New international push against nuclear weapons, but nuclear states resisting

August 5, 2017
Protest against Britain's Trident nuclear weapons program in Landon last year.

Nuclear weapons are in the news again, for all the wrong reasons. But the adoption of a new United Nations treaty could kickstart a re-energised effort to abolish these expensive, dangerous and immoral weapons.

On July 7, the UN General Assembly adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the nuclear ban treaty. It was voted in by 122 countries, with only one country voting against.

However, all nine nuclear weapon states, and most nuclear umbrella states, failed to attend the treaty negotiations and boycotted the vote.

Among those states is Britain which, despite constrained public finances, is seeking to spend more than £200 billion over 30-40 years replacing Trident.

This is hard to justify when evidence is mounting that Britain faces a health funding crisis. Earlier this year, the British Red Cross was forced to intervene and assist British hospitals in 20 emergency departments, calling the situation a “humanitarian crisis”.

More recently, a study by the Nuffield Trust found the National Health Service was under pressure in several key areas. It came after a decade of the lowest health spending increases in British history.

This problem is coupled with uncertainty in future public finances stemming from Brexit, and reports of overspending on the nuclear deterrent. A recently released report from a government watchdog on major projects criticised Trident replacement efforts as poorly managed, over-budget and beset by technical problems.

By abandoning its reliance on an increasingly redundant and dangerous approach to national security, Britain could win on two fronts. Firstly, it could reduce the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war while adopting a more convincing approach to national security. Secondly, it could take a lead on multilateral disarmament and make the world safer.

As explained in the Medact report “A safer world: treating Britain’s harmful dependence on nuclear weapons”, there are better ways of achieving peace and national security than through the retention of nuclear weapons: “While nuclear weapons give us a terrifying military might, they do not prevent or counter new forms of warfare and non-state terrorism; nor can they be used to fight sea level rise, extreme weather, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance and rising levels of inequality.”

Although the nuclear ban treaty only applies to those countries that ratify it, it demonstrates huge international support for full nuclear weapons disarmament. There were three key drivers for the adoption of the treaty.

The first was the obvious need to place nuclear weapons on an equal footing with other abhorred and indiscriminate weapons, including landmines, and chemical and biological weapons, which have all been made illegal.

The second was the growing scientific understanding that a limited regional nuclear war could result in severe climatic disruption and a deterioration of food supply. This would place up to two billion people at risk of starvation.

The third driver was the fact that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was not working. Although the treaty committed all nuclear weapon states to make genuine efforts towards disarmament, in reality, they have been modernising and upgrading their weapons systems.

The past five years has seen the world grow more dangerous and unstable. The number of armed conflicts across the world has grown, as well as a rise in aggressive, nationalist and authoritarian governments.

Climate change and resource scarcity are further acting as “threat multipliers”. Thus, the risk of nuclear weapons being used mistakenly, accidentally or stupidly has probably grown.

Ultimately, long-lasting and sustainable peace and security can only be built through international cooperation and the adoption of a multi-dimensional peace-building strategy. In Britain, doctors and health professionals are renewing interest in dismantling Trident from both a moral and medical standpoint, but also a simple economic case.

[Abridged from Red Pepper. Dr David McCoy is the director of Medact, a British public health and peace-building charity.]

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