Author Archives: ianjs2014

A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy

A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2018

Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Emily Thornberry has been one of his key allies.

After serving as the shadow secretary of state for defence and shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, Thornberry has been shadow foreign secretary since June 2016.

The Islington South and Finsbury MP has proven to be an effective politician, gaining plaudits for her performance at the dispatch box standing in for Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions and for ambushing Tory minister Michael Fallon on The Andrew Marr Show about the time he attended a reception with Bashar al-Assad to celebrate the Syrian president winning an election.

However, though they have largely been ignored by Labour supporters and left-wing commentators, Thornberry’s comments last year about Israel are very concerning.

Speaking at a November Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, she noted Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”

A December speech she gave at the Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner “could have been written by a pro-Israel lobbyist,” argued Asa Winstanley from Electronic Intifada.

Her statement that it was Israeli “pioneers … who made the deserts bloom” repeated one of the founding and “racist myth[s]” of Israel, Winstanley went on to note.

Amazingly, at the end of the speech she described the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”

In contrast, in 2005, US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being head of government when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians.

After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.

In both speeches Thornberry highlighted the denial of rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories, which makes her statement about Israel being “a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy” all the more laughable.

As the title of a 2015 article in the Independent newspaper by the academic Yara Hawari explained, “Israel is supposedly the only democracy in the Middle East, yet 4.5 million Palestinians under its control can’t vote.”

“The everyday lives of Palestinians [in the West Bank] is controlled by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces]. And it is done brutally,” Hawari noted.

“Movement is rigidly controlled, access to resources is denied and Israeli military incursions into villages and towns are frequent.

“Palestinians see violent settler rampages on a daily basis, which often involve the burning of agricultural land and physical assaults on anyone who gets in their way.”

Famously, former US president Jimmy Carter labelled the Israeli occupation an example of “apartheid.”

Michael Lynk, the UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories, recently noted the “suffocating economic and travel blockade” Israel maintains “has driven Gaza back to the dark ages,” with “more than 60 per cent of the population of Gaza … reliant upon humanitarian aid.”

Israel is a “settler colonial state that flouts international law on a daily basis by oppressing the Palestinians in varying states of occupation,” Hawari concluded.

“And it does so with European and American complicity. The shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East? Far from it.”

Thornberry’s remarks aren’t that surprising if you consider her political career.

Until Corbyn won the Labour leadership, her politics and voting record fit comfortably with the more liberal, often interventionist, section of the British Establishment.

She was, as the New Statesman reported in 2016, “one of [Ed] Miliband’s inner circle.” As shadow attorney general, she voted for Britain’s disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011 and, in 2014, for Britain to conduct air strikes on Isis in Iraq.

Turning to domestic politics, she abstained on the 2013 vote about the coalition government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseeker’s Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.

And she abstained again on the 2015 vote for the Welfare Bill, which leaked government figures showed would push 40,000 more children below the poverty line. As Tony Benn used to say, politicians can be divided into two categories, signposts and weathercocks.

Thornberry’s politics are important because, as Dr David Wearing noted last year, the “anti-militarist and anti-imperialist” Corbyn “has a real chance of being our next prime minister.”

“Not only is that new in Britain, I think it’s new internationally,” the teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a Media Democracy podcast.

“I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist. I don’t think there is a precedent for that. So it’s really huge. It’s a challenge to the foreign policy elite, it’s a challenge to conventional wisdom.”

At the same time, writing in June 2017, British historian Mark Curtis noted that, although Labour’s general election manifesto made “several clear breaks from current UK foreign policy,” there was also evidence that, “if the manifesto is implemented in its current form, it is likely to still promote extremism in UK foreign policy” (Curtis considers much of Britain’s bipartisan post-1945 foreign policy to be extreme).

Curtis highlights pledges to “support development and innovation” in the defence industry and maintain the Tories’ 2 per cent military spending commitment, along with half-hearted statements on the so-called “special relationship” with the US, international development and Israel-Palestine.

Incidentally, Curtis described Thornberry’s “positioning” on foreign affairs in an October 2017 interview she did with Middle East Eye as “basically Blairite.”

There is, then, a battle over the nature of Labour’s foreign policy — not least over Trident nuclear weapons — within the Parliamentary Labour Party, of course, but also within the shadow cabinet and probably within Corbyn’s core circle itself.

