Tag Archives: Nuclear weapons

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22-23 January 2022

Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest human rights group, which was devoted to researching and recording crimes committed in the Soviet Union.

“It is not hard to see how Putin, mired in historical conflicts over Crimea, Nato expansion and the fall of the Soviet Union, the second world war and more, sees investigation of Soviet history as a threat to national security”, the Guardian noted.

Back in the UK, such overt, authoritarian censorship is rarely deployed by the government. As George Orwell argued in his unpublished preface to his 1945 novella Animal Farm, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he explains, the dominant orthodoxy and wealthy press owners creating an environment in which there is “a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn’t doʼ to mention” particular facts.

Over 75 years later and Orwell’s pithy analysis is as relevant as ever. “The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence,” Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted about the fawning media coverage of ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died in October. “They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.”

A good example of the propagandistic nature of the UK media is its coverage of the draft agreement Russia presented to the United States on 17 December – titled Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Russian Federation On Security Guarantees (Russia also presented a draft security agreement to NATO).

With tensions rising over Ukraine, amongst other things the draft text calls for an end to further eastward expansion of NATO, no US bases established in former USSR states and that “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”

Article 7 of the treaty is particularly interesting: “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories”.

For anyone interested in reducing the threat of nuclear war, this sounds like an extremely sane, fair proposal. As the Morning Star recently reported, US nuclear weapons are currently based in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia does not currently station any nuclear weapons outside of Russia. Interestingly, a January 2021 YouGov poll found 74% of Italian respondents, 58% of Dutch and 57% of Belgians wanted US nuclear weapons removed from their countries. A July 2020 Kantar poll found 83% of Germans also supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from their country.

However, after conducting searches of Google and the Lexis-Nexus newspaper database, as far as I can tell the existence of Article 7 has only been acknowledged by two national newspapers in the UK – the Morning Star and the Financial Times, in one report on 17 December. Despite devoting a huge amount of column inches to the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express do not seem to have mentioned Article 7. (A caveat: on 10 January the Guardian did briefly mention Russia’s demand for ”the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe”, which nods to the content of Article 7, though ignores US nuclear weapons in Turkey and, more importantly, erroneously presents the demand as one-sided).

This press blackout is important because productive and fair public debate requires an informed citizenry and politicians. What happens when the media do not report key facts? How are citizens and politicians supposed to make informed decisions about current affairs?

The memory holing of Article 7 echoes the British public’s broader ignorance surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons. This dearth of knowledge is no accident – the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been mired in secrecy from the start, with Labour Party hero Clement Attlee authorising the creation of the UK’s first atomic bomb in 1947, keeping it secret from parliament, the public and even some members of his own cabinet.

While the official government narrative – happily repeated by mainstream media commentators and academics – is one of defensive deterrence and use as a last resort, activist and author Milan Rai provides an alternative, very persuasive understanding of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Rai, editor of Peace News newspaper, highlights the analysis of famed US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s on nuclear strategy, later challenging the popular belief the US hasn’t used its nuclear arsenal since 1945. “It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years… unused and unusuable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets”, Ellsberg argued in 1981. “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite difference purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

This revelatory framing indicates the UK uses its nuclear weapons every day. In every diplomatic meeting, both cordial and confrontational, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, and all this means, is there in the background, impacting the decision-making of participants. Every time a rival nation considers confronting the UK government or the UK military they are there in the background.

More precisely, Rai points out the UK has conducted nuclear terrorism – issuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapons states in the Global South, with the aim of intimidating their opponent and giving the UK the freedom to act on the world stage. Writing in Peace News in 2020, he explained that during the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia between 1963-66 over the future of Brunei and North Borneo, British Victor strategic nuclear bombers were deployed to RAF Tengah in Singapore, carrying out low-level bombing practice. In his official history of the RAF in South-East Asia, Air Chief Marshall David Lee noted “Their potential was well known to Indonesia and their presence did not go unnoticed.” He continues: “the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers… was absolute.”

Rai has also highlighted the UK’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Russians, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be prepared to use them against Iraq”, a senior British minister was quoted saying by the Daily Mail in October 1990. 12 years later during the lead up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Speaking to ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby a few days later, he explained what the “right conditions” might be – if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.

The secrecy and ignorance surrounding the reality of the UK’s nuclear weapons has very real consequences for public opinion, which broadly favours the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Who can forget, for example, the seven-minute primetime TV grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about his position on Trident during BBC Question Time’s general election special in 2017?

