Former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon got it right about the latest North Korean nuclear weapon outrage: neither Kim Jong-un nor Donald Trump are a safe pair of hands for nuclear weapons. A majority of the world’s governments agree with him, and have created a global nuclear weapons prohibition treaty declaring all nuclear weapons and threats of their use inhumane, illegitimate, and criminal.
Some insist that North Korea’s latest and most disturbing missile test is proof of why other nations must retain their reliance on deterrence and even expand their nuclear arsenals.
That in turn fosters the proliferation dreams of the nuclear wannabes – with their promise of nuclear nightmare for the rest of the world. And it also feeds the understandable perception that the West’s efforts to rein in North Korea or others like Iran are driven by hypocrisy and self-interest.
Only when we devalue all nuclear weapons by outlawing them through an international treaty can we reduce the risk of countries like North Korea developing them further.
That process of stigmatising all nuclear weapons – not just those of people we dislike – has already begun. At the UN in New York on Friday, 121 countries voted to conclude an agreement to ban nuclear weapons. Just one country – the Netherlands, as a NATO nuclear alliance member – voted to reject the treaty, and Singapore abstained.
For the first time in the seven decade history of nuclear weapons, the majority of the world’s governments are making clear that they will no longer accept the legitimacy of nuclear weapons for defence.
The nuclear ban treaty process constitutes a rebellion by the non-nuclear states against the self-proclaimed ‘right’ of the nuclear states and their allies to hold the whole world hostage.
- A prohibition on developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, transferring, stockpiling, using and threatening to use nuclear weapons.
- A prohibition on assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to participate in any of the above activities.
- A recognition of the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons activities on Indigenous peoples.
- An obligation for states affected by the impacts of nuclear testing programs to provide victim assistance and take measures towards environmental remediation.
- Future pathways for nuclear weapon states to join the treaty subject to verification of complete and irreversible denuclearisation.
Each of those steps should be of crucial interest to Australia, not least those that attend to the terrible impacts of the British nuclear tests here in the 1950s.
But despite condemning North Korea for its move into this dangerous world, our government has boycotted the UN talks at the behest of the United States.
Indeed, that ill-considered boycott has left us isolated in our region. Nearly every other country in East and Southeast Asia and the South Pacific has participated in the ban treaty talks, with Indonesia, Thailand and other ASEAN states taking a leading role.
The nuclear ban treaty is not a guarantee that nuclear weapons will be abolished tomorrow.
But it is the foundation for a new beginning in that historic struggle, starting from a global recognition of the undeniable catastrophic harm that any use of nuclear weapons in war will bring.
That includes catastrophic harm not just to millions incinerated in burnt cities but also many millions more in the famines and economic collapse from the nuclear winter that will undoubtedly follow even a ‘small’ nuclear exchange.
After half a century of waiting for the nuclear weapons states to live up to their disarmament promises under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the majority of the world’s government have rebelled.
They have rejected the acceptance of the inevitability of a nuclear armed world and the destructive hypocrisy that underlies ‘concern’ about one country’s nuclear weapons, while viewing the others as ‘responsible nuclear powers’.
Countries like Australia, which claim protection under the US nuclear umbrella, will now have to justify – to both their neighbours and their citizens – their reliance on a policy of extended nuclear deterrence, a policy that requires an absolute intent to burn millions in the cities of Asia in the name of nuclear defence.
And it is not inconceivable that in the foreseeable future some of the nuclear states will sign up to a treaty. The most obvious candidate is the United Kingdom where intense debate surrounded Prime Minister Theresa May’s 2016 decision to renew Britain’s four nuclear ballistic missile submarines and their Trident-II missiles leased from the U.S. Important figures in the British military and her own party publicly doubted the utility of the weapons and their massive cost.
After the disaster of May’s snap election last month, the question of what would have happened to that decision were it to be taken now is not simply a matter of an academic what-if. Britain as a threshold nuclear disarming state is quite conceivable, if still a long way off.
The nuclear ban treaty is not a panacea, and won’t bring world peace tomorrow. But it is the beginning of the end of a world where a small number of countries can, with impunity, arrogate to themselves the right to annihilate the rest of us – all in the name of false idol of ‘security’. Nuclear weapons, whether Russian, Chinese, North Korean or American, are the antithesis of sustainable global security.
Richard Tanter is the chair of the Australian board of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). He works with the Nautilus Institute, and is Professor in the School of Political and Social Studies at the University of Melbourne.