This ongoing struggle probably provides the context behind the Guardian’s recent feature-length interview with Thornberry, with the liberal organ taking the unusual step of advertising the interview over a week before it appeared in the newspaper.

Why? As the interviewer noted, Thornberry is “widely tipped to be the party’s next leader,” but after Corbyn led Labour’s extraordinary general election campaign, direct assaults on his leadership, like the attempted coup in 2016, are no longer viable.

The Guardian’s promotion of Thornberry may well herald a switch to a subtler, longer-term strategy that looks ahead to the next Labour leadership contest.

After all, Jezza isn’t getting any younger. Thornberry is the perfect candidate for Guardian “centrist” types who would like to neuter Corbynism — someone who can gain the backing of significant numbers of Corbyn supporters while at the same time diluting the movement’s relative radicalism by returning the Labour Party to safer, Establishment-friendly ground.

With all this in mind, it is important that all those who want to see an anti-imperialist, humane and sane British foreign policy raise their voices against Thornberry when she glosses over Israel’s abysmal human rights record and tacks too closely to the Establishment line.

The basic tenets of Labour’s foreign policy need to be argued about, settled and publicised right now, rather than being fought over in office under intense pressure from the media, military and opposing political parties.

Remaining silent — perhaps in the belief that criticising Thornberry will weaken Corbyn — is surely short-term politicking that will only increase the chances of Corbyn’s Labour Party disappointing if it gains power.

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Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 January 2018

Despite the carnage and intense anger created by the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, many prominent commentators and politicians have repeatedly pushed for the West to step up its intervention in Syria.

In 2012 Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote an article titled Arm Syrian Rebels To Enable Political Solution. Three years later human rights activist Peter Tatchell was campaigning for what he calls “Syrian democratic forces” to be given anti-aircraft missiles, and Kurdish forces to be supplied with “heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS.” More recently, Charles Lister and Dominic Nelson from the Middle East Institute thinktank in Washington, DC argued the US needs to continue to support its proxies in Syria “as a durable source of pressure on the regime in Damascus.”

The problem with this argument is that the academic literature shows “in general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve”, as Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, explained in 2014. Max Abrahms, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, concurs, recently co-authoring an article in the Los Angeles Times which also noted “the conflict literature makes clear that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars”.

For example, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed from the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland examined the data from 218 cases of civil war extending from 1990 to 2011. Their conclusion? “We find that conflicts in which the rebel group received external support from a third party lasted significantly longer than civil wars that did not involve external support.”

And it’s not just academics in their ivory towers. In 2013, there was a flurry of warnings about arming the rebels in Syria. “More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction”, noted then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Two former NATO Secretary-Generals wrote an article in the New York Times arguing “Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality”. Many NGOs were equally opposed. “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths”, noted Oxfam America, while the women’s rights organisation MADRE stated “funnelling more weapons to the opposition” would “further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”

The US ignored the warnings from senior academics, analysts and organisations with years of experience of dealing with conflicts, and instead worked with the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the rebels in Syria, according to then US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016.

And as predicted by the two former heads of NATO above, this increase in support provoked the Syrian government and their Russian and Iranian allies to escalate their own involvement in the conflict. This is because, as Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in February 2016, “A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides”.

For instance, in an October 2015 article titled Did US Weapons Supplied To Syrian Rebels Draw Russia Into The Conflict? the Washington Post noted that TOW anti-tank missiles delivered to the rebels by the US and its allies  were “so successful… in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’.” The report goes on to quote Oubai Shahbandar, a Dubai-based consultant who previously worked with the Syrian opposition: “A primary driving factor in Russia’s calculus [to militarily intervene in September 2015] was the realization that the Assad regime was militarily weakening and in danger of losing territory in northwestern Syria. The TOWs played an outsize role in that”.

Confirming the veracity of the earlier warnings about the West arming the rebels, last year Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained “America has prolonged the civil war and has abetted the terrible destruction”, and “destabilised the region”. The death and destruction has been enormous. In 2016 United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated 400,000 people had been killed in the conflict, while the UN reports more than half of all Syrians have been fled their homes – an estimated 5 million have left the country and more than 6 million are internally displaced.