A key job of anti-war and peace campaigners should be clear – to draw the public’s attention to the UK’s history of aggressively using its nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce other nations. This can only undermine the government’s benign ‘deterrence’ narrative and shift the debate towards disarmament.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 November 2019

During Labour’s game changing 2017 general election campaign it is worth remembering one particularly difficult moment for Jeremy Corbyn – when he was questioned by the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the “nuclear button” during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable,” Steve Howell, then Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications, noted in his book about the campaign.

This challenging episode won’t have gone unnoticed by the other political parties, of course. Earlier this month the Guardian noted the Conservative’s 2019 general election campaign will target Labour seats “by painting Corbyn as a threat to national security.” Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was quick to mimic the Tories, launching her campaign by arguing the Labour leader “would be a threat to our national security”.

With these predictable attacks only set to get worse as polling day nears, it is worth reminding and arming ourselves with the facts and arguments against the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system – which Corbyn has rightly opposed all of his political life.

First, it is important to highlight the sheer immorality of retaining and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. “In view of the fact any major nuclear exchange would create a nuclear winter that would kill most of humanity, it’s worth noting that the position that you would launch nuclear weapons is to the right of Thanos”, comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted recently about the fictional Marvel comics supervillain.

Boyle may well be referring to the 2013 report from the US organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility which argued a limited, regional nuclear war would significantly reduce yields of staple crops across the world, putting around two billion people at risk of famine. Which certainly puts Swinson’s assertion on Channel 4 News that should would press the button into perspective.

Second, Trident – often described as our “nuclear deterrent” – does not guarantee our so-called “national security”. Infact it likely makes the UK, and the rest of the world, less safe.

“Even though governments frequently invoke deterrence as a rationale for retaining nuclear weapons, its relevance has sharply diminished if not completely vanished”, concluded the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by former Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The concept of deterrence has a number of dangerous flaws: it is only a theory, and therefore cannot be proven; it requires effective communications between belligerents – the threat of a retaliatory strike must be relayed, understood and believed; and it requires decision makers to act rationally at times of extreme pressure. Writing in 2013, ex-Defence Secretary Des Browne notes “deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting” threats such as cyber attacks or terrorism, including nuclear terrorism.

The ex-head of the UK armed forces Field Marshall Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach broadly agree, writing in the Times in 2009 that “nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of the violence we currently, or are likely to, face – particularly international terrorism.” Ten years later there is broad consensus the climate crisis is now the greatest threat the nation faces: “investing billions in nuclear weapons diverts funds away from addressing these priorities”, argues the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Those arguing Trident makes the nation safer would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report Too Close For Comfort: Cases Of Near Nuclear Use And Options For Policy. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting thirteen instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used or accidentally detonated. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they worryingly conclude.

Furthermore, the UK’s retention of Trident plays a key role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – because it “might actively encourage others to believe that nuclear were still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations”, argue Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach. Browne agrees, arguing in 2013 that Trident renewal “will destroy any chance of building the broad-based international support required for a stronger non-proliferation and nuclear security regime.”

Third, the UK’s nuclear weapons are incredibly expensive – a 2016 CND study estimated the cost of replacing Trident at a massive £205 billion, while Crispin Blunt MP and Reuters assessed the cost to be £167 billion. Depending on your political priorities this money could be spent on any number of things, including boosting conventional military forces, international aid, peacekeeping or the UK’s stretched public services. As ex-Tory Defence Minister Michael Portillo said in 2015, the UK’s nuclear weapons are “a waste of money”.

Fourth, is the rarely discussed – in the mainstream media anyway – legal aspect. Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), commonly referred to as a “grand bargain” between the then five nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states. States without nuclear weapons promised to not acquire them, and states with nuclear weapons pledged to pursue disarmament. As the treaty text confirmed, “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”. CND argue this requirement was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which included the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. This was confirmed by Kofi Annan, when he spoke as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006: “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

In addition to these four central criticisms, it is worth noting the UK’s nuclear weapons “cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense”, according to Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach.

“Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia, its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how”, the Guardian’s Defence correspondent reported in 2014.

The independent all-party Trident Commission – co-chaired by Browne and former Tory Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind – confirmed as much in 2014: “If the United States were to withdraw their cooperation completely, the UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years”.

Finally, it is worth remembering the broader global context: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means 186 nations on earth do not. The uncomfortable truth is that by retaining its genocidal nuclear weapons the UK is an extreme outlier making the world more dangerous. It’s time the UK joined the rest of the world and started to work for a more peaceful, safer world. Electing a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be the first step on this vital journey.

