Momentum towards a nuclear weapons ban treaty: what does it mean for the UK?

by Rebecca Sharkey and Laura Boillot

International momentum towards a treaty to ban nuclear weapons reached a milestone in the December 2014 Vienna conference. Even assuming that the UK does not initially sign up to such a treaty, it is subject to the pressures of a changing legal and political environment and could find its present position increasingly untenable – not least on the issue of Trident renewal.

The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held in December 2014, was the latest conference of the ‘humanitarian initiative’, following previous meetings in Norway and Mexico . Having fully explored the impact of a nuclear weapon detonation as well as the consequences of testing and production, the conference concluded with a pledge from the Austrian government to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. Since then, more than 50 countries have associated themselves with the Austrian Pledge and yet more are expected to join over the coming months, signalling readiness to begin negotiations for a treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons.

A ban treaty could be a straightforward legal instrument with prohibitions on the use, development and production, transfer, stockpiling, deployment of nuclear weapons and on assistance with these prohibited acts. It could require the elimination of nuclear weapons for states that possess them, with the specific processes for elimination being left for these states to agree when they are ready to do so. Treaty negotiations are a logical and compelling next step for states no longer willing to accept the status quo, and no longer prepared to wait for nuclear-armed states to lead on nuclear disarmament. In addition, civil society organisations across the world, under the banner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) are putting increasing pressure on states to begin treaty negotiations immediately – even if nuclear-armed states may initially not wish to join.

Legal obligations

Press conference by the five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear weapon states at the UN Office, Geneva in 2013. Source: United States Mission Geneva

The UK and other nuclear-armed states have long expressed their desire for a nuclear weapon-free world. Alongside other nuclear-armed states, the UK has a legal obligation under article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue ‘effective measures’ towards nuclear disarmament and ‘a treaty on general and complete disarmament’.

Despite this, there has been very slow progress so far towards nuclear disarmament, and nuclear-armed states continue to say that nuclear weapons are essential to their security doctrines. The UK advocates a ‘step-by-step’ approach towards nuclear disarmament, which has been marked by a lack of substantial progress. Most crucially, the UK government has seen this approach as compatible with getting new nuclear weapons. In 2007 UK Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that “the Non-Proliferation Treaty… makes it absolutely clear that Britain has the right to possess nuclear weapons”. This bad faith reading of the treaty and continued investment in maintaining its arsenal of nuclear weapons raises concerns over the UK’s commitment towards fulfilling these legal obligations under the NPT. A significant recent development and challenge to this position is a Marshall Islands legal case, currently being taken against the UK and other states for failing to act on multilateral nuclear disarmament obligations.

In the run up to the NPT Review Conference, the UK government has argued vigorously that the proponents of a ban treaty are misguided, and that such a treaty would undermine the NPT. However, the absence of any evidence to substantiate this claim suggests that such an argument will ring hollow against the persistent pursuit of Trident renewal. If the UK government is sincerely committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament then there is no need for it to oppose the development of a treaty with that aim. A ban treaty would actually constitute a long-overdue implementation of the NPT: the momentum towards a ban treaty could be seen as a positive opportunity for the UK to take concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament by creating the right conditions and helping to fulfil its own NPT obligations, even if the UK chose not to sign up immediately.

Political pressure

The international humanitarian initiative has sparked interest and debate inside Westminster, even if the government initially claimed the initiative would ‘divert discussion and focus away from… practical steps’ towards nuclear weapons reduction. At a debate on Trident renewal in the House of Commons on 20 January 2015, eleven MPs raised the spectre of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, with some specifically calling for a ban treaty.

With the final decision over the renewal of Trident due to be taken in 2016, the incoming 2015 government will be faced with taking a decision over the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons – at the same time that other states are most likely to be engaged in treaty negotiations that will rule those weapons illegal. This development will significantly increase the political costs of holding onto nuclear weapons and sinking even more money in their maintenance and modernisation. As Dame Joan Ruddock MP has stated, “a global ban on nuclear weapons would present the greatest challenge to UK renewal of Trident”.

