Today
Fri 4 December 2020

As the latest United Nations nuclear treaty is on the eve of coming into force, Stephen Colegrave looks at how it might finally end the ethical and moral case for nuclear weapons

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been a long time in the making. It is the first legally binding agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons and was originally agreed at the United Nations on 7 July 2017.

To enter into force it requires ratification by at least 50 countries. At last, this is in sight. Any day, the fiftieth nation will ratify despite the determined efforts by all NATO countries and others with nuclear weapons.

UK representatives have remained outside of all meetings in Geneva about the treaty, to try to persuade countries not to sign. What are the predominantly Western powers so afraid of? And why is there such a fissure opening up between countries with access to or guaranteed by nuclear weapons and those which want them to be completely banned?


A Different Type Of Treaty

Up until now, most nuclear treaties have either been between nuclear powers or to limit proliferation internationally. This treaty is different.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons seeks to ban all nuclear weapons and wipe out the hegemony of nuclear powers that has lasted since 1945.

It questions the moral basis of the Western powers’ nuclear ‘deterrent’ policy, which claims to have maintained peace, specifically banning the “use of force and the threat of the use of force”. This is why the treaty is vehemently opposed by NATO members and other nations with nuclear weapons. For the first time, the deterrent stance is now being questioned by politicians in nations around the world, not just by activists.

Northern Hemisphere nations such as Austria, Mexico and Ireland have actively campaigned against nuclear weapons and, in the Southern Hemisphere, many nations have already signed treaties and conventions setting up Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. In fact, the six main zones include 60% of the 195 nation states, 59% of the world’s geography and 39% of the world’s population. These nations will not allow the transportation of nuclear weapons, their supply chain in their territories, or even let ships use their harbours. Attitudes in these areas and other non-nuclear states is very different than those found in the UK and America.

Until recently, nations with nuclear weapons have been setting the agenda and the conversation about limiting nuclear proliferation, in countries such as North Korea and Iran, has focused on limiting their ‘special club’.

With this treaty, the countries that have banned nuclear weapons in their own regions have taken global leadership over the issue for the first time. They have been responsible for setting a new legal standard and building the moral case that nuclear weapons must be eliminated. This is because they realise that their Nuclear Weapon Free Zones are worthless if nuclear powers accidently or deliberately set off a nuclear winter.


A History Of Near Accidents

It is easy to be sympathetic with their position when the number of near nuclear weapons accidents are considered.

In early 2009, two nuclear submarines, the French Le Triomphant and British Vanguard, both carrying nuclear weapons, crashed into each other deep in the Atlantic. Fortunately, they were not going fast enough to cause much damage.

Two years earlier, the American Air Force lost six nuclear armed cruise missiles for 36 hours when, unknown to anyone, they were fitted to a B-52 bomber and flown completely unauthorised to a base in Louisiana, left unguarded on the runway until anyone worked out what had happened.

In 2000, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported that classified documents obtained by a group of former workers at the Thule airbase suggest that one of four hydrogen bombs on a B-52 bomber that crashed there in 1968 was never found.

There are many instances of false alarms and nuclear bombs nearly being launched. One of the most dangerous of these was stopped by little-known hero Lieutenant Colonel Petrov who, in 1983, probably really did save the world. When he was alerted by an early warning system that five nuclear missiles by America were coming towards the Soviet Union, instead of immediately raising the alarm to his superiors who would have ordered retaliation, he instinctively decided that, if there was an attack, more than five missiles would have been launched and rightly decided that the system was faulty.

These incidents seem to have done nothing to dent the UK and America’s insistence that nuclear weapons safeguard and guarantee peace. The old Cold War politics of nuclear deterrents can seemingly do nothing to deter democratic interference on social media or the global impact of COVID-19. Like scary but lumbering dinosaurs, our trident submarines roam the ocean’s depths with enormous fire power – just one missile can kill more than 10 million people – while Russian President Vladimir Putin interferes with democratic elections in the West for less than the price of a non-nuclear fighter jet.


Problem for Brexit Britain

 In the UK, our predilection for nuclear arms is cultural as much as political.

Brexit Britain is clinging on to its belief that it can regain and retain its place at the centre of the world. But the irony is that many of the nations that it wants to trade with as it turns its back on Europe are in the Nuclear Weapon Free Zones and have been part of developing and signing the treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The Brexiters’ love of patriotic militarism with navy ships and flags spearheading trade missions are likely to have the opposite effect than expected. These nuclear-free nations might be no match for the military might of NATO and the other nuclear powers but they do have complete control of their own trade.

“The ground is moving under the UK’s feet,” says Ben Donaldson, head of campaigns at the United Nations Association. “Whether or not the UK supports the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the impact will be felt. The treaty is popular with states the UK is looking to strike trade deals with and the UK is finding itself increasingly diplomatically isolated on this issue. A large majority of countries have made it clear they have lived in fear of nuclear fallout for too long and want action. As well as being immoral, the UK’s current position of variously ignoring and attacking the treaty and its supporters is unsustainable and damages its influence on the world stage.”

As the fiftieth nation prepares to sign the treaty, there is hope that the nations with nuclear weapons themselves are finding it harder to justify themselves to their own populations.

There have been concerns about US President Donald Trump pressing the red button in the same way he presses ‘tweet’. Even in Britain there is a backlash. Although there are not protests on the streets like at the height of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), more and more councils are signing up to be nuclear-free zones, such as Manchester City Council. In America, the whole state of California, which has the fourth largest GDP in the world, has gone down this route. Increasingly, financial institutions are divesting in companies that are part of the supply chain and manufacturing nuclear weapons in an initiative called Wall of Fame.

Hopefully this treaty will start to call time on the nuclear weapon nations and their allies ignoring the moral and ethical case for a ban, when an increasingly large part of the world wants nothing to do with these dangerous and potentially powerless ‘deterrents’.


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