The US and UK governments, then, consciously chose to escalate the conflict in Syria, knowing it would likely increase the level of violence and the number of civilian and combatant deaths, as well as making a peaceful resolution more unlikely.

It’s an unpalatable conclusion that jars with the liberal idea of the West’s ‘basic benevolence’, though one that is backed up by the evidence and elementary logic. And it is a conclusion you will be hard pressed to find in any other British national newspaper.

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap

Western foreign policy and the dangerous ignorance gap
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 December 2017

While the mainstream media’s self-serving obsession with so-called fake news and Russian interference in elections looks set to continue for a long time, a far more serious problem with Western journalism is being conveniently ignored.

This could be called the dangerous ignorance gap of Western foreign policy: the often huge gulf between the reality of what the US and UK do in the Middle East – painfully understood by the populations on the receiving end of Western interference – and the woeful level of awareness the American and British general public and commentariat have about these interventions.

The aggressive and illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequent occupation, is a key site in understanding this divergence. According to a 2013 ComRes poll of the British public, 74 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war (59 per cent estimated less than 10,000 Iraqis had died). In comparison, a 2013 study published in PLOS medical journal estimated the war and occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of approximately 500,000 Iraqis between 2003 and 2011 – the answer given by just 6 per cent of respondents of the ComRes poll.

Since 2014 a US-led coalition has carried out 28,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting Islamic State. The US military admits they have unintentionally killed 801 civilians in these strikes. In contrast, the independent monitoring group Airwars estimates US-led coalition strikes have in fact killed at least 5,961 civilians. After visiting 150 sites of coalition airstrikes, the journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal discovered that one in five of the coalition strikes resulted in civilian death, “a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” Amazingly, in July the UK government made the extraordinary claim to have caused no civilian casualties after carrying out 1,400 airstrikes – “a statistical impossibility”, said Airwars.

Turning to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, since 2013 the US and UK-backed Saudi-led coalition assault has killed thousands of civilians. A joint statement in July from the heads of UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme stated Yemen is in the midst of “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. The July 2016 Washington Post headline ‘In Yemeni capital, signs of hatred toward Americans are everywhere’ shows Yemenis well understand the role of the West in destroying their country. “Perhaps in no other city is anti-Americanism in such full display today”, the report noted.

In contrast, a YouGov poll earlier this year found only 49 per cent of the British public had heard of the war in Yemen. And though it wasn’t asked in the poll, it seems likely a significant number of this 49 percent will not be aware of the UK’s despicable role in arming and supporting Saudi Arabia in the conflict. “There is a really interesting discrepancy liberal interventionist newspaper columnists talking about Syria and talking about Yemen”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a recent Media Democracy podcast. “As in they talk about one [Syria] and not about the other [Yemen] despite the fact we’ve got much more ability to do something about what is happening in Yemen than in the case of Syria.”

Western militaries have a vested interest in treating the public like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit – and therefore deploy expensive and sophisticated public relations campaigns to engage the population. However, the supposedly independent and fiercely critical media also play a central role in the creation and maintenance of this deadly ignorance – often not reporting, or minimising the significance of, much of the reality of the West’s interventions around the world. For example The Guardian did report that a July 2016 US airstrike killed at least 73 Syrian civilians – the majority women and children, according to activists. However, the story appeared as a small report hidden away at the bottom of page 22 of the newspaper.

These omissions have a long history. “The press and politicians for the most part keep the people of this country in ignorance of the real treatment meted out to the natives”, Labour Party leader James Keir Hardie wrote in 1906.

The enormous distance between the reality of Western foreign policy and the Western publics’ understanding of what their governments do in their name is dangerous for two reasons. First, it’s deadly for those on the receiving end of Western military force. Western populations can only exert a humanising influence on Western foreign policy if they are aware of what’s going on. If Western wars in the Middle East are effectively hidden from view then they are more likely to continue. Second, it’s dangerous for the general public in the West because the ignorance gap is where anger about Western foreign policy festers and grows. It is, in short, the public, rather than the government actually implementing the policies, who bear the brunt of the enlarged terrorist threat to the UK that is massively boosted by UK actions abroad.

So if we want to reduce the chances of future London Bridges and Manchesters then we urgently need to educate ourselves and others about the death and destruction our governments are carrying out in the Middle East.

