It's Time to Ban Nuclear Weapons
"Those with power are never going to give up their power voluntarily. It has to be a demand from others."
Photo by Dom Smaz
Decades after the Cold War, the world has made shockingly little progress toward nuclear disarmament. Instead, nations have struggled just to contain nuclear proliferation, if not—especially with Donald Trump in office—a new arms race and potential nuclear conflict. Yet last fall, 123 United Nations member states voted (over the objections of the world's nuclear powers and their military allies) to start crafting a treaty that would go beyond limiting proliferation and paring down existing stockpiles—it would ban the bomb's use or possession outright, worldwide.
Nuclear states and their allies, a block made up of some 40 nations, boycotted the first round of negotiations in late March, arguing disarmament has to come in gradual spurts lest someone cheat and unbalance deterrence, leaving the world insecure. But the talks went ahead anyway, with a second round slated for June 15 to July 7. Before they begin, I caught up with Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a coalition of more than 440 pro-disarmament groups in 100 nations that helped push for these talks on humanitarian grounds. We discussed why this push is unfolding now, her hopes for the treaty, and what comes next for nuclear disarmament.
VICE: Why make the push for a disarmament treaty this year, especially when it seems like the world is struggling just to contain nuclear weapons and conflicts?
Beatrice Fihn: People thought there was a norm: We have [nuclear weapons], but we don't use them. The current climate gives us urgency and makes people realize gradual reductions don't challenge the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. Nonnuclear governments feel concerned because if there is a nuclear detonation… radiation spreads. All countries have a responsibility to make sure this doesn't happen. The ban treaty is a way for governments to make sure of that, to strengthen this norm that nuclear weapons are not acceptable. They are inhuman, indiscriminate weapons. There was this feeling that we cannot wait for the nuclear-armed states. Those with power are never going to give up their power voluntarily. It has to be a demand from others.
How did the March talks go, especially with nuclear-armed states and their allies absent?
The negotiations went beyond our expectations. There was nothing new from the boycott of the nuclear-armed states, but it was the first time they weren't in the room. It went very fast, and the common ground was very clear when there weren't big countries opposing the whole initiative. Also, we were able to speak. The UN hasn't always been great about engagement with civil society. Today, civil societies are very powerful actors. In communications work and outreach, they're much better than governments sometimes.
Are there sticking points that could hold up the treaty?
It's pretty clear that there will be a prohibition on use and possession, but there are a couple of tricky issues, like transit. If you're an ally to the United States, and they have warships coming through your ports and they don't tell you what's on them, then what responsibilities do you have? There was an attempt to delay the treaty [via] rules and procedures… manipulative moves that governments make to throw some agenda in there. But there was enough cohesion in the room that I have confidence it's possible to get it done by July 7.
The logic of this treaty is based on past talks concerning weapons like land mines where major military powers at first opted out, but resultant treaties signed by a large number of smaller states eventually forced them into compliance. Can that work for nuclear weapons, which seem more strategically vital than other munitions?
People don't have to look at nuclear weapons that way forever. Land mines were considered an essential part of defense. Suddenly they were banned, and they weren't. It's possible to change.
But how do you get a non-participant, heavily nuclear-armed state like the US or Russia to comply with those norms?
The United States hasn't signed the land-mines treaty, but they have started following the norm. This will challenge their perceived right to hold on to these weapons forever. The world is moving on. Hopefully that will mean it will be less attractive for the US to spend $1 trillion in modernizing them. I don't think all the nuclear-armed states will sign this treaty, and then we'll get to zero. They're just going to be less and less relevant and thereby be eliminated in the end.
How far could nuclear disarmament advance five, ten years after the treaty is created?
We're going to have to work on making sure every state possible signs it. Then we're going to have to work on the ratification process. Each of these stages will be a new opportunity to argue for this new norm. We have strong campaigns in NATO countries. We'll try to pick them off one by one. It's not going to be just the ban treaty that makes nuclear-armed states disarm. But we hope to be one of the reasons.