Progress on Nuclear Disarmament Has Always Depended on Non-Nuclear-Armed States and Civil Society

•25 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

This is the final piece in my series onDeconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference”. It is republished from NPT News in Review. The previous two posts pointed out the problems with the claim that nuclear weapons prevent war and the considered the politics of nuclear weapons states’ denial of humanitarian consequences.

Over the last month at the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference we have heard too many times that progress on disarmament “relies on engagement with the nuclear weapons states.” This usually comes from nuclear-dependent states, such as Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Australia, which are not officially nuclear-armed but have military doctrines that rely on US capabilities. Some even store US nuclear weapons on their soil.

But this conventional wisdom is lazy, lacks courage, and misrepresents the history of normative progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is beholden to the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the USA, Russia, China, UK, and France. It is an argument for the status quo, in which, as Costa Rica put it on Monday, 18 May, nuclear-armed states “pat themselves on the back” for their meager and slowing limitations on arsenals. Indeed the outcome of the NPT RevCon—with consensus on the outcome text blocked by nucleararmed states but 107 non-nuclear states backing a call for nuclear weapon prohibition and elimination—shows where the momentum for progress lies.

In reviewing the history of nuclear weapons, the major moments of change occurred when those at the “fringes”—small states, middle powers, humanitarian agencies, human rights advocates, faith leaders and religious organizations, activists, intellectuals, and artists—spoke out, withdrew their consent, or moved forward on their own.

Many justifiably point to US President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 UN speech as a game-changer in the discourse about nuclear weapons, clearing stating that they “must be abolished before they abolish us.” But what is often overlooked is how much political pressure the US and Soviet foreign policy elite were under in the 1950s to end the debilitating terror of nuclear weapons.

Religious institutions like the Vatican and World Council of Churches issued strong condemnation of nuclear weapons. The 1955 “Manifesto” by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell signed by prominent intellectuals around the globe called for an “agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments” and led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. This was accompanied by a groundswell of social discontent, such as the Aldermaston Marches and the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—with its famous “peace sign” logo—in the late 1950s.

The momentum for nuclear disarmament was dissipated by the complete breakdown in trust between the superpowers during the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it is worth remembering that Kennedy held back from escalating the crisis because the worldview of his civilian advisors had developed outside of military structures. The pressure to avoid nuclear war from civil society had been transmitted to the White House and ultimately prevailed.

Frustrated and frightened by an arms race that threatened the whole of human existence, during the 1960s small states and middle powers decided that they could not wait for the superpowers to halt their destructive spiral. Just a month after the height of the confrontation over Cuba, the UN General Assembly (where smaller states have a majority) passed resolution 1909 calling for “a convention on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermos-nuclear weapons.”

The Latin American and Caribbean states went even further by innovating the first nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) —the Treaty of Tlatetlolco—in 1967. Since then, the majority of states are now members of NWFZ treaties. Several small states, particularly Ireland, played an instrumental role in getting the two superpowers and nuclear armed states to commit to the NPT, including the article VI obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.”

Traditional theories of international relations—focused as they are on the distribution of bombs and tanks rather than the role of symbols and idea—has also often underestimated the effect that the arts have on shaping the thinking of policymakers. “Dr. Strangelove” did more perhaps than any UN panel or politician’s speech to undermine the faulty logic of “mutually assured destruction.” And President Reagan admitted in his diary that watching the 1983 film “The Day After” alerted him to the immense dangers of nuclear war.

Such artistic products both drew from and inspired further unprecedented levels of protest in the 1980s, including the Plowshares actions, Greenham Common occupation, and the million people who gathered in Central Park in 1982.

In the last five years we have seen the increasing coordination between disparate groups traditionally marginalized from global policymaking on security. The launch in 2007 of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) brought new public attention to nuclear disarmament and galvanized a new generation of politically savvy activists.

ICAN has been particularly effective at organizing in coalitions with middle powers and small states, resulting in the three conferences on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. This modelled a refreshingly different way of talking about nuclear weapons, putting victims and survivors (both past and future) and the human impact—rather than outmoded notions of “deterrence”—at the center of the conversation.

