Hiroshima and the World: A Nuclear Weapons Convention – Now We Can!

by Alyn Ware

Alyn Ware
Alyn Ware is a peace educator and a consultant for peace and disarmament. He is currently Director of the Peace Foundation Wellington Office (Aotearoa-New Zealand), Global Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (which he founded), Director of Aotearoa Lawyers for Peace and a Consultant at Large for the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (USA) and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms.

He was the UN Coordinator for the World Court Project, which led the effort to achieve a ruling from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. He coordinated the drafting of a model treaty on the abolition of nuclear weapons (Nuclear Weapons Convention) which has been circulated by the United Nations and promoted by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Mr. Ware was awarded the 1996 UN International Year of Peace (New Zealand) prize and the 2009 Right Livelihood Award ("Alternative Nobel Peace Prize") in honor of his peace education and disarmament work. He was born in New Zealand in March 1962 and acquired a Bachelor of Education from Waikato University in 1983.

A Nuclear Weapons Convention – Now We Can!

"Tell me which you think is stronger?" the Owl asked the Hawk. "A snowflake or a pine tree?" "Why the pine tree of course," said the Hawk. "Then let me tell you something," said the Owl. "Last week I was in the forest and it started snowing. One by one, snowflakes alighted on this branch of a pine tree. Each snowflake weighed next to nothing. But as more and more snowflakes landed on the branch it started to bend with the weight – until finally it broke."

When I was 9 years old my ambition was to be a physicist. My heroes were Ernest Rutherford – the New Zealander who split the atom – and Albert Einstein who produced the formula that predicted the energy in an atom – E=MC2. But when I learnt about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the Pacific Islands – where atmospheric testing has destroyed whole islands and given rise to horrific cases of deformed babies, cancers and other health effects – I decided instead to be a peace educator and activist.

Maybe my small voice and limited actions would have no impact on the nuclear weapon States, their policies of nuclear deterrence, the excessive power they exercised, and the political support for nuclear deterrence from the belief that threatening to destroy others provides security. Or perhaps my voice could be one of the many that, like the snowflakes that broke the pine-tree-branch, would finally shift the global security framework from one of nuclear annihilation to one of peace and common security.

Recent developments give me the confidence that a more peaceful global framework, and in particular the abolition of nuclear weapons through a Nuclear Weapons Convention, are now achievable.

A key indication of this is the agreement in May 2010 by the States parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – including the five nuclear-armed countries China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – that "All States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons." The States also noted "the Five-Point Proposal for Nuclear Disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which proposes inter alia the consideration of negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention or a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments backed by a strong system of verification."

This is a breakthrough that makes it now possible for governments – supported by civil society – to start deliberations and negotiations on the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Background to the Nuclear Weapons Convention

Nuclear Weapons Convention – A negotiated global treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons and provide a phased plan for their complete elimination under strict and effective international control.

The idea of a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) is not new. In 1995, a major push for a NWC was made during the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference. At that time I was part of a small group of activists that drafted a statement calling for full implementation of the NPT by 2000 through the abolition of nuclear weapons under a Nuclear Weapons Convention. The Abolition 2000 statement received instant support from hundreds of non-governmental organizations but did not move the governments.

Then in 1996 the International Court of Justice concluded unanimously that "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." The United Nations General Assembly followed-up by annually adopting resolutions calling upon all States to "immediately to fulfill that obligation by commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination."

However, only some of the States possessing nuclear weapons supported this resolution – namely China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The opposition of other nuclear weapon States and their allies has, until now, prevented the start of such negotiations. The 2010 NPT Review Conference decision changes this – and makes it finally possible to start work on a NWC.

The Model NWC

In 1996, in order to demonstrate the feasibility of a nuclear abolition, I brought together a group of disarmament experts under the auspices of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, to draft a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention.