 

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler

Book review: Against Meritocracy. Culture, Power and Myths of Mobility by Jo Littler
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2017-January 2018

The concept of meritocracy – “a system structured around advancement of people who are selected on the basis of individual achievement” – has been a powerful idea in post-war industrialised societies, especially in the more economically unequal US and UK.

From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and now Theresa May, meritocracy – and its close cousin ‘equality of opportunity’ – “has become the key means of cultural legitimation for contemporary capitalist culture”, Jo Littler, a Reader in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London, argues in her wide-ranging volume. This neoliberal-friendly dogma has a strong grip on the general public, with a 2009 Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey finding 69% of respondents agreed with the statement “Opportunities are not equal in Britain today, but there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to”. Just 14% disagreed.

In her impressive introduction Littler highlights a number of key problems with this dominant ideology that both justifies increasing levels of inequality and obfuscates decreasing levels of social mobility. First, “it endorses a competitive, linear, hierarchical system in which by definition certain people must be left behind”, she notes. “The top cannot exist without the bottom.” In addition, it pushes a socially destructive ethic of self-interest and individualistic thinking, tends to view talent as an innate characteristic, uncritically valourises certain professions and forms of status, and downplays structural inequalities that mean ‘climbing the ladder’ is simply much harder for some people than others.

Today, the culture of meritocracy has absorbed the language of equality and identity politics that grew out of the 1960s social movements, she notes. This has important ramifications for activism and resistance, with Littler arguing this appropriation “has created lonely forms of selective empowerment, ones profoundly ill-equipped to deal with the wider structural causes of sexism, racism, environmental crisis and economic inequality.” As she discusses in the book’s second half, a lot of popular culture perpetuates the meritocratic myth – The Apprentice and the 1990s sitcom Sex In The City, for example – while TV shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad and Lena Dunham’s Girls provide smart critiques.

Surely the definitive study of the subject, Against Meritocracy is very much an academic work with bags of references and footnotes, though one that is broadly accessible to the general reader. With Jeremy Corbyn’s belief in collective aspiration presenting a real challenge to capitalist-compatible meritocracy and the British plutocracy more broadly, the book has an important role to play in informing the growing movement working to sweep away the Tory government. As the US socialist Eugene Debs said “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks” – an egalitarian sentiment Littler would support, I’m sure.

Against Meritocracy is published by Routledge, priced £29.99.

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 November 2017

Made up of contributions from 36 contemporary writers, Tales Of Two Americas explores what it feels like to live in the inequality-riven United States today.

As the US billionaire businessman Warren Buffett famously said in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Since the financial crash class politics have taken on a renewed importance, especially in the past couple of years. “America is broken”, editor John Freeman argues in the introduction, noting the unease created by the soul-crushing neoliberalism that has dominated US politics since the Reagan Administration “became the pivot point of the 2016 presidential election”.

Mixing short stories, journalistic essays and poems, the collection includes some literary big hitters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett and Richard Russo. Rebecca Solnit explores the connections between a 2014 police shooting of a Hispanic young man and the gentrification of San Francisco, while Roxanne Gay provides a piercing story of a working class woman living in oppressive circumstances, determined to escape. My favourite piece is Sandra Cisneros’s moving and eloquent love-letter – of sorts – to Chicago, where she spent her poverty-stricken childhood. “In the neighbourhoods we knew, booze was easier to find than books”, she remembers. Also impressive is Karen Russell’s long, personal account of getting on the housing ladder in the liberal city of Portland amidst some of the highest levels of street homelessness in the country.

As with any edited volume, some pieces are more memorable and insightful than others. Rather than reading it at a gallop as one would a good novel, I found myself dipping in and out of the book, savouring and considering each contribution before continuing. At the very least the book is a brilliant opportunity to discover new writers who have a deep concern for the wider social and political world.

And it’s not all doom and gloom. In-between all the misery, violence, wasted talent, resignation and desperation highlighted by the authors, chinks of hope shine through. Fictional characters and real people endure, flourish, empathise, cooperate, resist and organise – qualities that will need to be seriously upscaled if President Trump is to be toppled and a fairer, more just and humane America established.

Tales Of Two Americas is published by OR Books, priced £15.

