A global prohibition on nuclear weapons might seem improbable given current geopolitical realities. But, over the past year and a half, a majority of the world's nations have declared their readiness to negotiate just that. Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines are among those proposing work on a ban should begin in 2017.
The new treaty would place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as biological and chemical weapons, which have long been prohibited under international law. It would 'fill the legal gap' in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons, which consists chiefly of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and regional nuclear-weapon-free zones.
Significantly, proponents of the ban do not anticipate that nuclear-armed states would join, at least not at the outset. As Stephan Frühling and Andrew O'Neil noted last week, support for nuclear weapons among those states possessing them remains as strong as ever. But successfully concluding the treaty would not depend on the endorsement or involvement of such states.
The ban would aim to strengthen global norms against the use, manufacture and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. As the civil society organisations Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 have observed, the act of outlawing certain other types of weapons has, in the past, facilitated elimination:
Weapons that have been outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and, along with it, the money and resources for their production, modernisation, proliferation and perpetuation.
Calls for a ban on nuclear weapons have grown louder amid mounting frustration with the decades-long deadlock in UN disarmament forums, and the modest or non-existent results from traditional 'arms control' endeavours. Many nuclear-free states fear that, without meaningful progress soon, nuclear weapons could be used again, whether by accident, miscalculation or design.
Over the past few years, there has been a shift in the diplomatic discourse away from abstract notions of 'deterrence' and 'geopolitical stability' towards a focus on what nuclear weapons do to people, our societies, the economy and the environment. Many states now view stigmatisation — through prohibition and public awareness raising — as essential for disarmament.
The recently retired UN high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, commented in 2014 that a strong stigma exists for the two prohibited classes of weapons of mass destruction:
How many states today boast that they are 'biological-weapon states' or 'chemical-weapon states'? Who is arguing now that bubonic plague or polio are legitimate to use as weapons under any circumstance, whether in an attack or in retaliation? Who speaks of a bio-weapon umbrella?
A ban on nuclear weapons would influence not only nuclear-armed states, but also their allies, compelling those that host US nuclear weapons on their territory (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey) to abandon that Cold War practice. For Australia, joining the new instrument would mean ending the pretense of protection from a so-called 'nuclear umbrella'.
It is for this reason that the Coalition Government has so far resisted moves towards a ban. It asserts that nuclear weapons are necessary for our security and, indeed, our prosperity. But increasingly the logic and wisdom of that position are being challenged. John Tilemann, a former Australian diplomat, wrote in March:
To put unquestioned reliance in the US nuclear umbrella deprives Australia of policy flexibility and the moral right to lead efforts to fashion an alternative world order where mutually assured destruction is not the ultimate guarantor of our existence.
Australia's negative role in disarmament diplomacy in recent years has sullied its reputation in this field. As Fairfax newspapers reported in May, diplomats from pro-ban nations have labelled Australia a 'weasel state', given its membership of a group working surreptitiously to undermine disarmament efforts.
By aligning itself with NATO members, including those that host nuclear weapons, Australia has grown more and more isolated from Southeast Asian and Pacific Island states that are vocal supporters of a ban. One Australian diplomat, after participating in a regional disarmament forum in Bangkok last year, confessed in a report to Canberra: '[W]e represented the lone voice in the room on many issues.'
Sooner or later, Australia's opposition to a ban will become untenable. A large majority — 84% of Australians — want the government to support a prohibition. And it will eventually do so; just as it begrudgingly joined the processes to outlaw anti-personnel landmines in the 1990s and cluster munitions a decade later.
The Australian Labor Party, in its national policy platform adopted last July, declared its support for a ban:
Given the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, Labor firmly supports the negotiation of a global treaty banning such weapons and welcomes the growing global movement of nations that is supporting this objective.
Daniel Flitton explained that this position might seem unremarkable, given the 'drive to abolish nuclear weapons ever since the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki'. But a ban 'is something very different — and new':
It stems from an effort by non-nuclear-armed countries in the UN, and supported by activist groups, to negotiate a treaty that would declare the very existence of nuclear weapons illegal under international law because of the catastrophic humanitarian cost, similar to the way chemical and biological weapons are prohibited. The goal is to create moral pressure on the countries with atomic arsenals.
Last month, at a UN working group meeting in Geneva tasked with developing new legal measures for nuclear disarmament, the momentum behind the ban approach appeared unstoppable. This group will re-convene in August to finalise its report to the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, at which states are likely to adopt a resolution recommending the launch of negotiations.
Australia will face a stark choice: to join this global initiative to outlaw the most destructive, indiscriminate weapons ever created, or to side with nuclear-armed states in opposing it . The latter would potentially alienate its nearest neighbours, undermine disarmament and incite proliferation.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom II Andres.