Last October, the United Nations passed a historic resolution to begin negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Previous nuclear treaties have included the Test Ban Treaty, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But in the 70 plus years of the United Nations, the countries have yet to agree on a treaty to completely ban nuclear weapons. The negotiations will begin this March. To discuss the importance of this event, I interviewed Beatrice Fihn and Susi Snyder. Beatrice is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also known as ICAN, where she is leading a global campaign consisting of about 450 NGOs working together to prohibit nuclear weapons. Susi is the Nuclear Disarmament Program Manager for PAX in the Netherlands, and the principal author of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb series. She is an International Steering Group member of ICAN.
The following interview has been heavily edited for brevity, but you can listen to it in its entirety above or read the full transcript here.
ARIEL: First, Beatrice, you spearheaded much, if not all, of this effort. Can you explain: What is the ban? What will it cover? What’s going to be prohibited? And Susi, can you weigh in as well?
BEATRICE: So, it sounds counterintuitive, but nuclear weapons are really the only weapons of mass destruction that are not prohibited by an international treaty. We prohibited chemical weapons and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions—but nuclear weapons are still legal for some.
We’re hoping that this treaty will be a very clear-cut prohibition; that nuclear weapons are illegal because of the humanitarian consequences that they cause if used. And it should include things like using nuclear weapons, possessing nuclear weapons, transferring nuclear weapons, assisting with those kind of things. Basically, a very straightforward treaty that makes it clear that, under international law, nuclear weapons are unacceptable.
SUSI: This whole system where some people think that nuclear weapons are legal for them, but they’re illegal for others—that’s a problem. Negotiations are going to start to make nuclear weapons illegal for everybody.
The thing is, nobody can deal with the consequences of using nuclear weapons. What better cure than to prevent it? And the way to prevent it is to ban the weapons.
ARIEL: The UN has been trying to prohibit nuclear weapons since 1945. Why has it taken this long?
BEATRICE: There is no prohibition on nuclear weapons, but there are many treaties and many regulations governing nuclear weapons. Almost all governments in the world agree that nuclear weapons are really bad and they should be eliminated. It’s a strange situation where governments, including the two—Russia and the United States—with the most nuclear weapons, agree ‘these are really horrible weapons, we don’t think they should be used. But we don’t want to prohibit them, because it still kind of suits us that we have them.’
For a very long time, I think the whole world just accepted that nuclear weapons are around. They’re this kind of mythical weapons almost. Much more than just a weapon—they’re magic. They keep peace and stability, they ended World War II, they made sure that there was no big war in Europe during the Cold War. [But] nuclear weapons can’t fight the kind of threats that we face today: climate change, organized crime, terrorism. It’s not an appropriate weapon for this millennium.
SUSI: The thing is, also, now people are talking again. And when you start talking about what it is that nuclear weapons do, you get into the issue of the fact that what they do isn’t contained by a national border. A nuclear weapon detonation, even a small one, would have catastrophic effects and would resonate around the world.
There’s been a long-time focus of making these somehow acceptable; making it somehow okay to risk global annihilation, okay to risk catastrophe. And now it has become apparent to an overwhelming majority of governments that this is not okay.
ARIEL: The majority of countries don’t have nuclear weapons. There’s only a handful of countries that actually have nuclear weapons, and the U.S. and Russia have most of those. And it doesn’t look like the U.S. and Russia are going to agree to the ban. So, if it passes, what happens then? How does it get enforced?
SUSI: If you prohibit the making, having, using these weapons and the assistance with doing those things, we’re setting a stage to also prohibit the financing of the weapons. That’s one way I believe the ban treaty is going to have a direct and concrete impact on existing nuclear arsenals. Because all the nuclear weapon possessors are modernizing their arsenals, and most of them are using private contractors to do so. By stopping the financing that goes into these private contractors, we’re going to change the game.
One of the things we found in talking to financial institutions, is they are waiting and aching for a clear prohibition because right now the rules are fuzzy. It doesn’t matter if the U.S. and Russia sign on to have that kind of impact, because financial institutions operate with their headquarters in lots of other places. We’ve seen with other weapons systems that as soon as they’re prohibited, financial institutions back off, and producers know they’re losing the money because of the stigma associated with the weapon.
BEATRICE: I think that sometimes we forget that it’s more than nine states that are involved in nuclear weapons. Sure, there’s nine states: U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.
But there are also five European states that have American nuclear weapons on their soil: Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. And in addition to that, all of the NATO states and a couple of others—such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea—are a part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
We’ve exposed these NATO states and nuclear umbrella states, for being a bit hypocritical. They like to think that they are promoters of disarmament, but they are ready to have nuclear weapons being used on others on their behalf. So, even countries like Norway, for example, who are a part of a nuclear weapons alliance and say that, you know, ‘the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to protect us.’ On what? Maybe cities, civilians in Russia or in China or something like that. And if we argue that people in Norway need to be protected by nuclear weapons—one of the safest countries in the world, richest countries in the world—why do we say that people in Iran can’t be protected by similar things? Or people in Lebanon, or anywhere else in the world?