The drafters took a realistic approach to nuclear disarmament, discussing the various political, technical and legal issues that would need to be solved in order for governments to agree to nuclear disarmament. In essence, we took the role of governments negotiating an actual treaty and attempted to address all their possible concerns. The outcome was a 70-page document that included general obligations, a phased program for disarmament, mechanisms for verifying compliance, confidence-building and conflict resolution measures, enforcement mechanisms, individual as well as State responsibility, and other aspects relating to nuclear arsenals, delivery systems, fissile materials and nuclear facilities.

An updated Model NWC was presented to the NPT Preparatory Committee and the UN General Assembly in 2007, circulated in all official UN languages and supported by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his 2008 Five-Point-Plan for Nuclear Disarmament.

Support from parliamentarians and civil society

Support from parliamentarians and civil society for a NWC has been growing. Over 4000 cities in Mayors for Peace, led by Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba and Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, support the call for the elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020 through a NWC. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, representing over 150 parliaments, adopted a resolution in April 2009 supporting Ban Ki-moon's Five-Point-Plan. Numerous parliaments have adopted their own resolutions in support including Austria, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and the European Parliament. Abolition 2000 has recently been joined by other global networks including Global Zero and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to promote a NWC.

Application of international humanitarian law

"The effects of the use of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in time or space." International Court of Justice, July 1996

International humanitarian law (IHL) prohibits the use of weapons or methods of warfare that would be indiscriminate (i.e. impact on civilians), cause unnecessary suffering, violate neutral territory, be disproportionate to the provocation, or cause long-term and severe damage to the environment. Military necessity does not override this law.

The application of IHL to landmines and cluster munitions motivated the international community to counter the military arguments for these weapons and achieve global bans on them. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Swiss government and others have recently launched a campaign to use IHL in order to motivate the international community to ban nuclear weapons. They are supported by the International Court of Justice and the consensus agreement of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, both of which reinforced the application of IHL to nuclear weapons.

An IHL approach focuses on the abolition of the weapons regardless of whether-or-not there is agreement by all States. The Landmines and Cluster Munitions Conventions, for example, were achieved by like-minded groups of countries starting the negotiations along with all those who were prepared to join, without being blocked by those who were not ready to join. This is an approach now possible for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

How it could happen

Based on the agreement at the 2010 NPT Review Conference that: "All States need to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons" like-minded countries could now start a deliberation and negotiation process for the abolition of nuclear weapons. This could include a number of simultaneous initiatives including:

1. Negotiating a treaty on the illegality of the threat, use and possession of nuclear weapons that could be immediately signed by most non-Nuclear Weapon States (nuclear allies would need to abandon their adherence to nuclear deterrence in order to sign);
2. Adopting national measures to prohibit and criminalise nuclear weapons similar to the legislation adopted by New Zealand and Mongolia;
3. Adopting an amendment to the Statute of the International Criminal Court making the employment of nuclear weapons a crime coming under the jurisdiction of the court;
4. Undertaking preparatory work on a NWC including measures for verifying the phased elimination of existing arsenals and engaging with the Nuclear Weapon States on the draft measures with a view to securing their involvement in negotiations and support for the final treaty.

Respected middle-power countries with influence amongst the nuclear-weapon States have a key role to play in ensuring the success of this process. So too do the non-nuclear countries most effected by nuclear weapons – such as Japan, Kazakhstan and the Marshall Islands. Through their experience they can demonstrate and reinforce the illegitimacy of nuclear weapons under IHL.

NWC - Now We Can

The emerging globalised world makes the maintenance of nuclear weapons to defend national territories even more absurd than in the 20th Century, and also more possible to abolish. The NWS and their allies – along with the rest of us – have become intimately connected through globalised financial, communications, political and ecological systems. The effects of any use of nuclear weapons by one state against another would boomerang back on the using State through the financial collapse, environmental impacts, refugee crisis, political breakdown, communications collapse etc…caused by such use. The globalised world also provides a much better capacity to develop, implement, verify and enforce a nuclear weapons convention. Of course there are political leaders still stuck in 20th century thinking, countries which still derive power and status from nuclear weapons, and corporations with vested interests in the $100 billion nuclear weapons industry. But with enlightened leadership supported by civil society, the NWC is now within sight. Let's work together to make it happen.

(Originally published on July 26, 2010)

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