For campaigners for nuclear disarmament, the UN vote last week was “historic” – that much-abused notion that, like “iconic”, is all too often brandished to describe the mundane. But they may have a point.
Ireland and five other states (Austria, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa) successfully proposed a motion, 123 to 38 votes with 16 abstentions – to convene a conference to ban the bomb. To ban the production, storage, and use of all nuclear weapons.
It is a landmark first step to a global ban, however long it takes, supported by two-thirds of the UN’s member states.
Surprisingly, however, neither the Government nor this country’s often noisy neutrality lobby came out to bang the drum for this welcome ethical foreign policy initiative.
In proposing the resolution, Ireland broke with the majority of our EU partners and, in an important assertion of what has been described as “active neutrality” and our longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons, lined up with the proponents of controversial “unilateral disarmament”.
That is the idea that nuclear weapons are so morally repugnant, so indiscriminate and cataclysmic in their effects on civilians and the environment, that we should each forswear their use whether or not other states, particularly those we regard as nuclear threats, are also willing to do so.
Disarmament through moral example and political leadership – although it is also not incompatible with supporting the use of conventional force, or other coercion, to prevent others from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Supporters of the resolution say that, in changing attitudes, the political weight of a growing global consensus for a ban should not be underestimated and they cite the success of efforts to ban land mines.
The Ottawa Convention, which prohibited their manufacture and use, has been ratified by more than 160 countries. While Russia, China and the US refused to sign it, the Obama administration announced in 2014 that it planned to comply with the ban outside the Korean Peninsula, and to destroy its stockpile there if it wasn't needed for the defence of South Korea. A small but significant step.
Nuclear weapons remain the only weapons of mass destruction not yet outlawed in a comprehensive and universal manner.
The UN resolution, which is supposed to complement the obligation on nuclear weapon-owning signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to progressively reduce their nuclear arsenals, attempts to bridge what its supporters see as a yawning gap in international human rights law: the reality is that while it is clear that almost any conceivable use of nuclear weapons would clearly violate established humanitarian law, whether on the killing of noncombatants, or the proportionality of means, or in permanently degrading environments . . . the bomb itself remains legal.
Critics of the resolution argue that a ban would be naïve and well-meaning but ineffective. It would result in one-sided disarmament leaving states open to nuclear blackmail from those who would not sign up to it.
Nato’s committee on proliferation circulated a memo from the US to member states urging them to oppose the motion and to boycott any conference – it warned that the effects of a ban, in “delegitimising nuclear deterrence”, should not be underestimated and could be “wide-ranging and degrade existing security relationships”.
Of Nato states, only the Netherlands, with a clear decision to support a ban treaty from its parliament, abstained at the UN (the European Parliament, representing states a majority of whom are Nato members has, however, also backed the ban).
Fellow EU neutrals Sweden and Austria supported the resolution, although Finland, which has recently been edging closer to Nato, abstained.
Non-nuclear EU states who are members of Nato and states such as Australia, which has a long history of opposition to nuclear weapons, say they have a “shared vision of attaining global zero”, but remain wedded to the idea that any such move is “premature” and “ineffective”.
In a joint statement explaining their UN “no” vote, they said there is no point in moving without the support of the nuclear powers.
The French add that they believe the ban would destabilise nuclear deterrence structures that are key to regional security at time of tensions in both Europe and on the Korean peninsula.
To put such arguments in another way – there is no point in trying to move forward towards a consensus on global nuclear disarmament, no point in trying to strengthen an emerging global norm and moral imperative against the use and possession of these weapons, until everyone is agreed with the need for a ban, and the security environment is such that there are no points of tension.
In other words, until there is no problem to resolve.
Instead of waiting for everyone to step forward together, Ireland is right to say we must take the first step.