THE WORLD TODAY faces a number of existential or near-existential threats. The climate crisis (which has repercussions in every other area of life, and hits the poorest and most vulnerable hardest) is the most prominent. The current COVID pandemic, the threat of further pandemics, and the roots of this in the way we have misused animals is related to this, along with the huge loss of biodiversity.
Alongside these destructive features of our dysfunctional relationship with the planet as human beings goes our dysfunctional relationship with each other – seen in the persistence of poverty and inequality (which kills on a daily basis), war and conflict, human rights abuses across the globe, the resurgence of the racist far-right and white supremacy, and last but not least the danger posed by the existence and deployment of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
It is the threat to humanity from the possession and possible use of nuclear weapons by states and other actors that comes into fresh focus through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which comes into force today, Friday 22 January 2021.
The international community as a whole has been strongly behind efforts to ban nuclear weapons for many years, culminating in this new Treaty, which was agreed at the United Nations in 2017 and subsequently put out for ratification.
On Saturday 24 October 2020, Honduras became the 50th state to ratify the Treaty, the trigger point for bringing it into effect with due notice. A total of 51 states have now ratified.
The TPNW outlaws the creation, ownership and deployment of nuclear weapons by signatory states. It also places obligations on them to assist other victims of nuclear weapons use and testing.
But despite more than 120 states voting in support of the Treaty, and the widespread support it has received from every continent across the world, the nuclear-armed states, including the United Kingdom, have so far failed to engage meaningfully with it in any way.
Instead, the UK Government is moving ahead with plans to replace and upgrade the hugely wasteful, unnecessary and immoral Trident nuclear weapons system, at an estimated cost of £205 billion.
The NATO Secretary General dismissed the new Treaty last year, ignoring its multilateral character. Yet the past few years have highlighted very clearly that nuclear weapons do nothing to keep us safe against the other threats we face in the 21st century (the ones outlined above), while their continued possession by a small number of states simply encourages and justifies Iran, North Korea and others to go on pursuing their own WMD programmes.
So rather than using the TPNW as a positive opportunity to push for global de-nuclearisation, the nuclear weapons states are continuing on a path which could still lead to mass destruction, as the asymmetry we have seen in politics and conflict in the past decade spreads to the deployment of the most dangerous material known to humanity, alongside chemical and biological weapons.
It is important to stress that the UK, and other nuclear-armed states, can sign the Treaty without having to disarm first. How it would work is that Britain’s nuclear weapons would first need to be removed from operational status, and then a transition plan put in place for their eventual decommissioning.
Successive UK governments have stated their ambition for a nuclear weapons-free world. The Foreign Office has reiterated that this week. The UK is “committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons”, a spokesperson said, adding: “We firmly believe the best way to achieve this is through gradual multilateral disarmament.”
Well, now is the chance to prove this by signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and by cancelling plans to replace Trident.
The coming into force of this Treaty also gives civic and religious organisations around the world the opportunity to press hard for multilateral action to get rid of these terrible weapons. That is crucial, because governments rarely act on major issues without huge grassroots action. Change happens from the ground up.
It is important to highlight that using the rhetoric of multilateralism (which nuclear-armed states frequently do) without recognising that each actor needs to take its own initiative as part of a larger whole, is both dishonest and illogical.
If no-one moves until someone else does, nothing can ever change. Waiting for everyone to act simultaneously is waiting for Godot. So-called unilateralilsm (the willingness of individual states to do something themselves, and to seek concert with others as they do so) is, in fact, essential to bringing about the desired end of de-nuclearisation.
This has been recognised by the Scottish Government, for example. The devolved Scottish Parliament has a clear majority for getting rid of nuclear weapons. The SNP and the Greens have long had this as their policy. The Labour Party in Scotland has also voted (unlike its parent body at UK level) to remove them. Only the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, both minority parties in Scotland, support their continued possession.
The issue is particularly live for Scotland, because all of the UK’s nuclear weapons are based at Faslane, near the major population centres of the central belt, despite the fact that both the Scottish Parliament and the majority of the Scottish people (over 60 per cent in recent polling) oppose them.
Moreover, a new poll conforms that 59 per cent of the UK public as a whole support the country signing up to the TPNW, and 77 per cent support a “total ban on all nuclear weapons globally”.
However, it is the UK Government, run by a party Scotland has not given a majority to for over 60 years, which currently gets to decide defence and nuclear policy.
That may change if Scotland eventually opts for independence from the UK. But in the meantime, the Scottish situation illustrates the fact that these weapons, as well as being immoral, dangerous and hateful, are also fundamentally undemocratic.
In the meantime, as Dr Craig Dalzell of Common Weal has pointed out, the precedent the Scottish Government has set by “acting as if” it can abide by (or intends to join) international treaties is an extraordinarily powerful one. It allows Scotland to look far beyond these islands when discussing what its wants the country to look like in the future, and what ideals it wants to uphold.
So the significance of the TPNW is that ordinary people now have a real chance to push back as never before. The arrival of a Treaty which effectively makes nuclear weapons illegal internationally (as they should be) provides a huge opportunity for civic and religious organisations to lobby and press the nuclear weapons states, including the UK, to comply.
Across the British and Irish isles it is good to see that many of the churches, along with other faith bodies and secular and non-religious campaigners, have renewed their commitment to the abolition of these obscene weapons. They support initiative and cooperative action by individual states, all of which builds momentum and consequence across the globe.
To get the ball rolling, someone has to take the first step. But a first step is not an isolated action. It is part of a collective effort, embodied by the TPNW itself.
It is also a recognition of the fact that ,while global problems undoubtedly require global solutions, it is possible and necessary for us to act globally at a local level – both in the abolition of WMDs, and also in the transition to different patterns of employment and economy which make real security and the addressing of planetary threats a key priority in the C21st.
At Ekklesia, we are supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Scottish CND and Christian CND in their petition calling on the UK government to sign the Treaty and cancel its Trident replacement. You can join us here. For a full action briefing, see this TPNW page from CND, and use the #nuclearban and #TPNW hashtags on social media.