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2017

Changing the culture around nuclear weapons to seeing them as just another dangerous weapon of mass destruction, won ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) a pivotal UN treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Ian Sinclair interviews Rebecca Sharkey, ICAN’s UK Coordinator from 2012-2017 on the background, the future – and the UK’s role in it.

Ian Sinclair: As the Nobel Peace Prize highlights, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was an incredible achievement. How did it come about? What was the most difficult hurdle ICAN had to overcome to make it happen?

Rebecca Sharkey: Nuclear weapons were born in WWII, one of the darkest chapters in human history. The fear of nuclear weapons hung like a silent and terrifying cloud over the lives of millions of people during the decades following Hiroshima. And it was only by luck that one of the very many near misses didn’t mutate into a nuclear nightmare. Growing up in the eighties, I can remember that on the horizon in the distance in my nightmares was a mushroom cloud, silently unfurling in slow motion to destroy everything I knew and loved. But although my fear largely dissolved at the end of the Cold War, as it did for most people, the threat of nuclear weapons did not go away; if anything, our volatile world is more unsafe than ever. At the heart of ICAN’s campaign is a wake-up call to the world about this existential threat, and an urgent call to action to prevent catastrophic humanitarian harm.

One of the myths instilled in those of us brought up in nuclear armed countries is that nuclear weapons provide security. It is this unsubstantiated claim that underlines the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and is an article of faith for so many decision makers in countries like ours. Prime Minister Theresa May stated in July 2016 that it would be “an act of gross irresponsibility” for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons; it would constitute “a gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take”. At the same time, the UK’s [then] Defence Minister Michael Fallon MP repeats the mantra that “We share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament”. This ‘doublethink’ is the reason why so many previous attempts at nuclear disarmament have stalled: why would you give up something that you believe is essential to your security? Overcoming deep acceptance of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and what currently represents a mainstream moderate position in nuclear armed states was ICAN’s central and most difficult hurdle to overcome.

ICAN strategy is to change the culture around nuclear weapons, stripping them of their perceived value and status, stigmatising them so that they can be seen for what they really are: weapons of mass destruction with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. As ICAN colleagues have argued, “We showed how the claim that nuclear deterrence has prevented war requires ignoring the poor record these weapons have at preventing conflict. We demonstrated the pervasive harm they have caused to many people living in areas affected by use and testing, undercutting claims that nuclear weapons provide security”. Instead of answering the question ‘how can my country be safe without nuclear weapons’ we turned the tables and asked ‘how can the world be safe while nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to everyone?’

In practical terms, this involved building a global coalition of organisations and individuals all committed to campaigning for the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law, as the other weapons of mass destruction are. In 100 countries, ICAN campaigners lobbied decision makers, circulated petitions, organised creative stunts, wrote articles and pitched to journalists, held public meetings, protested in the street, made a splash on social media. We came together at civil society forums to share and debate ideas, to sharpen our messages and tactics, and to make friends. We shook up international government-level disarmament conferences by bringing groups of campaigners of all ages and from all continents to debate with diplomats and promote our talking points; we gave speaking platforms to the survivors of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as to the victims of nuclear testing, such as members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association; we showed hard-hitting films to diplomats to shake them out of their complacency; we brought in experts to explain in alarming detail the impact of nuclear weapons on the human body, on the environment, on the climate, on the global economy. We built strong partnerships between civil society and the states championing the treaty, without whose brave leadership the treaty – and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize – would not have been possible. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014, shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law.

Campaigners for a nuclear-free world have traditionally been dismissed by the establishment as being idealistic peaceniks. ICAN turned this unfair characterisation on its head by focusing on facts, and by ‘owning’ realism; we showed up the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ for what it is: a theory. We highlighted Ward Wilson’s 2013 book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, which cast a critical eye over some of the myths that have become ingrained in our thinking about nuclear weapons, especially that they ended WW2 and have kept the peace since (they didn’t and they haven’t). At meetings with politicians and civil servants, I would arm myself with copies of ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’, a chilling 2014 Chatham House report which showed that “since the probability of inadvertent nuclear use is not zero and is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious, the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high”. I also took copies of ‘The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK’s nuclear weapons’ by Scientists for Global Responsibility, which presents sobering evidence that the launch of the nuclear missiles of just one UK Trident submarine could kill 10 million people and cause devastating climatic cooling. Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Controldocuments the risks inherent in possessing, in his words, “the most dangerous technology ever invented”. Speaking at ICAN meetings, Schlosser encouraged campaigners to draw attention to the numerous instances during the Cold War when a nuclear detonation hung on a razor’s edge, as well as the close shaves such as when the US almost detonated its own nukes on its own soil. Inspired by this approach of highlighting the potential for self-inflicted disasters, we launched a campaign in the UK – ‘Nukes of Hazard’ – which threw a spotlight on the lorries which routinely transport fully assembled nuclear warheads along ordinary roads across the UK, often passing close to schools and homes (what could possibly go wrong…?).

