The non-nuclear majority met in New York between 27 November and 1 December for the Second Meeting of States Parties (2MSP) to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This coming together was not simply ‘non-nuclear’ but decidedly anti-nuclear in outlook and approach.
The TPNW represents many things: a ‘work in progress’, a part of international law, a mechanism for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons and similar. What it represents politically, at the time of coming into force and since, is a full-frontal rejection of ‘nuclearism’ and a challenge to the nuclear-armed world. 2MSP saw discussion and decision making on how to embed this aspect of the Treaty.
Between 15 and 27 October 1953, the British government carried out ‘Operation Totem’ over an area in Southern Australia. Totem I and Totem II were atmospheric nuclear tests and together with five additional ‘non-critical’ tests, Britain delivered death and catastrophe on the First Nations people inhabiting the area.
These people “felt the ground shaking and the black mist rolling”, as Karina Lester put it on the floor of 2MSP. “We know our lands are poisoned”, she went on, clearly stating that “we want governments to recognise what they have done.”
What the British government did in 1953 was to consign a people and their land to death, destruction and continuing – intergenerational – harm.
The British government has refused to recognise or make recompense for what it did over seventy years ago and recently affirmed that it would not do so now. This roadblock to justice must be challenged, as should the other roadblocks to peace and justice that are erected by nuclear-armed states.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has been engaged on the question of Britain’s legacy of nuclear colonialism and recently agreed a resolution at our 2023 Policy Conference to enhance this work. The message coming loud and clear from 2MSP is that this aspect of our work is urgently necessary and incredibly important. Even in states like the UK which possess nuclear weapons and which take a hostile approach to the TPNW, the overall message and intent of the Treaty has universal applicability.
The theme of ‘universalisation’ was prominent at 2MSP, with a series a working papers, proposals and speeches made to address the concept. In an early ‘thematic debate’, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross outlined some of what this could mean. For example, highlighting and embedding the anti-nuclear consensus that any nuclear use would have an enormous humanitarian impact; being clear that nuclear possession is “not exceptional” and does not stand above and beyond international law.
A working paper submitted by the government of Austria goes into more detail, with specific reference to concepts of security: “the argument that opponents of the Treaty frequently employ in their criticism of the Treaty is that it ‘does not take today’s security environment into account’ or that ‘the security environment is not conducive to nuclear disarmament.’”
In response to these ‘arguments’, Austria is clear that “there has been little readiness by opponents of the Treaty, especially by the nuclear-armed States, to engage constructively with the legitimate security concerns formulated in and through the Treaty.”
What does this mean? That State Parties to the TPNW are not simply rejecting nuclear-weapon possession for the obvious moral and ethical reasons but because they fully reject the ‘security’ arguments of nuclear-possessor states and are clear that the destructive humanitarian impact of any nuclear use must be fully recognised and accounted for.
There were many similar contributions and discussions at 2MSP, both on the floor of the meeting and in a series of lively side events. These events ranged from addressing the issues of ‘nuclear secrecy’ to more in-depth discussions and seminars on nuclear risks and global politics.
What is clear is that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament can and will play an important role in pressing forward with ‘universalising’ anti-nuclear ideas, including those embodied in the TPNW.
It is also clear – and this is one of the more positive aspects of such international meetings – that CND and our supporters are the representatives of majority non-nuclear and anti-nuclear thinking in the UK. Given Britain’s nuclear-armed status and nuclear alliances, our work – and the work of the TPNW community globally – is as important as ever.
Tom Unterrainer is the chair of the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.