Nuclear dangers: thinking globally, acting locally

Nuclear dangers: thinking globally, acting locally

by Tom Unterrainer

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The 22 January marks the second anniversary of the coming in to force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

To date, 68 nations have ratified the Treaty and work to increase that number continues. This work stretches from the offices of diplomats and international politicians to the streets of Yorkshire cities, towns and villages where CND members promote the idea of nuclear ban communities.

The Treaty itself has significance beyond the prohibition of nuclearism in those states that have ratified.

It is remarkable – and telling of the role played by nuclear weapons – that it took more three quarters of a century after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for a United Nations treaty to codify prohibition into international law.

Every time an additional nation rejects nuclearism and ratifies the TPNW, the world takes another step towards nuclear abolition.

For me, and many others, the TPNW has a significance beyond the incremental steps. The whole process of drafting, coordinating, winning support and signatures for and ratifications of the TPNW was a process of geopolitical significance: it was a full-frontal rejection of the dominant idea that the retention and development of nuclear weapons is a prerequisite for global security.

Driving this full-frontal rejection were nations that have been and continue to be exploited, diminished and oppressed in the name of nuclearism and the global order which is characterised by it: the nations where the United States, Britain and France and others tested their nuclear weapons; the nations where the basic materials of the nuclear warhead were extracted; the nations which have experienced intergenerational damage and which carry the legacies – in the earth, in their bodies – of the nuclear age.

It is noteworthy that Japan, the only nation where atomic weapons were detonated on a civilian population, opposed the TPNW.

As Richard Falk put it: “The enormous fly in this healing ointment” – the TPNW – “arises from the refusal of any of the nine nuclear weapons states to join in the TPNW process”. Not only did the nuclear armed states refuse to join the process, so did members of the NATO nuclear alliance. They were joined by countries like Japan, which maintain close relations with the United States.

These states did not simply refuse to join in with the TPNW and ignore it: a coordinated and determined effort has been made to stop nations from ratifying and to systematically undermine the legal status of the Treaty.

For instance, the presence of member and soon-to-be members of the nuclear-armed NATO alliance at the First Meeting of State Parties (1MSP) of the TPNW raises a number of questions. First amongst these is: what were they doing there?

Was this a sign, as some hoped, that NATO member states were finally ready to positively engage with the project of nuclear abolition? No.

NATO and NATO-aligned states took the opportunity of their observer status and the speaking rights afforded to them to either challenge the TPNW itself or to promote fallacies around nuclear weapons.

Norways statement to 1MSP is explicit:

Norway is attending this conference as an observer. This is not a step towards signing nor ratifying the TPNW, which would be incompatible with our NATO obligations. Norway stands fully behind NATOs nuclear posture.

The Netherlands struck a similar note:

this is not the first time we have participated in the TPNW discussions. We would like to remind delegations of our participation in the 2017 negotiations leading up to this Treaty, including offering concrete suggestions to make the TPNW a more broadly acceptable and credible disarmament treaty – not only to us but also possibly to other NATO Allies which were unfortunately rejected.

Here, The Netherlands not only objects to the TPNW but points out that it has been objecting since 2017! They have been persistently objecting to the TPNW from the very start. The first prize for clarity, enveloped in a cloud of dire hypocrisy, is awarded to Germany, which stated in its address to the 1MSP that:

As a member to NATO and as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance -, … Germany cannot accede to the TPNW, which would collide with our membership in NATO including nuclear deterrence. As non-member to the TPNW we are not bound by its provisions, nor do we accept the claim that its provisions are applicable under customary law now or in the future.

It is almost as if, like me, the German Foreign Office did an internet search of persistent objector and crafted their statement to the 1MSP in order to precisely comply with the definition. What is this ‘Persistent objection’ about?

According to a 2021 Chatham House report:

While it is a general principle of international law that treaties do not create obligations for third states, it is also an accepted principle that a rule set forth in a treaty could, under certain conditions, become binding on a third state as a customary rule … However, this is not an automatic process. Two distinct concepts are relevant here: the concept of so-called specially affected states, and that of persistent objectors … As the ICJ has explained, a lack of consent from specially affected states may have the effect of preventing the required general state practice from emerging, preventing the rule from coming into being in the first place. There is a strong argument that states with nuclear weapons and those in a nuclear alliance would be specially affected by a proposed ban on nuclear weapons. Even if a rule is indeed created, states that have objected to a certain degree to its emergence – so-called persistent objectors – will not be bound by it.

What does all of this illustrate?

Firstly: that the nuclear armed states and their allies in the nuclear-armed alliances will not easily give up their nuclear weapons. This is why campaigns like CND have a vital role to play and why we have to approach the problem from a number of directions: international law, political and mass action.

Secondly: that those who most consistently preach the gospel of ‘international law’ and promote their own version of a ‘global rules based order’ do so hypocritically, deviously and in their own interests.

