Radical Diplomacy & Resurgent Protest in Nuclear Age

On March 27 over 130 states, strongly supported by international organizations and civil society, convened at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to open negotiations on a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons: the momentous goal set by the Assembly in its inaugural resolution of January 1946.

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN. (Official portrait via Wikimedia Commons)

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN. (Official portrait via Wikimedia Commons)

In the intervening seven decades, not a single day had been spent at the UN on such talks, yet to mark the historic occasion President Donald J. Trump’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley led a boycott. Standing alongside colleagues from two other nuclear-armed powers, Britain and France, Haley declared she was not speaking primarily as a diplomat but rather a worried “mom, wife, and daughter,” asking: “when you see those walking into the General Assembly to create a nuclear weapons ban, you have to ask yourself, are they looking out for their people?” While “there is nothing I want more for my family than a world without nuclear weapons,” she insisted, “in this day and time we can’t honestly say we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them and those of us that are good, trying to keep peace and security, not to have them.”

The problem with such a stance, as many of those inside the Assembly argued, is two-fold: it suggests that ‘those who are good’ and wish to keep the peace should seek nuclear weapons, or at least base their security on the threatened annihilation of others; and it ignores the legally-binding obligation in the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on all states to “pursue negotiations in good faith” to achieve “nuclear disarmament,” a term unanimously reaffirmed by subsequent NPT Review Conferences , and the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1996, to mean not merely reductions but abolition. Indeed, the remarkable recent push for ‘global zero’ is intended to close the unconscionable ‘legal gap’ leaving the world’s most destructive weapons-of-mass-destruction unbanned while the two lesser categories (biological and chemical) are prohibited.


Ban treaty

Behind these powerful political and legal arguments, though, looms a yet more fundamental position. “The thrust of the movement to ban nuclear weapons,” Brazil’s UN Ambassador Sergio Duarte stressed “is not directed against any state in particular” but rather “the inhuman nature of nuclear weapons themselves and their disastrous effects on populations and the environment.” “Accordingly,” such a ban would “not discriminate against ‘good’ or ‘bad’ possessors, whether these are states or non-state actors,” but rather work to promote “good faith compliance with treaty commitments and with imperatives dictated by humanitarian international law and the universal principles of civilized behavior.” Because “no country should be allowed to possess the means to annihilate whole populations and render the planet uninhabitable under the pretense that this would somehow protect their own security,” it is now high time for humanity “as a whole to act decisively in defense of its own survival.”

Along with six, geographically-diverse states (Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria and South Africa), Brazil led the call at last year’s General Assembly to open talks on a ban treaty. The resulting resolution (71/258) was adopted on December 23 by 113 votes to 35 with 13 abstentions. The ‘No’ block consisted of four nuclear-armed states (US, UK, France, Russia), all NATO states except the Netherlands (which, under great public pressure, abstained), and three ‘nuclear-umbrella’ nations (Australia, South Korea, Japan).  In a leaked US ‘non-paper’ entitled ‘Defense Impacts of Potential United Nations General Assembly Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty,’ prepared for NATO’s Committee on Proliferation last October, the Obama Administration warned that “efforts to negotiate” such a ban would serve to “delegitimize nuclear weapons,” and that participation in the process was thus  “fundamentally at odds with NATO’s basic policies”. The deeper question – whether NATO’s pro-nuclear stance is “fundamentally at odds” with the NPT, a Treaty explicitly designed to “delegitimize nuclear weapons” – was not addressed by the ‘non-paper,’ and was probably a non-issue within the Alliance.

From left to right: Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, UN High Representative for Disarmament Sergio Duarte and Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt at the Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

From left to right: Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, UN High Representative for Disarmament Sergio Duarte and Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt at the Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, 2011. (Photo by CTBTO, CC-by-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Women vs the Bomb

Resolution 71/258 called for two negotiating sessions this year, March 27-31 and June 15-July 7. According to reports, the first session succeeded not only in reaching near-consensus on key provisions but in establishing strikingly positive relations between state and non-state delegates. As John Burroughs, director of International Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, wrote on April 3,  such “cooperation has never before occurred in the nuclear sphere” and may even be “a harbinger of democratization of the United Nations.” “If all goes well,” he dared hope, “members of a ban treaty, working together with civil society, will become a potent collective actor that will transform nuclear and international affairs for the better.” The chair of the talks, Ambassador Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica (a country with no armed forces) will now prepare a draft treaty for circulation prior to the potentially-conclusive second session.

The ban-treaty movement also places great emphasis on the role of women in shaping the debate.  As Ireland’s Ambassador Patricia O’Brien noted on March 27: “We welcome the broad and brave participation from states here today, including those less-developed states and smaller states whose voices, including many female voices, were so powerful and so necessary” in pressing for radical action. The feminist stress stems in part from the work and impact of the 2013-2014 ‘Humanitarian Initiative,’ a trio of increasingly well-attended conferences (hosted by Norway, Mexico and Austria) focusing fresh attention on the intolerable  humanitarian consequences – suffered most grievously and disproportionately by women and girls – of any nuclear use. The ‘Humanitarian Initiative’ generated in turn the ‘Humanitarian Pledge,’ soon signed by 127 states, demanding concerted efforts to “stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.”

On Saturday June 17, as talks resume, a ‘Women’s March to Ban the Bomb’ will be held in New York. Organized primarily by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, formed a century ago to protest the madness of the Great War, hundreds, perhaps thousands of solidarity events will take place worldwide, as anti-nuclear activism begins to emerge from the long shadows of post-Cold War political complacency and media neglect.

Ambassador Haley is likely to view the March (and its many ‘sisters’) with indifference or scorn. If she really claims, however, to speak first and foremost as “a mom, wife, and daughter,” she may wish to ponder the celebrated statement of Virginia Woolf, another brave opponent of World War One:

As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.





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