Further reading: see CND’s Trident Mythbuster leaflet, https://cnduk.org/resources/trident-mythbuster/, and by Timmon Wallis’s book The Truth About Trident: Disarming the Nuclear Armament, published by Luath Press.

Tomorrow Ian will debunk the Tories’ likely attack lines on crime and punishment. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

How three courageous individuals saved humanity

How three courageous individuals saved humanity
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 December 2018

What difference can one person make when it comes to influencing global politics?

Very little, you might think. However, a careful reading of several crisis points in modern history throws up inspiring examples of individuals acting courageously under intense pressure to save humanity from itself.

One such person is Vasili Arkipov, a Soviet naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, whose story activist Milan Rai rivetingly tells in a 2014 article for Telesur (and which the account that follows is based on). With the US and Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war, on 27 October a US taskforce of surface ships and aircraft was harassing, in international waters, a Soviet submarine, B-59, on which Arkipov was second in command. In an attempt to force the submarine to the surface and drive it away from Cuba, the US ships conducted extreme sonar sound attacks on the B-59, and dropped five practice depth charges. The number is important. A few days earlier the US had sent a document to the Soviet forces explaining their signalling system for a ship to surface was five practice depth charges. The commanders on B-59, who were used to three warning practice depth charges as the signal to surface, never received this information.

With the submarine crew enduring temperatures of around 45oC and dangerous levels of CO2, the captain of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch, concluded that a war between the US and the Soviet Union had started and ordered the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the US taskfore. The firing of the “special weapon” required the consent of the captain, the Political Officer and the second in command, Arkipov. The Political Officer consented. Arkipov refused to give his consent. “He halted the firing of a nuclear weapon that would almost certainly have triggered US retaliation against Cuba and the Soviet Union that would have led to a devastating global nuclear war”, Rai notes.

Fast forward to 1983 and another Soviet commander single-handedly stopped another catastrophic nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union.

It was a time of high tensions in the Cold War. US president Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”, and was modernising the US’s nuclear weapons, with medium-range missiles about to be moved into Western Europe.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet air defence forces, on 26 September Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, a secret command centre near Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites orbiting over the US.

“Early in the morning alarms went off and computers sent signals that a US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from an American base”, the Guardian noted in its obituary of Petrov, who died last year, aged 77. “A few seconds later they seemed to detect that four more missiles had been launched.”

Petrov’s job was to tell his superior officers, who would report to the Soviet military’s general staff, who would then consult the Soviet leader at the time, Yuri Andropov, about launching a counterattack. “Petrov’s computer systems said the reliability of the satellites’ information was at the ‘highest’ level’”, explained the Guardian. “Only 25 minutes would pass between the missiles’ launch and their detonation.”

Luckily, Petrov decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he explained to the Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” He was right. The alarm was apparently caused by a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a US missile launch.

More recently, an American intelligence analyst played a key role in stopping US military action against Iran, supposedly because of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.

In October 2007 US President George Bush had given a press conference with hostilities rising between the US and Iran. “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three it seem like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon”, he said. Discussing this period of US-Iranian relations in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Bush noted “military action would always be on the table”. However, the interventionist Bush Administration didn’t contend with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”, were the report’s first words, which represented the consensus of the 16 US intelligence agencies. The principal author of the report was Thomas Fingar, an intelligence analyst who became Chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2005, following the intelligence catastrophe of the Iraq War. According to former CIA officer Ray McGovern, Fingar was “a practitioner of the old-time ethos of objective, non-politicized intelligence.”

Bush described the NIE as “an eye-popping declaration” in his book. It “tied my hands on the military side… after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program”, he wrote.

“Almost single-handedly he [Fingar] has stopped or, at the very least, postponed any US military action against Iran”, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill noted a few weeks after the NIE was made public.

Comprised of senior people in the military or intelligence services acting in extraordinary situations to prevent mass killing, we should remember and celebrate all three of them. Rai suggests 27 October should be Arkhipov Day, a world holiday, for example.

But what can normal people like you or I do to make the world a better place?

Speaking in the essential 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, US dissident Noam Chomsky maintains critical thinking and resistance is extremely difficult on your own: “You can’t fight the world alone. Some people can, but it’s pretty rare.”

“The way to do it is through organisation”, he says. Individuals can maximise their influence and power by joining together with others, providing the opportunity for the pooling of resources and knowledge which may, with lots of work, eventually create the conditions in which elites can be challenged and possibly defeated.

From Extinction Rebellion to political parties such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Green Party and grassroots media outlets like Peace News and Novara Media, there is no shortage of organisations working for substantial change who would welcome any support they can get.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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”.