Nuclear Weapons and the Language of ‘Power’

trident-protest-001By Lesley Docksey

Or should that be the language of ‘assumed’ power? The United Kingdom has been swamped by examples of sneering, belittling statements issuing from the Westminster bubble over the last few months, many of the insults being directed at Scotland during the Independence Referendum and the General Election, making the Scots justifiably angry and an increasing number of the English equally embarrassed. That these comments came from all the main parties was an illustration of how low our political system has sunk.

One assumption made by Prime Minister David Cameron and his cronies is that they speak for the English, which they don’t; because they ‘won’ the election, questionable given that only 25 percent of the electorate voted for them; because they have a ‘majority’, which is not that major; because, being in ‘power’ they can ignore the people, which they will find they can’t. Those who were despairing at the election results are now turning that despair into anger. And that also includes some of their own MPs.

But while all this was going on, delegates from the UK were in New York attending the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon). Along with delegates from the other states that have nuclear weapons they spent four weeks insulting, belittling, sneering at and finally ignoring all the other states taking part. Sound familiar?

Just to lay out the battle lines:

188 states, members of the UN, have signed up to the NPT, as have the Holy See and Palestine (both UN ‘observer’ states). The United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China are recognised in the Treaty as being ‘nuclear weapon states’ and are also permanent members of the UN Security Council, the ‘P5’. Four other states have nuclear weapons – Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, none of which are signed up to the NPT and therefore cannot (legitimately) take part in the Review Conferences.

This was the ninth RevCon since the first was held in 1975. It also marked the 20-year anniversary of the NPT’s indefinite extension agreed in 1995, and that should tell you something. The P5 will do what they can to delay fully implementing the Treaty; they call it a ‘step by step’ process, though in which direction is unclear. Article VI of the Treaty states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

In other words, the Treaty is not just about preventing the spread of these dreadful weapons. Its end aim is total disarmament, not something the P5 want, for while the US, backed by Nato is busy trying to create a new Cold War with Russia, and fomenting another with China, when it comes to hanging on to their nuclear weapons, they are all allies, used to bullying the less powerful states. Only this time it didn’t work.

Non-nuclear states were no longer going to be dismissed by the P5 and their few allies. Austria, having prepared the Humanitarian Pledge which calls on states “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”  spoke on their behalf, and indeed for all of humanity, in recognising the appalling humanitarian consequences that even the detonation of one nuclear weapon would cause.

The Humanitarian Pledge (the thorny obstacle the P5 wants to push aside) was the result of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) last December, with 45 states initially endorsing the Pledge.

By the start of the 2015 RevCon 159 non-nuclear states had signed up to the Pledge and the endorsing states had increased to 76.

A further 26 non-nuclear states were represented by Australia and while supporting the basis of the Pledge, carefully gave a nod towards the P5:

“At the same time, eliminating nuclear weapons is only possible through substantive and constructive engagement with those states which possess nuclear weapons.”

In other words, we can’t make these things illegal and can only get rid of them by the ‘step by step’ process that has produced nothing concrete – and, if the P5 have their way, never will. They had, for instance, done little to implement the commitments given at the last RevCon in 2010. Their Joint Statement appeared to say that the best way to protect the security of the world was to hang on to weapons that threatened the world’s security.

They spoke a lot about maintaining their ‘security’. “If,” asked the South African delegate, “for security reasons the five feel that they must be armed with nuclear weapons, what about other countries, in similar situations? Do we think that the global situation is such that no other country would ever aspire to nuclear weapons to provide security for themselves, when the five tell us that it is absolutely correct to possess nuclear weapons for their security? …if the five are saying that for the rest of us, you will never need nuclear weapons for your security, what is so unique about their security situation that makes it imperative for them to be the only countries that have the right to have nuclear weapons for their security?”

The P5 did, for what it is worth, produce a multi-lingual glossary of nuclear terms at the start of the RevCon. Delegates and civil society representatives were not impressed – one comment was: “The product of five years of work by the P5 is the much-ridiculed Glossary, which explains that an underground nuclear test is one which takes place beneath the surface of the earth…”

May 18 – 84 states have now endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge.

