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12 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:19pm

British attitudes to nukes are like American attitudes to guns

Why did ICAN win the Nobel prize? Because the vast majority of countries want to see nuclear weapons banned. Britons rarely get to hear their perspective.

By Rebecca Sharkey

Until recently I was UK Coordinator at ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. When I told people what job I did, the response was often a dismissive ‘good luck with that!’, or surprise that anyone was still bothering with nuclear disarmament. How come hardly anyone here had even heard about ICAN – until it was announced last week that it had won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize?

ICAN strategy was to push ahead whether or not the nuclear weapon states participated (and they didn’t)

Banning nuclear weapons outside the nuclear armed states may seem counterintuitive, but it is a strategy that has proven to be successful in a number of ‘humanitarian disarmament’ campaigns, such as those which led to international bans on landmines and cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons. Prohibition precedes elimination, not the other way round. You don’t wait for people to stop committing murder before declaring murder to be illegal, that’s not how the law works. For decades now, the international community has allowed countries with nuclear weapons to make the rules about nuclear weapons – and not surprisingly we haven’t been very good at disciplining ourselves.

The door has always been open, and remains open, for the UK and other nuclear armed states to participate in the ban treaty process. But it is also clear that the world couldn’t afford to wait for them; by that logic, progress wouldn’t be made on nuclear disarmament until North Korea says so.

Countries without nuclear weapons have listened with increasing exasperation, through years of pointless disarmament conferences, to the double standards and doublespeak of countries like the UK, which talk the talk of disarmament while investing billions in modernisation programmes and not actually doing any disarmament. ICAN’s successful strategy involved building a coalition of progressive governments and global civil society around achieving the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which opened for signature last month at the United Nations. This approach empowered the nuclear-weapon-free countries to take global leadership and responsibility for an urgent global issue, setting moral and legal standards to signpost  that nuclear weapons are unacceptable and must be eliminated.  

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British attitudes to nukes are like American attitudes to guns (and nukes)

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One striking thing about working on an international campaign was the realisation that growing up in a nuclear-armed state is not normal. At ICAN campaigners’ meetings I would meet people from Latin America, Asia and Africa, who were genuinely puzzled that an otherwise sane-seeming country like the UK could contemplate the continued possession of weapons of mass destruction. It was a real eye-opener at United Nations conferences to hear eloquent and powerful speeches calling for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons delivered by diplomats from Austria and Mexico, New Zealand and Indonesia, Ireland and South Africa. In the same way that we are baffled by America’s insane gun laws, so most of the world looks at our possession of nuclear weapons and shake their heads. But we just don’t get to hear such voices in this country, where myths about the magical war-deterring properties of nuclear weapons are perpetuated, and our ‘seat at the table’ is what really matters.

It was news to me, and I expect is to you too, that 115 countries – basically the whole of the Southern Hemisphere – are active members of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. Far from everyone clamouring to get nuclear weapons, the vast majority of countries in the world neither have nor want them, and they urgently want us to get rid of ours before something goes horribly wrong.

We don’t have a good understanding of risk

Members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association who spoke at an ICAN meeting I organised in London gave heart-breaking testimony about the ongoing health problems experienced by them and their families as a result of being forced to witness British nuclear tests in the Pacific as teenagers in the 1950s. Closer to home, lorries carrying fully assembled nuclear warheads are routinely transported along ordinary roads across the UK, often passing close to schools and homes. The risks around what it means to possess nuclear weapons, even if they are never fired, are rarely discussed and little understood.

At the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2013, which the UK government refused to attend, ICAN UK took evidence from Scientists for Global Responsibility which showed that if used, the nuclear weapons carried by just one of the four British Trident submarines could directly cause more than 10 million civilian casualties. With more firepower than all the weapons fired in WW2, this would trigger such huge climatic disruption that global food supplies would be at risk and the survival of human civilisation itself would be threatened. Let that sink in.

Those within the establishment with an interest in maintaining the status quo have no wish to get people thinking about what it would actually mean to ‘press the button’ (which is why there was such an outcry last year when Jeremy Corbyn announced he would not be prepared to do so). By focusing on humanitarian impact, the terms of debate are moved from the ivory towers of ‘defence’ and ‘security’ to a discussion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), human rights and environmental protection. It is unthinkable that any political leader would stand up and say that chemical or biological weapons are essential for security, so why have we allowed a situation in which successive British prime ministers have repeated the mantra that nuclear weapons  are essential to British security? Within a humanitarian framework, it is impossible to argue for the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It also clearly makes this an issue for everyone, not just for security experts in nuclear-armed states, who have previously dominated the narrative.