In his recent book, The Last Colony – A tale of exile, justice and Britain’s colonial legacy, Philippe Sands writes:

In 1945, Britain and the United States had committed themselves to a rules-based international order, then they flaunted the rules. They committed themselves to …[a] vision of decolonisation and human rights, then shredded their own commitments.

What is Sands referring to specifically? What does it have to do with nuclear weapons? Quite a lot, as we shall see.

Six thousand miles from here are a group of islands which the British government refers to as the British Indian Ocean Territory – or BIOT for short. These islands may be more familiar as the Chagos islands.

In 1965 the United Kingdom split the Chagos islands from Mauritius. It did this in direct contravention of United Nations rules, which made clear that the process of decolonisation should not involve splitting or removing territory. The UK acted illegally.

The Chagossians demanded the right to self-determination. This right is enshrined in the UN Charter. Britain refused their demand: again, illegal under international law. Instructively, this same right to self-determination – as enshrined in the UN Charter – was invoked by Britain to legally justify its actions during the Falklands War. The Chagossians were entitled to ask why such a right pertained for white Falklanders but not for themselves.

Over and over again, Britain ignored the plight of the Chagossians – a people who had been ripped from their land, transported across oceans and left to suffer.

Britain inflicted suffering, injustice and worse on the Chagnossians in contravention of international law whilst presenting itself as a champion of a ‘global rules based order’.

It was not until 2017 that things started to change for the Chagossians, who refused to give up the fight. In June 2017, the UN General Assembly voted 94 to 15 to ask the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion on the legality of the initial separation. On 25 February 2019, the ICJ ruled 13-1 that the UK was under obligation to reverse the separation: to give Chagos back. It took until 3 November 2022 for James Cleverely, the British Foreign Secretary, to announce the UK’s willingness to begin negotiations for a return: but with one condition – the continued operation of the airbase at Diego Garcia.

Diego Garcia is an enormous airstrip for the United States. It is the place from which bombing raids on Iraq and the wider Middle East were launched. As Philippe Sands explained in one of his earlier books, Diego Garcia was also used as a torture site. It is ‘British territory’.

Just how did the United States end up with an enormous airbase on territory stolen by Britain in the middle of the Indian Ocean – all in contravention of international law. How was the United States allowed to use this stolen territory to launch an illegal war on Iraq? How was the United States allowed to use this stolen territory to conduct torture?

There exist a series of agreements and treaties between the United States and the United Kingdom made in the aftermath of the Second World War allowing for the use of UK bases by the US military. The Lakenheath airbase is another such example.

We’re told that this is ‘RAF’ Lakenheath but it is no such thing. It is a US base. The F35 aircraft that are stationed there are American. The pilots of these aircraft are American. The B61 nuclear bombs that look set to be stationed there are American.

The only thing ‘Royal’ about the place are a smattering of British personnel on the gates.

The return of US nuclear bombs to Lakenheath will be done without fanfare, without discussion, deliberation or the opportunity for dissent within official politics.

There has been no official statement and when asked, the British government equivocates.

If Chagos is the last British colony, what does that make Lakenheath?

Nuclear developments have always happened under a veil of secrecy, from the initiation of the British atomic programme by the 1945 Atlee government to the announcement in Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review that ‘transparency’ over these issues will end.

The existence of nuclear sharing sites across Europe – something everyone knew about – was only officially confirmed when someone working at NATO in Brussels accidentally uploaded the wrong document onto their website!

The expansion of the nuclear bootprint – which is how I characterise developments at Lakenheath – would be very dangerous at the best of times. It is potentially deadly in the current circumstances.

In January 2022, the Permanent 5 – the five nuclear armed states with a permanent seat on UN Security Council issued a statement that said: “Nuclear war can not be won and must never be fought.” They echoed a similar statement from Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev that many of you will recall from the 1980s.

How sincere was this statement? Quite apart from the demonstrable hostility of the P5 to the TPNW and their ongoing failure to uphold the basics of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they claim to hold so dear, we have witnessed a number of deeply troubling developments:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has massively increased nuclear tensions.

The ‘taboo’ on threatening nuclear use has been drastically undermined: not just by Putin’s public announcements – although these are the most high-profile – but also by the United States.

A totally inadequate response to these events: No effort to reduce nuclear tensions, no effort to end the war by diplomacy and negotiation.

Rather, we’ve seen repeated public speculation about how nuclear weapons could be used, debates around ‘tactical’ vs ‘strategic’ weapons all of which creates a normalisation of the murderously abnormal.

Rather than rolling back on the worst excesses of Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, Biden’s version looks eerily familiar.

So, what to do about it:

  • Think globally about our problems and understand what it all means
  • Act locally to raise the alarm, spread the message but – importantly – to work decisively towards removing each and every roadblock to peace.