It must have been irritating for the P5, the persistence of the non-nuclear states, their constant mentioning of the Pledge, their determination to get it written into any final summary of the 2015 Review. The language used by the P5, the words they employed, became a battleground. They reiterated their long-held belief that, because the NPT described them as states holding nuclear weapons, it ‘legalised’ their position. They constantly conflated ‘reduction’ with ‘disarmament’. ‘Conflagration’, the inevitable result of using such weapons became the simple ‘detonation’. It sounds so much cleaner. Costa Rica suggested the Conference should stop “patting the P5 on the back.”

It became clear to delegates, during many attempts to draft the final report on the Conference that the wording did not, and would never, reflect the feelings of the majority. Thailand made it plain:

“Austria’s statement on behalf of 159 states “clearly underlines that we are dealing with an issue that enjoys the support of an overwhelming number of States Parties that simply cannot be pushed aside… we are a little disappointed, Mr. Chair, that the most important points we and the majority of NPT States Parties intervened upon, are not reflected in the document. Yet issues that were raised by one or two delegations enjoy their place in the merged document we have before us.”

The one draft that was clear in its demands for complete disarmament was scrapped, on the demand of the P5. Early drafts ignored the Humanitarian Pledge initiative. The final draft devoted one whole sentence to it (point 139) despite the fact that state after state had pushed it into debates. Such treatment of the non-nuclear states had an inevitable result. They were getting angry.

May 20 – over 90 states have now endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge.

The UK argued that those seeking a ban on these weapons are ‘misguided’, and that to follow such a course would undermine the NPT. Beatrice Fihn of ICAN says that a ban would strengthen the NPT. The difficulty for the P5 is that they cannot stop the Humanitarian Pledge from developing into a Convention to ban nuclear weapons. Such a ban would make it clear how little the P5 have done over the last 40 years regarding the NPT. They point proudly to ‘reduction’ of their arsenals, but as Ireland and others pointed out, getting rid of old weapons and replacing them with fewer but more powerful ones cannot be called ‘disarmament’.

May 22 – 99 states have now endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge.

The UK had said it “supports the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East and the goal of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. And we deeply regret that a conference on the establishment of such a zone has not yet taken place.” That did not stop it from backing Israel’s backroom request to have any mention of such a Middle East zone removed from the final draft report. Israel, remember, is not a member of the NPT and has no legal say in the proceedings. It was for some states the last straw. They were outraged.

The 2015 NPT RevCon ended in failure, with no final outcome report agreed. As Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will wrote:

“If the month-long review of the Treaty’s implementation and attempts to develop actions for moving forward had not already sufficiently underscored the depth of the Treaty’s discriminatory orientation privileging nuclear-armed states, the Conference’s conclusion certainly did.”

On the other hand, by the end of the Conference 107 states had endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge.

The Humanitarian Pledge was the real outcome of the Review. Further, it is clear the P5 believe that the NPT belongs solely to them, for them to do with as they would.

The rest of the world is walking away. Just as the arrogant and nasty language used by Westminster over Scotland will only serve to make that nation’s people more inclined to independence, regardless of their own political bias so, where nuclear weapons are concerned, the rest of the world now feels free to ignore the P5 and act on behalf of their people.

The P5 will of course go on bullying behind the scenes. It is the only way they know how to behave. Humility was never part of the game, and diplomacy disappeared years ago. But the language of power is losing its potency. The nastier it gets, the more people and states understand the desperation of the language, how frightened the big boys are of losing their influence.

Now is the time for non-nuclear states to act, to start negotiations on a Convention on nuclear weapons. They have stood together and refused to allow the P5 its way. They must be feeling a sense of true comradeship with their fellow nations. That energy must not be wasted but put into drafting the much needed law. The best date to start such action? The 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – August this year. They can do it; they really can make them illegal.

What would this mean for the UK, in particular for Scotland which is being forced to house these unwanted monstrosities? With all the backing of international law Scotland could and should claim the moral high ground. As upholders of that law they simply could not allow their precious land to be used for such illegality. Nor, come to that, could the rest of the UK.

Lesley Docksey © 01/06/15

For a day by day account of the 2015 RevCon, with links to some brilliant speeches by the delegates, read Ray Acheson on Reaching Critical Will’s News Review.