When the risks and consequences around nuclear weapons are looked at face on, it becomes an idealistic position to suggest that the status quo can continue indefinitely. By focusing on humanitarian and climatic impact, on risks and consequences, the terms of debate are moved from the theoretical (and therefore unprovable) realm of ‘deterrence’ to a pragmatic discussion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), human rights and environmental protection. Within such a framework, it is impossible to argue for the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It is the disarmers who become the realists, the proponents of nuclear weapons the idealists.

IS: What was the involvement of the US and UK in the negotiations that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

RS: In October 2016, the UK’s disarmament ambassador Dr Matthew Rowland was seen fist-bumping his US counterpart after speaking at the United Nations General Assembly against a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. As I wrote at the time, “It was staggering to hear the hypocrisy in Rowland’s speech. He lectured UN member states on the need to ‘do no harm’ whilst doing harm himself to proposals for genuine progress on nuclear disarmament. But the UK and other nuclear armed states continue to threaten catastrophic worldwide harm to people and the environment through their continued deployment of nuclear weapons which creates an existential risk of accidental, unintended or deliberate use. Far from being a leader on multilateral disarmament, the UK has been unilaterally rearming its nuclear arsenal and is now refusing to support new multilateral negotiations towards a global ban treaty”.

Ahead of the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013, colleagues at Article 36 put in a Freedom of Information request which revealed that Foreign Office officials were well aware of the potential for success of ICAN’s approach. In their emails to each other, they acknowledged that a humanitarian approach had led to the effective stigmatisation and prohibition of cluster munitions, and expressed concerns that something similar could happen with nuclear weapons. Far from engaging with the substance of the conference, which was a facts-based discussion of the consequences of nuclear detonation and the challenges of providing any kind of humanitarian response, Article 36 argued that the “UK’s internal and public explanations for its eventual decision not to attend are focused on concern that the UK would not be able to pass itself off as a leader in nuclear disarmament and anxieties about international political processes”.

The UK government decided to join the US and the other ‘P5’ nations (permanent members of the UN Security Council – UK, US, Russia, China and France) in a boycott of the Oslo Conference, as they went on to do again for the second Humanitarian Impacts Conference held in Mexico the following year. Bitterly divided amongst themselves, these five nations ironically united against the rest of the world to defend the weapons of mass destruction they point at each other. However, without these ‘heavyweights’ present, it was in some ways easier for the 127 nations which did participate at the Oslo Conference to make progress, alongside international organisations, UN agencies and a focused and well organised civil society contingent under the umbrella of ICAN. At the 2013 Committee of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) a couple of months later, South Africa delivered a statement on behalf of 80 member states on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which boldly stated: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”. The foundations for a new ban treaty were firmly laid, with these 80 countries being joined by many more at the next round of disarmament talks – all spurred on by ICAN campaigners lobbying politicians and decision makers at international conferences and at home in capitals across the world.

Fast forward to the treaty negotiations earlier this year, and the UK chose once again to boycott UN-mandated negotiations (122 countries had voted in favour of them), in spite of treaty obligations under the NPT to “negotiate in good faith”. Instead, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft joined the Trump administration in a highly unusual and irregular press ‘protest’ outside the UN conference room, refusing to take questions from journalists on a floor NGOs couldn’t get to, whilst other countries filed into the room behind them to do actual work. This was following previous attempts by the US to pressure its allies, particularly NATO states, to vote no to the ban treaty resolution, and “not to merely abstain”, and furthermore that “if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them”. Despite claiming that a ban treaty without the nuclear armed states would be meaningless, the United States revealed through this diplomatic move that it believes a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would indeed have a significant impact.