And this is not just talk. There is now new impetus for action, symbolized by the Humanitarian Pledge— signed by 107 states so far—to “fill the legal gap” in order “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

The late international relations theorist and nuclear weapons apologist Professor Kenneth Waltz once scoffed that it would be “ridiculous to construct a theory of international politics based on Malaysia and Costa Rica.” He believed that if you wanted to understand the way the world works you only needed to pay attention to the great military powers.

But, as Costa Rica pointed out in a side event this week, the emerging field of humanitarian disarmament has shown just how blinkered this supposedly “realist” view is. Antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions were banned through a disciplined and tightly coordinated coalition of civil society, middle powers, and smaller states. Even though some of the major military powers have failed to sign these treaties, they have largely accepted the new norms.

Costa Rica and Malaysia are both members of the Humanitarian Pledge. They are precisely the countries to pay attention to if you want to construct a new, more humane, theory of international politics. Looking to the supposed margins—small states, activists, advocates, humanitarians, intellectuals, and artists—we can envision theory that instead of cultivating passivity ushers in a world free of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Disarmament Is Key to, Not Conditional on, General and Complete Disarmament

•21 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

This is a write-up of a side event panel during the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations. Reprinted from NPT News in Review.

This panel, chaired by Maritza Chan, Minister Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica, and co-hosted by Pace University and SCRAP, aimed to provide background and perspective on the concept of “general and complete disarmament” (GCD) found in article VI of the NPT. The side event was well timed, following a discussion in Main Committee I in which nuclear-armed states had misused the concept, seeing it as a precondition of nuclear disarmament.

All the panelists refuted this notion, arguing that GCD is an important concept and provided vision for thinking strategically about the disarmament process, but should not be seen as a prerequisite for progress on prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. Maritza Chan opened the discussion by critiquing the claim “that a course of action that could make the world a less violent, insecure, and unjust place is ‘unrealistic’,” saying that it “is often a claim about the limits of imagination and courage.”

She pointed to the example of Costa Rica’s unilateral disarmament and demilitarization in 1948: “Since then, Costa Rica has been at the forefront of efforts to promote international disarmament and peaceful resolution of conflicts.” She stated that the concept of GCD “is often dismissed outright as an unrealistic idea or it is used as an empty phrase to suggest a well-meaning though perhaps insincere commitment to eventual world peace. Lately, we have seen it used as a diversionary tool by those who claim progress on nuclear disarmament will only come in some far distant future of global stability.”

Dr. Matthew Bolton of Pace University in New York City then provided a history of the development of the idea of GCD from its roots in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, the League of Nations covenant, and early Cold War disarmament negotiations. He asserted that the humanitarian initiative—putting the human at the center of disarmament eforts—offered the most promise for progress on nuclear disarmament and offered a vision of an approach to proceed on conventional weapons disarmament too.

Following this background, Dr. John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, provided a legal analysis of article VI, demonstrating that the NPT obliges states to progress on nuclear disarmament as a key element of a broader goal of fulfilling GCD. Nuclear disarmament cannot and should not be held hostage by the misuse of the term.

“The practice of states parties and the agreements reached in the Final Documents adopted by NPT Review Conferences demonstrate that the third component of Article VI cannot be interpreted as requiring that nuclear disarmament is to be implemented through one Treaty covering other weapons and armed forces generally,” he said. “Rather, a nuclear disarmament convention (or similar instrument or instruments), like the conventions on biological and chemical weapons, would be a contribution to the objective of general and complete disarmament.”

Dr. Emily Welty of the World Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs challenged participants to root disarmament work in a broader vision of just peace. She dismissed claims that discussions should be solely “pragmatic” or “realistic”, noting that for people of faith, disarmament requires engaging in acts of “prophetic imagination”.

Christopher King of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) called on states to develop a “modern version of GCD” that acknowledges that disarmament and arms control must take place in the context of broader peacebuilding. He challenged participants to think about how to “bring these disparate partial measures together” into a cohesive “strategy” and “narrative.” He stated that “civil society and academia’s creative and innovative solutions” could help lead the way.

