a 1996 Advisory Opinion, the ICJ issued an authoritative interpretation of Article VI and recognized a parallel customary international law obligation, concluding unanimously: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” This Opinion is not limited to NPT members; it applies to all States.
No negotiations on nuclear disarmament have ever been initiated and all of the nuclear-armed states are currently engaged in programs to modernize and qualitatively improve their nuclear arsenals, with an eye toward their indefinite retention. India and Pakistan are also engaged in quantitative arms racing.
Why were hearings held only in the cases of the UK, India and Pakistan?
At this time, only the UK, India and Pakistan – among the nuclear-armed states – accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. The other nuclear-armed states were invited to respond to the Applications submitted by the RMI. China declined; the others did not respond.
What was the scope of the hearings?
This stage of the cases was limited to preliminary objections. The UK and India claimed that they have strong records of support for nuclear disarmament, arguing therefore that there is no dispute for the Court to adjudicate. The RMI countered that actions speak louder than words, citing the UK’s consistent record of voting against nuclear disarmament resolutions in the UN General Assembly and its plans to replace its Trident nuclear weapons system. With respect to India and Pakistan, the RMI cited programs underway for expansion, improvement and diversification of their nuclear arsenals. The UK and India also argued that the cases cannot proceed without other states possessing nuclear arms being before the Court; that the relief requested would be ineffective; and that various exceptions to their declarations accepting the jurisdiction of the Court apply, excluding jurisdiction.
Pakistan withdrew from participation in the oral pleadings at the last minute, declaring it had nothing to add to its written submission.
What will happen next?
The ICJ will issue separate rulings in each case, probably within three to six months. If the Court rules in favor of the RMI, the cases will move to the merits phase and more written arguments and hearings will be scheduled. If the Court rules against the RMI in any case, that case will be over.
What relief is the Marshall Islands seeking?
The RMI is asking the Court to declare that the UK is in violation of its obligations under Article VI of the NPT and customary international law by failing to pursue in good faith negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, by taking action to qualitatively improve its nuclear weapons system and to maintain and modernize for the indefinite future, and by failing to pursue negotiations that would end nuclear arms racing. The RMI also requests the Court to order the UK to take all steps necessary to comply with its obligations under Article VI of the NPT and under customary international law within one year of the Judgement, including the pursuit of negotiations in good faith aimed at the conclusion of a convention on nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control.
The RMI is asking the Court to declare that India and Pakistan are in violation of their obligations under customary international law, by failing to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, by failing to pursue negotiations on cessation of the nuclear arms race, and by engaging in the quantitative buildup and qualitative improvement of their nuclear forces to maintain them for the indefinite future, contrary to the objectives of nuclear disarmament and cessation of the nuclear arms race. The RMI also requests the Court to order India and Pakistan to take all steps necessary to comply with its obligations under customary international law with respect to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament within one year of the Judgement, including the pursuit of negotiations in good faith aimed at the conclusion of a convention on nuclear disarmament strict and effective international control.
The RMI is not seeking monetary compensation in these cases.
Where can I get more information?
A. General information about the cases is available at: nuclearzero.org. Written submissions by the RMI, UK, India and Pakistan, and verbatim records of the oral pleadings are posted at http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=3 Videos and photos from the oral pleadings are posted at www.icj-cij.org/multimedia.