The UK is addicted to nuclear weapons and doesn’t even want to discuss quitting

Trying to engage British decision makers and the media in the most exciting development in multilateral nuclear disarmament in decades was often like banging my head against a brick wall. Early political champions included Dame Joan Ruddock, Jeremy Corbyn and Julie Ward (Labour), Sir Nick Harvey and Baroness Sue Miller (Lib Dem), Angus Robertson, Bill Kidd and Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), and Caroline Lucas (Green) –  but despite these honourable exceptions, most UK politicians didn’t want to touch the topic.

One MP hung the phone up on me, while another agreed to meet me only on condition that I didn’t tell anyone about it; a peer with an acclaimed career in peacebuilding accepted my invitation to meet, only to spend an hour mansplaining to me about the dangers of disarmament. The coalition government’s Trident Alternatives Review of 2013 considered various levels of the UK having nuclear weapons, completely failing to provide space to consider the alternative of not having them. As ICAN partner organisation Article 36 argued at the time, the Trident Alternatives Review, “like the mainstream media reporting on it, is bizarrely insular given that nuclear weapons are a fundamentally global concern”.

Civil servants I met at the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, as well as those diplomats representing our country at international meetings, stuck rigidly to the party line that the UK was just not interested in engaging in the ban process (in spite of treaty obligations “to negotiate in good faith” and baseless claims to be ‘a leader in multilateral disarmament’). Apart from Richard Norton-Taylor at the Guardian, most journalists I contacted gave a similar response: just not interested. Even when the historic global ban treaty was finally achieved at the United Nations earlier this year, there was a deafening silence from the British media.

The nuclear ban movement is like an intervention from an alcoholic’s family and friends, a coalition of civil society and progressive governments explaining to the nuclear armed states that their dangerous behaviour is no longer acceptable. ICAN’s strategy of highlighting the ‘humanitarian impacts’ of nuclear weapons created an urgency around calls for an end to hypocrisy. Either you think nuclear weapons are great and everyone should have them, or you think they are unacceptable and must be banned and eliminated. There is no middle ground when the stakes are so high.

We still subscribe to a colonial view of international relations

I really don’t like feeling I have to apologise for my country, but at the Oslo Conference in 2013 I found myself explaining to appalled African diplomats that my Government, which hadn’t even bothered to show up, reserved the right to use weapons which could cause famine in their countries, weapons which they had themselves long ago renounced.

The UK is badly out of step with the majority of countries in the world. As one of the few countries with nuclear weapons, the UK has a special responsibility to understand their risks and consequences. By refusing to participate in Humanitarian Impact Conferences and then UN ban treaty negotiations, the UK gave the impression that it doesn’t care about its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nor about the catastrophic effects its weapons could have on health, environment, climate, social order, human development and global economy.

It wasn’t just politicians and journalists who failed to be interested in an international initiative that didn’t involve the UK. Even people within the disarmament ‘community’ were dismissive and patronising, as I found when arguing for the ban treaty at Chatham House roundtables. An article published by a British disarmament thinktank blithely explained that the reason people weren’t interested in the ban treaty process was that no ‘significant’ countries were participating (despite the active engagement of eg. Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Austria etc.).

It is just this sort of arrogance that the ban treaty overturns. South Africa, which championed the ban treaty, pointedly called for an end to “nuclear apartheid”, arguing that the possession of nuclear weapons privileges the security interests of a few states “at the expense of the rest of humanity.” Costa Rica boldly stated that the ban treaty “brings democracy to nuclear disarmament”.  With the support of the majority of countries in the world, the historic ban treaty brings legal clarity and moral authority, sending a clear signal that all nuclear weapons are unacceptable, whoever possesses them, and even if they are never used.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize

Winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was astonishing for us all. Suddenly ICAN is all over the news, and this finally brings global attention to the real prize, which is the ban treaty itself. The prize will be a huge boost to efforts to get countries to sign and ratify the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and it is a rebuke to criticisms of the ban treaty approach which tried to smear it as a ‘distraction’ or as unrealistic. The Nobel Peace Prize gives credibility to the idea that banning nuclear weapons is a pragmatic solution to one of the world’s most urgent humanitarian and environmental threats. The ban treaty categorically outlaws the worst weapons of mass destruction and establishes a clear pathway to their total elimination.

ICAN is an international coalition supported by hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in over 100 countries across the world, led by a new generation of young campaigners. Thousands of dedicated and determined people have worked collaboratively on the campaign, and I am incredibly proud to be one of them. This prize is for all of us, but in particular for the Hibakusha (the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the British and other nuclear test victims, and anyone who wants to live free from the fear of – now illegal – nuclear weapons.

Rebecca Sharkey was UK Coordinator at ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, from 2012-17. She is currently Membership & Public Affairs Manager at Think Global. @rebshark

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