The Nuclear Ban Treaty Embeds the Nuclear Taboo

Mar 21, 2018

The non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 is largely explained by the strong moral taboo. There have been many occasions when they could have been used without fear of retaliation but were not, even at the price of defeat on the battlefield, as in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Norms, not deterrence, have anathematised the use of nuclear weapons as morally unacceptable. The force of the norm is buttressed by operational disutility: the very destructiveness of nuclear weapons robs them of military or political utility. Their lethal destructiveness constitutes an existential threat to all human beings, not just to the leaders, soldiers and citizens of the countries fighting a nuclear war.

A full-blown nuclear war would destroy Planet Earth. How can any human being usurp the moral right to play God in making such a decision? This is why every government and all peoples are stakeholders in the nuclear peace and deserve a voice in the governance of the global nuclear order. The UN provides a global platform for articulating this demand. In addition, several governments of non-nuclear states have drawn ‘red lines’ by creating nuclear exclusion zones on their own through regional (Latin America, South Pacific, ASEAN, Africa, Central Asia) and/or national New Zealand, Mongolia) nuclear-weapon-free zones.

From the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, activists, NGOs, governments and the UN have been relentless in putting in place planks of an increasingly rigorous normative architecture to limit (1) the spread of nuclear weapon technology, materials and arsenals, and (2) the circumstances in which these terrible weapons might be used. 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty embeds the collective moral revulsion of the international community at the most inhumane and indiscriminate weapon invented by man in the effort, possibly vain, to foreclose the very possibility of a nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons obliterate the distinction between combatants and civilians that is central to every moral code in all cultures, civilisations and religions. The Catholic Bishops of America in the 1980s and the Ayatollahs of Iran today are united in the belief that nuclear weapons are morally proscribed by Christianity and Islam respectively. Civilians have always been attacked amidst armed conflicts and their rights and dignity violated in numerous ways. But the ethical code, including warrior’s honour, has never held this to be permissible. Nuclear weapons cannot be just war-compliant with regard to the requirements for proportionality, civilian-combatant distinction and no unnecessary suffering.

Nuclear deterrence as a doctrine is morally problematical. Its limited utility (only romantics and dreamers believe in its absolute utility) rests on the threat of inflicting mass killings on civilians. In 1983 the Catholic Bishops had granted ‘a strictly conditional moral acceptance of deterrence’. Updating that, in December 2014 the Holy See argued that a ‘global ethic…of solidarity’ points to a ‘morally responsible global future’ which can only come from nuclear abolition. As well as ‘legal obligations’, the disarmament treaties ‘are also moral commitments’. The ‘double standard’ in enforcing non-proliferation on some and not others ‘undermines the universality on which the NPT was constructed’. Moreover, investment in nuclear weapons siphons off resources for poverty alleviation and development that ‘is essential to social justice’.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) fails the test of inter-state equity. If the consequences of a nuclear war are systemic then decisions on arsenals, doctrines and use cannot be solely a matter of sovereign privilege. Possession of nuclear weapons is claimed by the legally acknowledged nuclear powers (China, France, Russia, UK and USA: the N5) to be NPT-compliant for a tiny minority of five countries and NPT-illicit for everyone else.

The division leads in turn to hypocrisy on the part of the nuclear haves in attempting to enforce non-proliferation on the have-nots. This was true in 1998 for India and Pakistan which had violated no treaty to which they were parties. It was also in operation more recently on Iran. The successful negotiations to check its suspected nuclear weapons program were led by the P5+1. The P5 possess around 98 percent of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons that they have held on to for five decades after committing to elimination, but insisted that Iran must not get even one. The ‘+1’ is Germany which does not possess any nuclear weapons but does have about twenty US bombs stored on its territory and shelters under the NATO nuclear umbrella.

Double standards infuse the enforcement of the non-proliferation norm. Israel has never been subjected to normative sanction for acquiring nuclear weapons. Gradually over the past decade many countries, including Australia, have come round to accepting India and Pakistan also as de facto nuclear-armed states. Thus we have an ‘enforcement continuum’: Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran.

Because countries lack individual or collective capacity to cope with the humanitarian impacts of a nuclear war, the leaders of nuclear-armed states have an ethical obligation to inform citizens about the inability to cope with the devastation of a nuclear war. The reason they fail to do so is that public support for nuclear weapons could then plummet. A more cynical explanation is that the fear of nuclear war is open to manipulation to bind citizens emotionally to the national security state. In persisting with nuclear weapons and doctrines not only do leaders breach their responsibility to protect their people; they build fortified sites for their own protection and survival.

The NPT has been instrumentalised by the N5 as the one and only legitimising principle for their own continued possession of nuclear weapons. Mass defection would rob them of the last remaining fiction of legal justification as possessor states. At which point do non-NWS conclude that defection from the NPT regime is not just likely to be politically effective as a circuit breaker in the existing impasse, but is also the morally permissible and ethically responsible course of action?

The Ban Treaty represents one last effort on the part of the non-nuclear world majority to try and reach the long-held goal of nuclear disarmament through stigmatisation and prohibition. The Treaty’s Preamble acknowledges ‘the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament and the urgency of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world’ which is described as ‘a global public good of the highest order, serving both national and collective security interests’. According to Costa Rica’s Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez who presided over the UN conference that adopted the Ban Treaty: ‘Each one of us has assumed the historic responsibility to give humankind an instrument that reflects the moral imperative of prohibiting nuclear weapons and leading to a future free of nuclear weapons’.

All the more reason to regret that Australia has been missing in action.

Professor Ramesh Thakur, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

This is drawn, with permission, from ‘Japan and the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty: the wrong side of history, geography, legality, morality and humanity’, inaugural issue of the Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament (2018). The full article can be accessed here.


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