Military cooperation

Continued possession of nuclear weapons when other militaries are rejecting them could also put strain on the UK’s relationships with some of its military allies. Whilst a ban treaty would not prevent a state that joins the treaty from being in a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state like the UK, it should require states not to assist in acts that are prohibited under the treaty. As such, it would require states parties to renounce any joint policy that envisions the development, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons.

There is however, no barrier to NATO member states’ adherence to a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The North Atlantic Treaty, which is a legally-binding instrument, makes no reference to nuclear weapons. And although NATO’s Strategic Concept does refer to nuclear weapons capabilities as part of its strategy, this is not a legally-binding document and would not prevent any NATO state from joining the ban treaty. Besides, the document gets revised and could be updated so as not to rely on nuclear weapons. The International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) points out, “concerns about the political implications of such a treaty for NATO ignore historical variations in member state military policy and underestimate the value of a ban on nuclear weapons for promoting NATO’s ultimate aim: the security of its member states.”

There has not been a coherent and uniform NATO position towards the humanitarian initiative. All NATO states are members of the NPT and as such are committed to pursue ‘effective measures’ towards disarmament. So far, virtually all NATO states have taken part in one or more of the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. After all, the humanitarian initiative was spearheaded by a NATO state – Norway. A ban treaty should in fact be seen as a positive step towards NATO’s long-term security goals.

Finance and investment

A nuclear weapons ban treaty could also help to increase the stigma and practical difficulties attached to nuclear weapons by prohibiting investment in their development. According to a 2014 report by PAX, 35 financial institutions in the UK invested over US$27bn in 28 nuclear weapons producing companies over the past 3 years. A number of UK companies are involved in the ongoing production and maintenance of the UK’s nuclear arsenal.

Prohibitions on assistance, such as financing the production of nuclear weapons, would mean that companies that produce nuclear weapons would find difficulty in securing financing to produce these weapons. As financial institutions move towards corporate socially responsible investments, many are anyhow adopting policies prohibiting investments in certain weapons, and this too will impact the producing companies and the states buying their products.

Even without an international ban treaty there have been successful efforts to promote disinvestment. A well-known example of a nuclear weapons boycott is the campaign initiated in the 1980s by Infact (now Corporate Accountability International) against General Electric (GE). GE had played a major role in nuclear weapons production since the Manhattan Project. The boycott resulted in significant financial losses for the company and damage to its brand. Ultimately, it was compelled to end its involvement in nuclear weapons work. More recently, Allied Irish Bank, named as an investor in the 2013 Don’t Bank on the Bomb report, had fully divested by the time the 2014 report was published.

A treaty signed by a majority of countries in the world that prohibits investment in the development, production, or testing of nuclear weapons would significantly increase pressure for many UK financial institutions to pull out their investments from companies that develop them. Past experience with the treaty that bans cluster munitions shows that the stigmatizing effect of outlawing weapons significantly reduces available financing for their production.

Conclusion

The conferences held as part of the humanitarian initiative have left no doubt over the severe and long-lasting effects that would result from a nuclear weapon detonation, as well as the devastation of lives and environment caused by testing and production. The resulting momentum created among the non nuclear-armed states to achieve a ban treaty is coupled with a conviction held by civil society and many states that a treaty can – and should – be achieved even if the nuclear-armed states do not join immediately. The UK should see the start of a treaty process as a positive development that is helping to foster the right conditions for its own nuclear disarmament, and that of other states too. But official responses notwithstanding, the climate surrounding the perceived status and security of nuclear weapons is changing – whether the UK government likes it or not.

Rebecca Sharkey is UK Co-ordinator at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Rebecca has worked on campaigns, communications, research and outreach at NGOs such as Freedom From Torture, the National Secular Society and the National Assembly Against Racism.

Laura Boillot is a Project Manager for Article 36. Laura previously worked as Campaign Manager and subsequently as Director of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). Prior to that she was a Program Officer for the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

Featured Image: Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious near Faslane, Scotland. Source: Flickr | UK Ministry of Defence

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