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Comments (28)

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  1. jax leck says:

    cracking article

  2. bringiton says:

    Any state that uses nuclear weapons against another will become an instant pariah globally.
    It will find out (including the USA) that it is not worth the candle and that other methods can achieve their objectives at considerably less cost.
    The main delivery mechanism for the UK war heads is Trident which is designed to hide in the deep waters of the oceans,undetected and unleash it’s cargo when allowed to do so by the controllers in the USA.
    This is not a credible defence posture under any circumstances and those who think it has “kept the peace” are deluding themselves.
    How can the UK government justify the huge amount of money required to sustain a military system which will never be used,other than perhaps it bolsters their sense of importance in the world and allows them a smidgen of influence in Washington.
    Without a complete root and branch reform of the UK system of governance and a realistic reappraisal of it’s place in the world,unfortunately nothing is going to change.

  3. Lesley Docksey says:

    Ah – but what I was writing about is the very real possibility of change on the international scene, one that will give all UK campaigners against Trident a strong platform to work from.
    And Trident has never been about defence or deterrence – having nuclear weapons makes the UK one of the Permanent 5 on the Security Council. But then it’s not just our crap political system that needs reforming. The UN too desperately needs reform, and the first thing to go in my book would be the Security Council. The General Assembly has far better, well-informed debates and decisions than the SC.

    1. Jones says:

      OK so here’s the million dollar question. If liberal democracies agree to unilateral disarmament how do we ensure ‘non liberal democracies’ do the same? And how do we ensure that these non liberal democracies won’t use that disarmament to their advantage?

      A cursory study of history indicates that Empire’s are the norm. When one goes another rises (and chaos ensues in the fault lines of power transfer).

      Doesn’t global governance require fundamental conceptual underpinnings? i.e) A notion of the primacy of ‘the individual’ and associated rights? something rejected in Confusionist power politics of modern China (more ‘Plato’s republic’ assumed benign dictatorship, than Popper, Toqueville and Mill’s liberal ‘open society’ etc).

      I mean if US and Europe (including a nuclear UK) step down, who and what will fill the space? Isn’t it better to maintain the balance of power until a time when such disparate world views (or a new world view) can be reconciled (which with development they can).

      How do you escape realpolitik?

      1. Lesley Docksey says:

        “If liberal democracies agree to unilateral disarmament how do we ensure ‘non liberal democracies’ do the same?”

        The endorsers of the Humanitarian Pledge are not, by any means, all ‘liberal democracies’. But they do all recognise the humanitarian impact any detonation of a nuclear weapon would have, and their inability to deal with it. All the Middle East States, with the exception of Israel, have been lobbying for years to get a ‘weapons of mass destruction free zone’ for the Middle East.. Would you call Saudi Arabia a ‘liberal democracy’?

        Nor is this about ‘unilateral disarmament’. The Humanitarian Pledge will lead to a Convention on Nuclear Weapons. Just as chemical and biological weapons, land mines and cluster munitions are now illegal under international law (not only the use but the production, storage and trade are illegal), so nuclear weapons will become illegal. And there are far more states involved in trying to push this through than ever got the Conventions on land mines and cluster munitions to the point of becoming law.

        Yes, those states that have such things will try to go on using them, but that does not make them any the less illegal. The law is an instrument, and one that we have to learn to play correctly. Throwing up one’s hands does not produce many notes on the piano!

        1. Jones says:

          I’m sorry but this is utter selective nonsense. Iran has had a nuclear program for years, Saudi has access to nuclear weapons via Pakistan (they bankrolled the Pakistan project on the agreement that Pakistan would supply them when and where necessary – basically they are a nuclear state!) Iraq, despite not having WMD, did have a program trying to attain them, China – in her expansionism – has guaranteed nuclear shelter/ tech to the worst despotic corrupt African regimes in return for land and food/ water sources.

          Oh and although I think international law and global governance is the way forward it needs power behind it though (hopefully the Chinese will wise up soon! I have faith in the new generation) It is meaningless with it. Countries who didn’t sign up to the moratorium on landmines include to US and China and Russia. The 38 th parallel is the most heavily mined stretch of land in the world and is not going anywhere. Neither are Russia’s or China’s nukes. Unfortunately

          Bollocks to that….UK is one of the good guys ‘comparatively speaking’. Liberal democracy needs to protect itself. It simply is better, if not perfect!

  4. James Campbell says:

    Great article. Makes me ashamed to be English.