Paul Meyer of the Simons Foundation and Simon Fraser University rejected the “hard linkage” of nuclear disarmament and GCD, but called attention to the “soft linkages” between a security system rooted in “nuclear weapons” and “a world awash with weapons” of the conventional kind. He pointed to the progress in Europe toward the end of the Cold War on seeking both conventional and nuclear disarmament, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Meyer introduced the SCRAP “Basic Elements” proposal, developed at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, which aimed to show the possibility of moving forward on GCD. He said that it is “exactly in these times” of insecurity” that we must “consider what is possible”

The Importance of Disarmament Education

•21 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

Last week I spoke on a panel at the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference on “Disarmament and Nonproliferation Education”, organized by the Mexican and Japanese Missions to the UN. Here is a brief write-up of the event, reprinted from NPT News in Review:

Action 22 of the 2010 Action Plan of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) encouraged all states to implement “disarmament and non-proliferation education … in support of achieving a world without nuclear weapons.” At this lunchtime side event sponsored by Japan and Mexico, on 12 May, educators, UN officials, and diplomats shared their experiences promoting disarmament and non-proliferation education in a variety of contexts.

Ambassador Toshio Sano of Japan chaired the event, welcoming the “growing recognition of the importance of disarmament education”—evidenced by the joint statement of 73 states in Main Committee I. But he called on states to embrace a “culture of reporting” so that they can “learn from each other, create synergies and opportunities.” Only 10 states submitted relevant information to the UN for the 2014 Secretary-General report.

Tonie Jaquez, Mexico’s Deputy Director General for Disarmament and the UN General Assembly agreed, saying “education and promotion of values are crucial for attaining a nuclear free world.” Education is central, Jaquez said, to cultivating an understanding that “a peace sustained by weapons is not a sustainable peace.”

The Nayarit Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons was for Mexico an expression of its commitment to disarmament education, said Jaquez. She also outlined a variety of initiatives of the Mexican government, such as the inclusion of disarmament education in the training of diplomats and military attaches, a short course for Latin American diplomats posted to the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).

Virginia Gamba, Director and Deputy to the High Representative for UN Disarmament Affairs said that UNODA is “committed to promoting” disarmament and non-proliferation education as “an essential” but “often overlooked” element in the implementation of the NPT. She celebrated the contributions of “ardent young activists” in their efforts to “strip nuclear weapons of their prestige and power” and she called on states to “educate the younger generation” on the “catastrophic” impact of nuclear weapons.

UNODA’s John Ennis, Chief of the Information and Outreach Branch, provided an overview of its communication through internet and print media, conferences, public events, and briefings to teachers and students. He highlighted UNODA’s art and poetry contests, saying “art and literature form a meaningful way for a wide variety of people in the public” to engage with disarmament issues. He invited everyone to visit UNODA’s new disarmament education portal ( disarmament/education).

Ennis also called attention to the UNODA’s partnership with Japan in the preservation and translation of the hibakusha’s personal stories. “These testimonies provide a window to empathy,” he said, by putting “the human dimension at the center of our efforts to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.”

The other three speakers were all university educators. Professor William Potter of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) outlined a variety of best practices for disarmament education. Rather than telling students “what to think,”he said educators should instead emphasize the development of critical thinking skills and empathy, using participatory and active learning methods (such as simulation) and new information technology.

Professor Nobumasa Akiyama of Hitosubashi University spoke about the importance of raising the awareness of the general student population at a university, beyond classes which reach only a self-selecting group of students already interested in disarmament and nonproliferation. He recounted his efforts to deepen students’ understanding of the stories of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through public events.

Dr. Matthew Bolton described the emerging role of Pace University in New York City as a hub for disarmament education, including convening the annual Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Forum and teaching undergraduates in classes offered by the Peace and Justice Studies, Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies program. He shared his experience teaching an undergraduate “Global Politics of Disarmament and Arms Control” class and called on disarmament organizations to provide volunteer and internship opportunities to young people.

No New Information on the Consequences of Nuclear Weapons?

•14 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

Adapted and republished from a version published in NPT News in Review.