IS: In the New Statesmen you note ICAN’s strategy “was to push ahead whether or not the nuclear weapon states participated”. What was the thinking behind this strategy?

RS: To use an analogy from the smoking ban: for years, the government knew smoking was very bad for the health. Successive public campaigns urged smokers to cut down, not to smoke in front of their children, not to smoke in the car etc. All the attention was on the smokers. It was only when the evidence about the damaging effects of passive smoking emerged that the idea of banning smoking in public places become possible: now instead of this being about the smoker’s needs it became an issue of public health, of concern to everyone. As someone who can remember working in a windowless basement office with colleagues who chain-smoked, I can really appreciate the cultural shift that has thankfully made such a situation unthinkable nowadays. I can also remember wondering how on earth the smoking ban would be enforced – would the police go to all the pubs in the land and arrest thousands of people? But the smoking ban marked real societal change – the smokers, while still battling with their addiction, understood that their behaviour was damaging to others, and without too much fuss took their smoking to the pavement outside the pubs and offices. It’s far from a perfect analogy with the nuclear weapons ban, but the smoking ban illustrates a point about how change in society can happen by reframing an issue so that the damaging behaviour of a minority is not allowed to threaten the basic rights of the majority. It’s also about understanding where and who the change is going to come from – and that’s not smokers banning smoking or nuclear-weapons-possessors banning nuclear weapons.

Proponents of nuclear weapons, like smokers, are not bad people. But both have developed a dangerous habit, which they may need help to quit. The oft-repeated line of British politicians and officials is that the UK is committed to nuclear disarmament, but only when the conditions are right. The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is going a long way towards creating those conditions. In the last few years, evidence about the catastrophic climate impacts of nuclear weapons was confirmed using the latest climate change modelling technology, revealing that the ‘nuclear winter’ scenarios described in the eighties were not exaggerated. Soot thrown up into the atmosphere from the gigantic explosions would block out the sun, triggering a mini Ice Age which would cause a global crop failure leading to widespread ‘nuclear famine’. This is the equivalent of the evidence about passive smoking: it makes nuclear disarmament an urgent global public health imperative, one that trumps the perceived needs of the nuclear possessors.

Nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented; but the notion that they are acceptable can be. 159 countries – 80% of UN member states – signed up to a joint statement at the United Nations led by Austria in 2015 expressing deep concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Like the passive smokers, this silent majority of non-nuclear-weapon countries has a right to be heard and protected – and this is why ICAN was determined to push ahead whether or not the nuclear armed states participated.

IS: Are you hopeful that the UK will engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the future?

RS: Uniquely among all nuclear armed states, the UK has within it a significant body of population and politicians opposing the status quo: Scotland. During the independence referendum, Scots engaged in real debate and discussion about what sort of society they wanted to live in – the sort of political engagement that is so lacking for most of us most of the time. If you were setting up a new nation, would you choose to spend billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction that are stored an hour’s drive from your major cities and transported by road past your population’s homes on a regular basis? Uh, no. Ronnie Cowan MP, whose Inverclyde constituency borders the Faslane nuclear weapons base, explained how having nuclear weapons on your doorstep sharpens the mind: “Sometimes I think that people’s approach to Trident is an abstract one, but in my constituency it is real; it is a real weapon with the very real capacity to murder millions of men, women and children”. In Scotland, elected representatives and parliament overwhelmingly oppose nuclear weapons. Campaigners like Janet Fenton and politicians like Bill Kidd MSPhave worked hard to ensure that Scottish resistance is aligned with ICAN’s humanitarian approach and the global ban treaty movement, and a recent speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised this link: “We will never accept that a limit should be placed on the contribution Scotland can make to building a better world. Strong voices for peace and justice are needed now more than ever. Last week, ICAN, the global campaign against nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize. Our party stands proudly as part of the global movement for peace. So let us restate this today. No ifs, no buts from the SNP. We say NO to weapons of mass destruction. We say NO to nuclear weapons on the River Clyde, or anywhere else”. One of the main contenders for leading Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, has also called for the UK to sign the new global ban treaty. Incidentally, another reason that Scotland has been able to have such an honest public debate about nuclear weapons is the emergence of crowd-sourced independent media outlets such as CommonSpace and The Ferret.

