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23 March 2017

The ban movement's early impact

The impact of the UN treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons is already being felt—before negotiations have even begun. The initiative has exposed nations such as Australia, Canada, Norway, and Japan, once considered supporters of disarmament, as a significant part of the problem—but also, if they so choose, the solution. Under pressure from parliamentarians, the media, and ordinary citizens, their officials have been compelled to explain, often with great awkwardness and reluctance, their opposition to outlawing the very worst weapons of mass destruction. More than ever before, these countries are being challenged to end their reliance on US nuclear forces.

When Chrystia Freeland, the new Canadian foreign minister, was quizzed in parliament earlier this month on whether her government would participate in the historic treaty-making process, she avoided the question. For a government that presents itself as progressive and responsible, it is embarrassing to admit to boycotting UN disarmament negotiations. It raises serious concerns about the extent to which the Trump administration is determining Canadian foreign policy. One Canadian former disarmament ambassador called Canada’s choice not to participate “shocking,” another called it “pathetic,” and a third called it “utterly outrageous.”

NATO members on the other side of the Atlantic have found it equally challenging to explain their planned absence from the most promising multilateral nuclear disarmament process in decades. At a recent parliamentary hearing in Belgium for instance, lawmakers were visibly unimpressed by the foreign ministry’s contradictory and nonsensical responses to their questions (link in Dutch). In Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, members of parliament have tabled motions urging their governments to participate. Media outlets in Norway have published front-page news stories on the conservative government’s abandonment of disarmament.

But public scrutiny and criticism have perhaps been greatest in Japan, where the government has yet to announce whether it will join the groundbreaking talks. Last year atomic bomb survivors said they felt betrayed when Japan voted against the UN General Assembly resolution establishing the mandate for negotiations. According to diplomatic sources cited by The Japan Times, the Trump administration has taken “a hard line” on Japan’s possible participation—“more severe” than that of the Obama administration. The Japanese government’s choice boils down to this: obey its nuclear-armed ally or heed the call of its own citizens.

The ban movement has exposed major cracks in the nuclear edifice. In Australia, for instance, the main opposition, the Australian Labor Party, has declared firm support for “the negotiation of a global treaty banning [nuclear] weapons” and welcomed “the growing global movement of nations that is supporting this objective.” A Labor-sponsored motion is now before parliament, urging the government to participate constructively in the UN process. Successive Australian governments, though, have claimed that US nuclear weapons are indispensable for the country’s security. But will this misguided, dangerous stance withstand the pressure of the ban?

The impact of the treaty can also be seen in nuclear-armed nations such as the United Kingdom. A YouGov poll this week showed that three in four Britons want the government to join the negotiations. Only one in ten thinks it shouldn’t. Green party parliamentarian Caroline Lucas condemned the planned boycott as “reckless and irresponsible.” The opposition, the (British) Labour Party, has vowed to send observers. Scottish parliamentarians, too, will be there. In France, a former defense minister, Paul Quilès, has urged the government to take part.

The active resistance of the United States to ban treaty negotiations is a good indication of their potential to effect change. Why campaign so fervently against it if it will do nothing to compel disarmament? “Seventy years into the nuclear age, something revolutionary is about to occur,” wrote Edward Ifft, an adjunct professor and US State Department officer, in this month’s issue of Arms Control Today. “It is likely that, within the next year or two, a majority of the world’s countries will declare in a legally binding document that they no longer accept nuclear deterrence as a valid concept in international relations.”

For decades, the concept of deterrence has been used to justify possession of nuclear weapons, he pointed out. These weapons could follow the “same route to oblivion” as, for example, chemical weapons, which the international community outlawed in 1993. The “serious uprising” by a large number of non-nuclear states, he said, reflects the “bleak” prospects for further progress using traditional methods. “Dealing with this movement toward a ban treaty will be among the most interesting and important issues facing the Trump administration and key US allies in Europe and Asia.”

This post is part of Ban Brief, a series of updates on the historic 2017 negotiations to create a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Ban Brief is written by Tim Wright, Asia-Pacific director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will.