Stop the MadnessMany diplomatic discussions of nuclear weapons tend toward the dry and mind-numbing—perhaps by design—trying the patience of those who are working for a nuclear free world. However, late in the afternoon on Monday, the debate in Main Committee I of the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) took a turn for the dramatic.

France took the floor and delivered a statement that astounded both in its absurdity and forcefulness, dismissing the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, including the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. “There has been no new information” on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons “in decades,” the French ambassador fumed. Shortly thereafter, the delegate of the Russian Federation mused that those who believe that nuclear disarmament efforts are slowing must be using a “different version of maths”.

As I listened to this, I noticed I had started shaking. This sort of “emotional response” is often disparaged as not belonging in the United Nations, but I think my fear was justified.

France’s claim that there is “no new information” sounds remarkably like what social psychologists would identify as a projection of fault onto others. The claim that there is no new information is actually an admission that they do not listen to new information or wish there was no new information.

Indeed, the French and Russian statements unmask the brutal madness underlying the discourse of nuclear “realism” peddled by nuclear-armed states. It is an assertion that reality is what we with power say it is, not what scientists have observed about it. It recalls the comment made by a Bush administration official in 2002 to a journalist that those who “believe that solutions emerge from … judicious study of discernible reality” are misguided because, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”

The philosopher Hannah Arendt actually saw this attitude, what she called “action-as-propaganda,” as the essence of totalitarianism: claim something blatantly surreal and then force everyone to live in that reality, creating the evidence for your own claim. Say there is no new information; block any attempts to gather new information; then say, “See! There’s no new information!”

Might, apparently, makes right.

Ironically, this view recognizes the possibility that the status quo can change through exercising power. It also perhaps explains the ferocity of France’s rhetoric—they understand the fragility of the status quo and sense the possibility of losing control.

The Austrian ambassador’s response during the debate offered an alternative vision for global policymaking, distinct from unabashed great power strongarming. Listing the voluminous new insights into the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons since the 1980s, he called for an approach to nuclear disarmament based on “human security.” He also suggested that those states that claim there is no new information might have benefited from attending the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna (which France did not).

But at a certain point, he paused uncomfortably and said he was “lost for words”. I empathize. At a certain point when someone makes such a brazen claim of denial, does it make sense to continue to try to state the obvious?

It strikes me that it is actually the silence of the nuclear-dependent states that most enables the ongoing “nuclear consequences denial” of the nuclear-armed states. They remained conspicuously quiet after France’s statement.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that it was seemingly well-intentioned white “moderates” —those who said “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods” —who perpetuated the persistence of racism and segregation. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he said. They provided the veneer of legitimacy and normalcy to an illegitimate system. Dr. King noted that a “gentle” segregationist was still “dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.”

Similarly, eliminating nuclear weapons requires that those states acknowledging the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons but remaining complicit with the nuclear-armed states to break their silence. “Building consensus” around denial would be a consensus of delusion and support a “security” system based on the most inhumane weapons ever built.

For an earlier installment in my “Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse” blog posts, click here.

Unpacking the Claim that Nuclear Weapons Prevent War

•6 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

Republished from NPT News in Review.

While I have been researching disarmament and arms control for more than a decade, I have largely concentrated on conventional weapons, like landmines, cluster munitions, small arms and military robotics. I am reminded of this when, in conversations with diplomats of nuclear-armed countries in forums like the ongoing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, I am told that nuclear weapons are “different.”  I am politely informed that my experience working on addressing the humanitarian harm of other weapons is thus irrelevant, because as the line often goes, “nuclear weapons are not for using in war, they are for preventing war.”

