It would be easy to miss this hopeful nugget in the midst of the continuing news vertigo. At the end of this month the UN will begin negotiations for a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. At a meeting in October last year 123 states backed the proposal. The ban treaty is the biggest thing in decades for global nuclear disarmament, and, to be parochial for a moment, the treaty could end up making the UK's Trident as redundant a lump of expensive metal as diesel cars will be in a few years.
Dismissal of the story by editors may also be based on the mistaken notion that no progress towards disarmament can take place without the involvement and full consent of the nuclear-armed states. The first witness on this one is the United States itself. Just before the October vote the US wrote to all NATO member states urging them to vote against the negotiations and to boycott them should they go ahead. The leaked letter is confirmation that the treaty can be effective. It details the terms of the proposed treaty which would impose serious restraints on US ability to transport nuclear weapons through the airspace or national waters of signatories and would threaten the ability of the US to offer the current umbrella cover to its client states.
UN treaties can make useful progress even without having all states as signatories. The obvious example is the International Criminal Court from which the US has remained aloof but which has still been able to function and indeed to indict 32 suspected war criminals since its inception in 2002. The bans on landmines and chemical weapons are currently being breached in Syria but their use carries with it both current pariah status and the threat of ultimate prosecution.
One of the arguments against the ban treaty is the claim that it undermines the non-proliferation treaty. In fact the ban treaty arises at least partly from the conviction that the NPT has critically stalled. While it has had a measure of success in inhibiting new states from acquiring nuclear weapons, there has been no progress on its article V1, which imposes on the nuclear-armed states the obligation to take steps in good faith to eliminate their arsenals.
There have been reductions in the number of weapons by the big players but there is no significant erosion of the basic capacity to cause destruction that would threaten the future of human life on the planet. There is no sign that the elites who run the nuclear-armed states can actually imagine a world without nuclear weapons. To be parochial again, the UK political leadership mirrors this stance in its attempt to signal its peace virtue by backing what it calls multilateral disarmament – a convenient way of punting the issue into the long grass. The ban treaty is a way of getting round this unacceptable impasse.
The main driver behind the global ban treaty movement has been the focus on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. While in our nuclear-armed enclave the discussion around Trident often centres on such issues as defence strategy, budgets and jobs, in the wider world the straightforward focus is on what nuclear weapons actually are and what they are designed to do. An International Red Cross and Red Crescent briefing from 2011 emphasises 'the incalculable human suffering that can be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons, the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity and the absolute imperative to prevent such use'.
Three inter-governmental conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons were convened between 2012 and 2014, reflecting the growing realisation of the utterly horrifying consequences of even a regional nuclear exchange. A very limited nuclear war involving around 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons would not only obliterate cities and contaminate whole states but cause severe and widespread climate change and famine. This impact could result from the firing of the payload of just one Trident submarine. These conferences led to the meetings of the UN open-ended working group on disarmament held earlier last year and October's historic vote.
At the recent UN pre-negotiation meeting the ability of civil society representatives to participate in the sessions was restated in recognition that the driving force of the ban movement has been pressure from global civil society. There was also positive discussion about how the views of small nations who are not UN registered can be taken into account, perhaps via observer status. This is hugely relevant to Scotland, given the stance of our parliament, government and all but one of our MPs. At least four people from Scotland, including Bill Kidd MSP, will participate in the March diet of the negotiations as civil society representatives and plans are being laid for a substantial team of experienced Scottish campaigners, MPs and MSPs to participate in the vital June/July diet. We should now be urging our first minister to seek observer status for Scottish government delegates.
This is not some remote and irrelevant chunk of bureaucratic chat. It is a serious attempt by the majority world to honestly face one of the two major threats affecting our chances of survival. The threat of a nuclear nightmare is ravelled up with climate change. The conflict-promoting features of the latter make a nuclear exchange more likely and nuclear war would accelerate climate change. The risks are real and immediate.