Again unique among nuclear armed states, the UK has as Leader of the Opposition a politician who is a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn has a long way to go to persuade his Party of his view, and Labour policy continues to be the same as the Conservatives’ in favour of renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons at eye-watering cost. But there is the real prospect of change, a glimmer of which was seen last year with the opening up of public debate when Corbyn stated he would not be prepared to ‘press the button’. A good friend of ICAN’s, Jeremy Corbyn sent his new Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, to attend the UN treaty negotiations earlier this year. Hamilton wrote afterwards that “Labour will work with ICAN to prevent the use of these horrific weapons that are not only a threat to innocent lives, but also a threat to international peace and stability”. At the end of October, Fabian Hamilton went further by telling a newspaper that a future Corbyn government would sign the treaty: “Parliament voted a year ago to renew Trident and it’s in the manifesto, but let’s move on. In July the United Nations voted for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I supported it and Jeremy Corbyn supports the ban – that has gone unnoticed.” Hamilton said Corbyn should move “slowly and through Parliament” to sign the treaty if elected prime minister, and said similar UN treaties for chemical weapons and landmines had proven effective. (A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan). Also at the UN treaty talks in June was Green MP Caroline Lucas, an ICAN champion who wrote: “You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence”. Sturgeon, Corbyn and Lucas all raised the humanitarian initiative and global ban treaty when addressing tens of thousands of people in London in February 2016 for what was dubbed the country’s biggest anti-nuclear weapons rally in a generation, organised by ICAN partner CND.

The ban treaty provides an opportunity for a new public discussion about nuclear weapons in this country, side-stepping the divisive polarisation that this topic usually generates. One of the few Conservative politicians to engage with ICAN, Derek Thomas MP wrote after our meeting: “I am completely in agreement that multilateral disarmament is something that we should pursue as an urgent priority and I will be pressing the Government to take all necessary steps in its power to secure multilateral disarmament. I have looked closely at the work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and am in support of their aims”. Unfortunately, this positive statement is to be found in the middle of a blog entitled ‘Why I am voting in support of the Prime Minister and our nuclear deterrent’, but it does show how the ban treaty can start the vital conversations and debates that need to happen in order to create change.

Nuclear weapons aren’t going to disappear overnight, but the stigma now enshrined in international law will help to change attitudes. Nick Ritchie, Lecturer in International Security at the University of York, wrote a couple of years ago that, “A new ban treaty would strip UK nuclear weapons of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons. Such a shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism in the United Kingdom”. We are already seeing how the treaty might affect UK law on nuclear weapons: anti-nukes activists from Trident Ploughshares cited the ban treaty as part of their defence in court last month and were released with just a warning, after they took part during the summer in a blockade of RNAD Coulport, where the UK’s nuclear warheads are stored and loaded onto Trident submarines.

It is my firm belief that the British establishment will soon wake up to the reputational damage that our possession of nuclear weapons will increasingly cause. We like to be seen to be doing the right thing; we care what other countries think of us. UNA-UK’s ‘global Britain scorecard’ highlights the good work the UK proudly does in contributing to UN peacekeeping and providing support for overseas aid, while criticising the UK for failure in ‘responsible arms trading’ and ‘multilateral nuclear disarmament’. UNA-UK’s methodology “follows the UK’s own analysis that Britain’s security and prosperity is underpinned by a strong, rules-based international system with the United Nations at its heart”. The ban treaty has stigmatised nuclear weapons, making them not just illegitimate but illegal: threatening to use WMDs is no longer an acceptable or legal way to go about international relations. It may take some time for this truth to sink in, but with the combination of pressure from the international community, from global and UK civil society, from Scotland and from within the political establishment at Westminster, change is coming.

Britain renounced the use of poison gas after WWI by signing the 1925 Geneva Protocol; now, nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, we should show moral and political leadership by stopping Trident renewal and joining the majority in the international community to renounce nuclear weapons. While the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may be controversial today, a few years from now I believe it will be the new normal for the UK and the rest of the world. The door remains open for the UK and other nuclear armed nations to Do the Right Thing. In the words of the ICAN statement on winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: “We applaud those nations that have already signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we urge all others to follow their lead. It offers a pathway forward at a time of alarming crisis. Disarmament is not a pipe dream, but an urgent humanitarian necessity”.