    Great that so many countries are now standing up to the nuclear bullyboys. Incredible that they came together to unite against non-nuclear nations, the same nations they are supposedly protecting from each other! The logic of deterrence grows ever thinner.

    Be careful of the mil-ind complex – it’s an evil beast and will play dirty.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Never be ashamed to be English, James. Be proud of the fact that Lesley has written this article from her home deep in the south of England.

  5. David Mackenzie says:

    Excellent article, thank you

  6. maxi kerr says:

    It is a good example of “the big stick concept”.

  7. dunderheid says:

    And when Iran or North Korea or Israel unfathomably ignore the exhortations of earnest left wing blogs and despite worldwide disarmament decide to keep their nukes…what then?

    1. Lesley Docksey says:

      Iran doesn’t have any ‘nukes’ and has no intention of having any – it being against Islam. The IAEA is also very aware they have no such intentions, and some of their officers are constantly annoyed at being misquoted on Iran by the US et al (contact Jeremy Corbyn MP about this if you want the facts – he talked to the IAEA about it – rather than what is printed in the national press).
      As for North Korea – have you ever asked yourself WHY they are so paranoid about the West? Could it be to do with the fact that the US dropped 32,557 tons of napalm on them during the Korean War? By the end of that war most North Koreans were living in caves – the only way they could be safe from being burnt.
      If we stopped seeing people as enemies (and no, this is not being naïve) we might just stop them and ourselves from behaving as such.
      Also – I think the SNP’s commitment to being part of Nato if Scotland becomes independent would be a wrong move. Nato has nuclear weapons and Nato policy is to retain the ‘first strike’ policy on using them. But –
      1. a majority of people in Scotland appear to be against Trident
      2. the SNP may be the route to Scotland’s independence (although I think they can easily leave that to Cameron and his friends!), but I do believe there would be far more to an independent Scotland than the SNP.

      1. Jones says:

        Think you’re confusing the Korean war with Vietnam (who ironically are best chums with the US now given China’s imperial expansion.)

          1. Jones says:

            Not convinced by the stats, but it’s irrelevant to the wider point (and I’m not defending US cold war foreign policy) but where would you rather live? South Korea or North Korea?

  8. arthur thomson says:

    There is a need for a major public debate on the issue of nuclear weapons. That debate has to encompass all the related issues. As always, the British establishment are determined to keep the population in a state of ignorance and fear. Simultaneously, the dogma of people who like to see themselves as being ‘on the left’ comes across as no more enlightened. The establishment are, in all probability, going to steamroller through the commitment to Trident – given that it is backed by each of the accepted political parties I anticipate they won’t have much problem.

    I hope this is the start of a concerted effort through Bella and other sites to get the conversation started. Anyone out there who has information and ideas that can enable people to see this issue ‘in the round’ please post.


    I’m not sure if you are posing a question or making a point but yes, we need to have worked out ‘what then?’

    1. dunderheid says:

      It was in fact an honest question and one for which a well-meaning but naive commitment to unilateral disarmament in the face of belligerent non-rational non-disarmers, I do not think is an answer.

      Also the Trident issue is red herring. As far as I know the SNP are still committed to an independent Scotland joining NATO. Therefore they still want Scotland to profit from protection of the NATO nuclear guarantees and therefore have no problem with other countries possessing nukes. They just don’t want to have the nukes on their territory – the ultimate nimbyism.

      The more honest debate is whether an independent Scotland should be in NATO or not…

      1. Jones says:

        Good point. And what Europe ought to do with regards to security.

  9. Jones says:

    ‘In other words, the Treaty is not just about preventing the spread of these dreadful weapons. Its end aim is total disarmament, not something the P5 want, for while the US, backed by Nato is busy trying to create a new Cold War with Russia, and fomenting another with China, when it comes to hanging on to their nuclear weapons, they are all allies, used to bullying the less powerful states. Only this time it didn’t work.’

    Wow, what a simplistic world view you have. America bad booooooo hissssss….

    Just out of interest, have you ever been to Russia or China for any extensive time to make such grandiose, sweeping statements.

    What’s frustrating is that there is the Kernal of a good and important article about international law and treaty, limits and importance, here ruined by bombast, hyperbole and prejudices.

    And back in the complicated, messy, uncertain real world…..

