Hiroshima and the World: Time for the use of nuclear weapons to be recognised as a crime against humanity

by Rebecca Johnson

Rebecca Johnson
Dr. Johnson was born in Shropshire, England in 1954 and has been a long-time campaigner and organizer on peace and women's issues. She is director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, which she established in 1995, and editor of the international journal Disarmament Diplomacy. Her PhD from the London School of Economics is in international relations and multilateral diplomacy. Dr. Johnson is a prolific author and policy analyst on security and non-proliferation issues and has served as an advisor or board member for several organizations, including the International Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (2004-06), the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (2001-07), the Middle Powers Initiative (2007-), and the Women’s Network of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA).

Time for the use of nuclear weapons to be recognised as a crime against humanity

On March 17 Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a significant policy speech which spoke of the need for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in the context of promoting nuclear energy. He promised that the government would publish a “Road to 2010” with steps to reinforce non-proliferation and “a credible roadmap towards disarmament by all the nuclear weapons states--through measures that will command the confidence of all the non-nuclear weapons states.”

Several weeks earlier, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband published a report titled “Lifting the Nuclear Shadow,” with the subtitle “Creating the conditions for abolishing nuclear weapons.” This Foreign Office report pledged that “the UK is working to build a broad coalition of governments, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, and businesses which share the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and to forge agreement on how we will work together to make it happen.”

Many now think Britain is leading the way towards disarmament. I wish that were so! The desire for a world without nuclear weapons expressed by Prime Minister Brown and Foreign Secretary Miliband seems genuine. But there is a massive credibility gap between words and deeds, for unless domestic and international pressure can persuade the UK government to change course, it will shortly commit billions of pounds to building a new generation of nuclear armed submarines, claiming that these are “indispensable” to insure Britain’s future security.

In March 2007, before he left office, Tony Blair pushed through parliament an in-principle decision to procure the “son of Trident” to ensure Britain would be able to deploy a new generation of nuclear weapons beyond 2050. To persuade sceptical MPs, the government also promised “to take further steps towards meeting the UK’s disarmament responsibilities under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.” The decision to renew Trident was opposed by 95 MPs from the government’s party, plus a majority of MPs representing Scottish constituencies. This is important because the UK’s storage base for the Trident warheads and the home-port for the nuclear submarines are at Coulport and Faslane, linked naval bases some 35 miles from Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow.

Since helping to persuade colleagues to vote for the renewal of Trident, the Foreign and Defence Secretaries at the time, Margaret Beckett and Des Browne, have made public speeches calling for a world free of nuclear weapons and proposing that Britain should become a ‘disarmament laboratory’. Both of these Ministers have now been replaced by Gordon Brown. While Miliband shares his predecessor’s hopes, the new Defence Secretary is the most pro-Trident Member of Parliament in the Labour Party. John Hutton has a large vested interest in renewing Trident because the constituency that he represents in Parliament contains the Barrow shipyard that would make the new submarines. For Hutton, replacing Trident means jobs and money for his voters. For the rest of Britain, it means billions of pounds of hard-earned tax-payers’ money will be spent on a weapon that we don’t need, couldn’t use, don’t want, and that will prolong the age of nuclear insecurity.

Despite overwhelming opposition to Trident renewal (over 80 percent in Scotland), the UK government has ignored calls from British generals, the Scottish government, and a host of policy leaders and NGOs to reverse, or at least to revisit, the March 2007 decision to renew Trident. In the two years since Parliament voted, the validity of nuclear deterrence for 21st century security has come to be questioned by eminent Americans like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. For the first time politicians, defence and verification experts are discussing the practicalities of abolishing nuclear weapons rather than limiting their horizons to arms control.

Britain could play a crucial role in enabling the world to reach a tipping point where nuclear weapons are truly devalued and marginalised. But will it? UK leaders say all the right words, but they seem to lack the courage to make Britain take the necessary first steps.

UK reliance on nuclear weapons is diminishing, but the government is still scared that it will be accused of being inadequate on defence matters if it cancels Trident. Much more needs to be done to demonstrate that it is those who are clinging to nuclear arms that are wasting resources on weapons of terror that cannot enhance our security, the use of which--whether first or in retaliation--would be inhumane, indiscriminate and environmentally devastating. In other words, a crime against humanity.

Civil society in Britain has played an influential role in opposing the manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons. During 2006-2007, citizens from Scotland and all over the world, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, participated in the “Faslane 365” yearlong peaceful demonstration against Trident at Faslane. Thousands were arrested, claiming that they were not breaking the law but rather upholding international, moral and humanitarian law. After a night or two in police cells almost all charges were dropped. The Faslane 365 protests helped elect a majority in Scotland’s own Parliament opposed to Trident renewal. As a consequence, the Government appointed a Working Group on Scotland Without Nuclear Weapons, to examine how to carry out the wishes of Scotland’s people and help the UK government to fulfil its NPT obligations and get rid of Trident.

President Obama has also expressed support for nuclear abolition, but will need help from US allies to loosen the bonds of nuclear doctrine. Japan and NATO need to do more to demonstrate that they do not require US nuclear weapons to be extended or shared. There are many alternative tools to provide security and deterrence, and countries that currently rely on nuclear weapons need to rework their alliances and security arrangements to address 21st century threats.

Sixty years on, it is time for NATO to reduce nuclear dangers by ceasing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Whatever extended deterrence may have offered in the past, US alliance relations with Japan and NATO would become much healthier now if nuclear weapons were removed from the equations. It would be an irony of the worst and saddest kind if US efforts to reduce nuclear weapons were to be hampered by the unfounded anxieties of their non-nuclear allies.

If we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we now have to become serious about laying the groundwork for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would codify the obligations and tasks of ensuring the safe and secure elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide. After years of being dismissed as impossibly idealistic, the concept of a nuclear weapons convention is now being taken very seriously, most recently in a speech by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Working in partnership, progressive governments and civil society need to show that a comprehensive nuclear weapons treaty is a practical and achievable objective. Pending multilateral negotiations to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, which will take time and need complex verification arrangements, a highly significant next step would be to declare the use of nuclear weapons--by anyone, for any purpose--a crime against humanity, with concomitant universal obligations to assist anyone so threatened or attacked and bring perpetrators and their suppliers to justice.

With requisite resources and commitment, a nuclear weapons convention could become a reality sooner than most people think. Prudent governments should be planning for this likelihood and directing resources to resolving their real security problems, not wasting billions to modernise nuclear arsenals that must never be used.

In February, the High Court in London upheld the right to continue holding a monthly Women’s Peace Camp at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment. I had founded this Aldermaston Camp 24 years ago, while living outside the US nuclear base at Greenham Common, a few miles away. Now the Aldermaston Camp is at the forefront of efforts to prevent the renewal of Trident, while Greenham Common has been restored to Common Land.

People walk with their children and dogs, and a herd of rare Exmoor ponies run across grass land where nuclear-armed planes and cruise missiles rumbled just 25 years ago. This just goes to show what can be achieved if we want something enough. A nuclear weapon-free world is not just a vision for politicians to conjure up in flowery speeches. It is now a practical security imperative. To achieve it we have to work together, citizens from nuclear and non-nuclear states, to unequivocally reject security doctrines that make us hostage to nuclear war.

(Originally published on April 14, 2009)

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