The Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) opens in Vienna today, with arguments for humanitarian disarmament gathering speed. This time the UK and the US will attend. What will be the likely outcome?

by Rebecca Johnson via OpenDemocracy

The significance of the Vienna Conference is profound. Its overt outcome is likely to appear quite modest. If you think that sounds like a contradiction, read on.

The Vienna Conference, hosted by the Austrian government, follows from similar meetings in Oslo and Mexico. Looking at nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens, Vienna will delve further into evidence from survivors of nuclear explosions and testing, UN humanitarian response agencies, researchers on nuclear use scenarios, nuclear accidents, hair trigger alert and deployment problems, computer and human miscalculations, and on cyber and other kinds of risks undreamed of when the US and Soviet Union raced each other to amass over 50,000 nuclear weapons.

So what, some might say: people have been talking about nuclear dangers since the weapons were first used in 1945. True, but this time the majority of governments going to Vienna are being pushed to move from just discussing the dangers to initiating more effective political and diplomatic action to accelerate nuclear disarmament.

To understand why, you only had to see and hear over 600 people from all over the world who crammed into the Civil Society Forum this weekend. Organised by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and ICAN Austria, the civil society forum demonstrated how a new generation is taking over the reins of nuclear abolition. Mostly young, the ICAN generation have been galvanised by new research into nuclear risks, climate change and famine. They aren’t dominated by die hards from certain nuclear-armed states, but represent many non-nuclear nations as well. And they are not interested in excuses from any governments, whether nuclear armed or nuclear free. Nor any nonsense about “not in my lifetime”.

They don’t see why the nine pariah states (yes, that includes Britain as well as China, Russia, France, the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan and the pathetic despots of North Korea, with their three little nuclear tests and desperation to be rated as nuclear “powers”) get to decide when and how to eliminate nuclear weapons. From a humanitarian perspective, abolishing nuclear weapons is a necessity – and the right and responsibility of all. That insight has caught on with peoples of the Global South, who see a parallel with the vested interests that blocked independence movements and the emancipation of slaves. It wasn’t the colonisers or slave-owners and their economic hangers-on and parliamentary apologists who led those abolition movements.  Some made pious declarations about wanting to free slaves (eventually), but they were too dependent on the economic and social institutions that underpinned slavery to abolish the systems and mindsets that sustained human trafficking and bondage. Instead they tried to divert attention towards tinkering with legislation purporting to make an inhumane institution work a bit less cruelly.

What is inspiring in the new Ban the Bomb movement is how many nuclear ban advocates already have courageous experience working against poverty and defending human rights in their countries. Many first got involved in disarmament by persuading their governments to give up – and ban -  landmines and cluster munitions. Many are strong, committed women, reminding me of how the established peace organisations under-estimated the inspirational power and effectiveness of Greenham women in the disarmament movements of the 1980s.

It is the pressure of millions of these younger, global citizens on a host of nuclear free governments that makes the Oslo-Nayarit-Vienna process so significant. In the eyes of the ICAN generation, nuclear weapons are a stupid, dangerous, cold war aberration creating divisions and terrifying risks at a time when all nations need to work together to tackle the most serious security challenges we all face, starting with the industrial-fuelled destruction of our Earth’s climate and environment.

Their governments aren’t nuclear dependent, but for years they seemed to accept that their status as “non-nuclear-weapon states” under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meant they’d given up their leverage and responsibilities to accomplish further – more universal nuclear disarmament treaties. The humanitarian approach is reframing the problem and creating new demands and pressures to ban and eliminate them.

The Vienna Conference is taking place in the looming shadow of the next NPT Review Conference, scheduled for May 2015.  Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz stated his recognition that a defence concept “that is based on the total destruction of the planet should have no place in the 21st century”. Austria came under immediate pressure from the United States, UK and other NATO and nuclear-armed representatives. They cited the call made at the end of the Nayarit Conference, for “a diplomatic process … [to] reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument…” This was made by Mexico’s Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, in his capacity as Chair of the Nayarit Conference.  His call was strongly applauded in the room and resounded among campaigners across the world. It also provoked anxiety in some quarters, especially where nuclear dependent governments gather. The UK and French governments eagerly jumped on this, claiming that Mexico’s call for negotiations vindicated their decision not to go to Nayarit. They also raised from the dead the spectre that the humanitarian initiatives would undermine the NPT.

This is an odd objection for them to make. Since the 1970s – and even more, after the cold war ended – various additional negotiations have been undertaken by various states with the express purpose of implementing the NPT.  Despite vociferously opposing the start of negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty  (CTBT) in 1994, the UK and France were subsequently among the first to sign and ratify the treaty. They have proclaimed ever since that the CTBT reinforces the NPT, as indeed it does. Likewise, the US and Russia want their bilateral arms reduction agreements to be viewed as important steps towards implementing the NPT.  In 2003, George W. Bush pulled together a group of invited, “like-minded states” to carry out the controversial “Proliferation Security Initiative”, while President Obama has headed up a less militaristic grouping of “willing” states in a series of “Nuclear Security Summits”.  Such initiatives have been strongly backed by the UK, and presented as means to strengthen and implement the NPT.

The club of nuclear-armed states is increasingly divided, not just about the humanitarian initiatives, but about everything to do with nuclear weapons.  Some -  notably the UK, France, China, Russia and the US – did not just shun the Oslo and Nayarit Conferences; they boycotted UN talks on nuclear disarmament at the Palais des Nations in 2013. David Cameron summed up Britain’s ridiculous position last year when he told journalists at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland that Trident was “the best insurance policy you can have” against nuclear threats from North Korea.  Israel has become increasingly isolated, not only through its bombing of Gaza but its “opaque” nuclear position. That has left the United States in a particularly difficult position in the run-up to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Though not entirely its fault, the US is blamed by many Arab states for the collective failure to deliver on the centrepiece commitment from the 2010 NPT Review Conference, which was to convene in 2012 a regional conference to discuss ways forward on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. No such conference has happened, which will make a positive outcome at the forthcoming NPT Conference even harder than usual.

India and Pakistan are trapped in a nuclear arms race with each other. Both participated in the UN talks as well as the humanitarian Conferences, while underscoring that they want nuclear disarmament but will not join the NPT as long as it enshrines one rule for five ‘nuclear-weapon states’ and a different rule -  and status -  for the rest of the world. The 50,000 weapons wielded by five states has become 16,000 weapons trundled around by nine governments and militaries. This situation is unstable as well as immoral. Moreover it would take the use of just 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons to create catastrophic climate disruption and nuclear famine.  Each UK nuclear-armed submarine carries over 300 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

The US, like the UK and France, came under heavy civil society pressure to participate in the Vienna Conference. Before deciding to attend, the US sought – and received – assurances that Vienna will not actually launch treaty negotiations. So the outcome is likely to appear little more than a Chair’s personal statement highlighting even more terrible global dangers attached to the retention, acquisition and deployment of nuclear weapons by nine frightened nations.

It will be useful to have British and American delegations in the humanitarian disarmament room this time, but they shouldn’t overestimate their importance. With international civil society more energised, determined and influential than ever, governments would be naive to assume that a modest outcome from Vienna means the humanitarian initiatives are losing acceleration. We’re still gathering speed.

Rebecca Johnson will be reporting from the Vienna Conference this week. 

Read more article in the dialogue: Towards nuclear non-proliferation 

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