Trump’s last few days in the White House raised major concerns about his finger on the US nuclear button. Should new checks and balances be swiftly added, given his incitement of insurrection? Would he relinquish the ‘nuclear football’ which carries the launch codes?
As it happened, Trump’s codes went dead at noon on Inauguration Day, like a cancelled credit card, and Biden’s went live. Further crisis was averted, but this episode has re-raised the very real question: are there any safe hands for nuclear weapons?
Over the years, the UK has tried to build a narrative that some states are ‘responsible’ and can be trusted with nuclear weapons, and others aren’t. Hence the idea, bitterly experienced in recent times, that it’s essential for the US and UK to have nuclear weapons, but we have to go to war to prevent others getting them. The irresponsible Trump upended this notion, but in reality, very few states have ever bought into this double-standards approach.
For decades, the overwhelming majority of states have opposed nuclear weapons while Britain and a handful of others assert their ‘right’ to retain weapons that could destroy us all. To put it mildly, there is insufficient recognition here in Britain, across the political spectrum, that nuclear weapons are not the norm, and they are not acceptable.
A new UN Treaty comes into force today which for the first time makes nuclear weapons illegal. The World Court has previously declared their use illegal under virtually all circumstances, but the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) outlaws the development, possession, and deployment of nuclear weapons by signatory states. Their very existence is illegal.
In a remarkable development, the Treaty also places obligations on signatories to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, and requires environmental remediation for lands contaminated by nuclear testing. It explicitly recognises the disproportionate impact of nuclear-weapon activities on indigenous peoples, because of the choices made by nuclear powers for their testing sites. Many of the UK tests were conducted on the Australian First People’s territories in Emu Field and Maralinga, contaminating large parts of South Australia. These historic wrongs must be righted.
The Treaty currently legally binds 51 states, and has an overall supporter-base of at least 130—over two thirds of the international community—many of whom will be joining the treaty over the coming months and years. Not surprisingly, it is the states of the Global South, most of which are already self-organised in nuclear weapons-free zones, that have led the push to get this Treaty into law. They are well aware that any nuclear weapons use by states in the Global North will disastrously affect their populations, lands, and food production. In their view, any possession of nuclear weapons is unacceptable; no hands are safe hands.
The UK government has consistently rejected the TPNW, boycotting the vote in the UN, and saying that Britain will ‘never’ sign up to it. The line is that it will damage the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that a ‘step-by-step’ approach is needed. That would be all well and good – but it’s now 50 years since the NPT came into force, and nuclear weapons are still with us. Indeed, the TPNW is the result of the frustration experienced by so many states at the failure of the NPT. And it’s hard to see how replacing Trident is a ‘step’ towards disarmament.
Unfortunately, UK opposition to the TPNW is not confined to the Westminster government. The Labour Party has also failed to support it, doubtless in order to maintain its bizarre attempts to show that it’s stronger on defence than the Conservatives. The reality is both parties are fighting the battles of the past – not just in terms of Cold War weapons systems, but in terms of what they think impresses the electorate. If Labour thinks that championing nuclear weapons will help them at the ballot box they need to think again.
A national poll conducted on 12-13 January for CND by Survation showed the following:
- 59% of the public support the UK government signing up to the TPNW, including 50% of Conservative voters and 68% of Labour voters.
- 77% support a ‘total ban on all nuclear weapons globally’, including 71% of Conservative voters and 83% of Labour voters.
- Both the UK signing the TPNW and a total global nuclear ban have majority support across every single demographic (age, regions and nations, education level, income bracket, 2019 GE vote, and 2016 EU referendum vote)
This true reflection of public opinion on nuclear weapons is widely articulated, if less widely reported. It’s found in the outspoken positions of many faith leaders, of many trade union leaders, of many campaigner, and in the day-to-day work of those who want our resources spent on dealing with the pandemic and the climate emergency, not on weapons of mass destruction.
It is shameful that the Westminster parliament so little reflects the opinions of the electorate on this issue. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party stand up, along with a handful of others, but what of the overwhelming majority? Still in a post-imperial haze? Fearful of new thinking? They need to get beyond nuclear weapons – change is overdue. It’s time for us to join the global majority.