This is a rather bold claim and is, of course, empirically incorrect: the US used nuclear weapons in war against Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nevertheless the idea that nuclear weapons somehow prevent war is repeated ad nauseam by nuclear technocrats. I’m tired of hearing this cliché, so I would like to call attention to five key problems with its logic:

  1. Nuclear weapons have a poor record of preventing war and/or escalation. India and Pakistan are nuclear armed, but have engaged in numerous clashes. Israel has been attacked several times since obtaining nuclear weapons. And at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal did not prevent Kennedy from calling their bluff in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ward Wilson’s book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons does a particularly good job of showing how “nuclear deterrence failed to restrain leaders from aggression in any number of nuclear crises.”
  2. If nuclear weapons prevent war, why shouldn’t all states have access to them? Let us for a moment assume that nuclear weapons are a magical war-preventing technology. That to me seems like an argument for proliferation. The claim by the nuclear powers that their weapons promote stability seems to be undermined by their strenuous efforts to prevent other states from getting them. If they prevent war, why be afraid of more nuclear weapons in more hands?
  3. The alarming history of nuclear accidents suggests there are no “responsible” holders of nuclear weapons. The most common response to the rhetorical question in point 2 above is that some states are more “responsible” than others and can be trusted to be good stewards over these planet-threatening weapons. However, researchers like Eric Schlosser document a history of hair-raising near misses and close calls. We have only avoided nuclear weapons accidents – and in some cases outright nuclear war – through sheer blind luck. Satirist John Oliver has also exposed just how poorly the United States has managed its nuclear weapons stockpiles.
  4. The foreign policy elite in Nuclear Weapons States have often overestimated their own role (and underestimate that of smaller states and civil society) in preventing nuclear war. There is a tautological logic in deterrence theory – “we didn’t use nuclear weapons during the Cold War because we had nuclear weapons.” But revisiting Cold War history shows that there was tremendous normative pressure on leaders of the nuclear armed states coming from smaller, non-nuclear weapons states, which passed resolutions in the UN General Assembly, worked to establish Nuclear Weapons Free Zones and pushed for the NPT. Civil society also shaped the political landscape in which nuclear armed states’ leaders operated. Demonstrations – at Aldermaston, Greenham Common and Central Park – kept political pressure on elected officials. Intellectual and artistic products shaped public discourse; President Reagan admitted in his diary that watching the 1983 film The Day After, alerted him to the immense dangers of nuclear war.
  5. Saying that nuclear weapons prevent “war” ignores the other forms of widespread harm they have caused. Over the last couple years, the conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna have highlighted the devastating human and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear testing and mining for uranium has caused terrible medical problems from people in the Marshall Islands, the Southwestern United States and French Polynesia. The costs of maintaining nuclear weapons draw valuable resources from other government priorities like social programs. If we only think of “war” as the large-scale confrontations of great military powers, we miss the more fine-grained and everyday violence caused by nuclear weapons. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Reaching Critical Will project has collected the evidence of this humanitarian impact in their report Unspeakable Suffering.

In reflecting on the discussions at the NPT it strikes me that while nuclear weapons are obviously “different” from many conventional weapons in their scale and capacity for devastation, they are also different in the deep mythology and rationalizations that surround them. But we have banned the other weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological weapons) and several particularly harmful conventional weapons too (dum dum bullets, blinding lasers, anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions). Given the potential catastrophic effects of miscalculation, if we are even slightly uncertain about the supposed magical properties of nuclear weapons to prevent war we must ban and eliminate them too.

Posted with minor corrections to the original version in NPT News in Review.

My Statement for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control at the UN Meeting of Experts on Killer Robots

•29 April 2015 • Leave a Comment

On 17 April, I delivered the closing statement for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Informal Meeting of Experts at the United Nations in Geneva. This is what I said:

Continue reading ‘My Statement for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control at the UN Meeting of Experts on Killer Robots’

Model United Nations Urges Ban on Killer Robots

•6 April 2015 • Leave a Comment

UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon “energized” by students’ “serious discussions” on autonomous weapons systems

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses National Model UN conference in the General Assembly Room, 26 March 2015. Photo: NMUN.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses National Model UN conference in the General Assembly Room, 26 March 2015. Photo: NMUN.


In less than two weeks, diplomats from around the world will gather at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss potential global regulations on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” that would be able to select and attack targets without direct human control.

But last week, at the National Model UN conference in New York, attended by some 2,500 undergraduate students from all over the world, a simulation of the UN General Assembly passed three resolutions calling for states to take action to prevent the threat of these “killer robots” to security, human rights and humanitarian law.


Reblogged from — to read the whole post, click here.