France, the US and the UK have a problem. These nuclear-armed “P3” NATO partners need to persuade the rest of the world (bar a tiny handful of similarly armed nations) not to look too carefully at the weapons that form their own WMD arsenals. It is a problem that Australia shares, with our support for nuclear weapons in our own “defence”. Last week in Nayarit in Mexico, a major conference of governments, with strong input from civil society, was held to discuss the humanitarian consequences that would follow any use of these instruments of terror. The big NATO powers are worried.
The trouble for them all began in earnest in Oslo in March last year, when the Norwegian Government hosted the first ever intergovernmental conference to discuss specifically the humanitarian and other impacts of nuclear weapons. Even before this there was a long history of activity at both government and civil society levels to raise awareness of just how catastrophic any use of these weapons would be, and the impossibility of mounting any significant response to help the survivors. However the Oslo conference marked a new era of serious government efforts to put the matter firmly on the global agenda. It was attended by 128 governments, some of whom were determined that the process would not end in Oslo. Mexico was next, with 146 countries having just concluded a further examination of what a nuclear war would actually mean for its victims and how we would respond. In essence, we know that any nuclear war would be so catastrophic that there could be little meaningful humanitarian response.
To add to the P3 woes, the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has just announced that there will be another conference in Vienna later this year, to take the next steps towards eliminating nuclear weapons. On February 13, the Minister said, “A concept that is based on the total destruction of the planet should have no place in the 21st century”. Progress is unmistakably in the direction of a treaty to ban these worst of all weapons of mass destruction.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, Russia, France, China and the UK, have thus far boycotted these conferences en masse - a noticeable absence given the fact that between them they possess over 98% of the world’s 17,000 nuclear weapons. One might have hoped for some mild interest in what the weapons do to people, towns and cities. Not a glimmer. Before the Oslo meeting, they issued a joint statement declaring the conference a “distraction” from the task of nuclear non-proliferation, code for maintaining the status quo. Of the other nuclear-armed nations, India and Pakistan were present in Mexico, and Israel and North Korea were absent.
Australia has attended the Oslo and Mexico conferences, but not with any great sense of understanding that our own support for “extended nuclear deterrence” - the myth that US nuclear weapons protect us - is part of the problem. A briefing to then Foreign Affairs Minister Carr before the Oslo meeting expressed concern “that the conference would be used as a platform to advocate a convention banning nuclear weapons”. Obviously not to be encouraged.
Judging by a report done by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, the US and its nuclear-armed NATO allies, France and the UK, are seriously concerned at the pace and direction of events. The report “CSIS European Trilateral Nuclear Dialogue, 2013 Consensus Statement” released on 24 January this year, in referring to the Mexico conference , states that “the underlying agenda of some of the participants is to delegitimize nuclear weapons…thereby undercutting deterrence…” The report then refers to the dilemma of whether the P3, in consultation with Russia and China, should again boycott the conference, or should attend “in order to moderate the outcome”, for which read, sabotage. As we have seen, they decided on the former course of action.
The authors, by some extraordinary logic, claim that the deterrence provided by their nuclear weapons (theirs only of course, not those belonging to nations lower down the social scale) have “arguably been the most successful nonproliferation mechanism of all time”. However they also acknowledge that deterrence could fail, or, to put it less politely, we could have a nuclear war. Their concern in that scenario is survival of space and cyber worlds. Whatever might happen to humans and the environment in the event of nuclear war - the very essence of the discussions in Oslo and Mexico - doesn’t rate a mention; it’s a no go area for deterrence advocates. Hence their refusal to do anything that might help highlight pesky concerns about mass casualties and cities turned to ash and rubble.
Australian governments tag along with our Pacific ally. Repeatedly Australia echoes the line, “As long as nuclear weapons exist, we must support nuclear deterrence”, words which turned up again in the CSIS report as elsewhere. It’s circular meaningless drivel yet it continues to masquerade as policy. Two hundred years ago nations could have argued “We don’t like slavery but as long as the slave trade exists, we need to keep slaves.” With principles like these, we could rapidly be back in the dark ages.
CSIS’s understanding that some of the governments that attended the Mexico conference want to delegitimise nuclear weapons is of course true. But how else can one view these most terrifying of all weapons as anything but illegitimate? If the history of addressing other WMD threats is any guide then de-legitimising them is exactly what’s needed. Biological weapons were de-legitimised then banned by treaty in 1972. Chemical weapons similarly in 1993.
Clearly the conference in Mexico succeeded in further eroding any status these horrific devices still retain. A ban is becoming a little closer. No-one is pretending that a treaty is all that is needed to solve the nuclear weapons problem, but its capacity to stigmatise even the possession of these weapons would be the most promising step since the dawn of the nuclear age to prevent their further use and to eradicate them.
The nuclear-armed nations may soon have to decide not whether to boycott or sabotage conferences such as the next one in Vienna, but how long they want to continue obstructing the will of the vast majority of the world’s people for a nuclear weapons free world.