    1. Lesley Docksey says:

      And if you wish to be truly acquainted with ‘bombast, hyperbole and prejudice’, please make the effort to read the statements made by the P5 during the 2015 RevCon.

      1. Jones says:

        So you haven’t been to either countries?

  10. Jones says:

    Right. China as we speak is militarizing one of the worlds busiest and most important trading routes/ shipping lanes, through the South China sea. They are building artificial islands that can ‘house’ long range bombers and ballistic nukes missiles and already have heavy artillery there. They are doing this in order to be the regional hegemonic power and control the flow of trade between the Pacific and Indian oceans. This is at the expense ‘mainly’ of the Japanese who subsequently will be held to ransom. The Indian’s aren’t overly happy about it either (their nukes are pointed Beijing way!). It also means that when China inevitably invades Taiwan in the near future (a democratic independent nation that doesn’t want to be run by Beijing!) no one can militarily stand in their way. Check the maps!

    The only power standing in their way is the good ole US of A. Ask yourselves a question. for all America’s faults, who would you rather calling the shots in the world?

  11. no wmd says:

    The SNP want nuclear weapons in Scotland, what people don’t understand is that the SNP don’t want to pay for Trident, they have NO objections to using them!.

    1. jaxlek says:

      I think that is a particularly poor comment. It is part of the ethos of the SNP that they want nuclear weapons out. Nor have they ever exhibited any desire to use them.

      1. dunderheid says:

        No they are just happy (as members of NATO) to let others use them on their behalf….a brave principled stand

  12. Lesley Docksey says:

    I find it both sad and frustrating that no one, and particularly those defending the status quo, will spare even a fleeting glance at the real outcome of last month’s RevCon – the Humanitarian Pledge and all that it implies. This has been one of the quickest global actions in terms of arranging international conferences, getting the majority of the world’s states to support it and over 50 per cent of states to endorse it. Instead of seeing something to celebrate (it is the result of pressure from civil society) all one gets is Iran and its ‘nuclear programme’, North Korea, Russia, China, security threats….

    Iran was first accused of trying to make its own nuclear weapons when the Shah was still in power. They wanted nuclear power because they needed it, especially after the Shah went. Living for years under sanctions they were unable to refine their oil for domestic use. My father and brother both worked in the oil industry and both in their time worked in Persia/Iran. Having a nuclear programme does not only apply to making nuclear weapons, but to creating the technology and infrastructure for nuclear power.

    As an argument, not having visited Russia or China is completely irrelevant, certainly where the Pledge is concerned. Had I done so I would most likely have found it full of perfectly nice ordinary fellow humans, not enemies.

    Nato and the SNP – I don’t equate the Scottish people with the SNP. I understand that a majority of the Scots are against Trident. I don’t agree with the SNP’s position regarding Nato, but that is for Scotland to discuss. I personally think Nato is an organisation that is way past its sell-by date – it can only exist by having some ‘enemy’.

    I am very aware that any time an article about the illegality of nuclear weapons appears, so will those commentators who do their best to rubbish WHATEVER is written, using the same old arguments and always ignoring whatever the article was actually about.

    The Pledge is giving us a whole new vision.

    I beg you – take note of the title: ‘The Language of Power’. Make the effort to read the statements from some of the nations that support the Pledge, and compare those with the statements made by the delegations from the P5. Then maybe, by engaging an open mind, you will understand just why the P5 made everyone so angry, and why the Pledge gained more endorsers as the Conference progressed.

    1. Jones says:

      It has nothing to do with ‘the ordinary people of china’, who are people like any other people, but the fact that the country/ empire is run behind closed doors by a small collection of faceless unaccountable men. It has to do with the fact that a blog like Bella Caledonia, that criticizes the centrality and hegemony of the State would be closed down and Mike Small + family put under arrest. It has to do with the fact that books music news and films are censored to the point of absurdity. It has to do with the fact that the kind of nationalism being fostered is the old school 1930s aggressive expansionist kind. It has to do with the fact that it doesn’t matter in the slightest what ‘the vision’ is unless those with power give a shit, and they don’t. China doesn’t care what it’s own people think so why should it care what anyone else, let alone ‘visions’ and ‘pledges’ think.

      Unfortunately this is the real world.

  13. Agnieszka says:

    Thank you for an engaging article, Lesley, thank you for your clarity, Jones.

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