This treaty makes it really clear who is okay with nuclear weapons and who isn’t. And that will create a lot of pressure on those states that enjoy the protection of nuclear weapons today, but are not really comfortable admitting it.
ARIEL: If you look at a map of the countries that opposed the resolution vs. the countries that either supported it or abstained, there is a Northern Hemisphere vs. Southern Hemisphere thing, where the majority of countries in North America, and Europe and Russia all oppose a ban, and the rest of the countries would like to see a ban. It seems that if a war were to break out between nuclear weapon countries, it would impact these northern countries more than the southern countries. I was wondering, is that the case?
BEATRICE: I think countries that have nuclear weapons somehow imagine that they are safer with them. But it makes them targets of nuclear weapons as well. It’s unlikely that anyone would use nuclear weapons to attack Senegal, for example. So I think that people in nuclear-armed states often forget that they are also the targets of nuclear weapons.
I find it very interesting as well. In some ways, we see this as a big fight for equality. A certain type of country—the richest countries in the world, the most militarily powerful with or without the nuclear weapons—have somehow taken power over the ability to destroy the entire earth. And now we’re seeing that other countries are demanding that that ends. And we see a lot of similarities to other power struggles—civil rights movements, women’s right to vote, the anti-Apartheid movement—where a powerful minority oppresses the rest of the world. And when there’s a big mobilization to change that, there’s obviously a lot of resistance. The powerful will never give up that absolute power that they have, voluntarily. I think that’s really what this treaty is about at this point.
SUSI: A lot of it is tied to money, to wealth and to an unequal distribution of wealth, or unequal perception of wealth and the power that is assumed with that unequal distribution. It costs a lot of money to make nuclear weapons, develop nuclear weapons, and it also requires an intensive extraction of resources. And some of those resources have come from some of these states that are now standing up and strongly supporting the negotiations towards the prohibition.
ARIEL: Is there anything you recommend the general public can do?
BEATRICE: We have a website that is aimed to the public, to find out a little bit more about this. We can send an email to your Foreign Minister and tweet your Foreign Minister and things like that, it’s called nuclearban.org. We’ll also make sure that the negotiations, when they’re webcast, that we’ll share that link on that website.
ARIEL: Just looking at the nuclear weapons countries, I thought it was very interesting that China, India, and Pakistan abstained from voting, and North Korea actually supported a ban. Did that come as a surprise? What does it mean?
BEATRICE: There’s a lot of dynamics going on in this, which means also that the positions are not fixed. I think countries like Pakistan, India, and China have traditionally been very supportive of the UN as a venue to negotiate disarmament. They are states that perhaps think that Russia and the U.S.—which have much more nuclear weapons—that they are the real problem. They sort of sit on the sides with their smaller arsenals, and perhaps don’t feel as much pressure in the same way that the U.S. and Russia feel to negotiate things.
And also, of course, they have very strong connections with the Southern Hemisphere countries, developing countries. Their decisions on nuclear weapons are very connected to other political issues in international relations. And when it comes to North Korea, I don’t know. It’s very unpredictable. We weren’t expecting them to vote yes, I don’t know if they will come. It’s quite difficult to predict.
ARIEL: What do you say to people who do think we still need nuclear weapons?
SUSI: I ask them why. Why do they think we need nuclear weapons? Under what circumstance is it legitimate to use a weapon that will level a city? One bomb that destroys a city, and that will cause harm not just to the people who are involved in combat. What justifies that kind of horrible use of a weapon? And what are the circumstances that you’re willing to use them? I mean, what are the circumstances where people feel it’s okay to cause this kind of destruction?
BEATRICE: Nuclear weapons are meant to destroy entire cities—that’s their inherent quality. They mass murder entire communities indiscriminately very, very fast. That’s what they are good at. The weapon itself is meant to kill civilians, and that is unacceptable.
And most people that defend nuclear weapons, they admit that they don’t want to use them. They are never supposed to be used, you are just supposed to threaten with them. And then you get into this sort of illogical debate, about how, in order for the threat to be real—and for others to perceive the threat—you have to be serious about using them. It’s very naive to think that we will get away as a civilization without them being used if we keep them around forever.
SUSI: There’s a reason that nuclear weapons have not been used in war in over 70 years: the horror they unleash is too great. Even military leaders, once they retire and are free to speak their minds, say very clearly that these are not a good weapon for military objectives.
ARIEL: I’m still going back to this— Why now? Why are we having success now?
BEATRICE: It’s very important to remember that we’ve had successes before, and very big ones as well. In 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force. And that is the treaty that prevents proliferation of nuclear weapons — the treaty that said, ‘okay, we have these five states, and they’ve already developed weapons, they’re not ready to get rid of them, but at least we’ll cap it there, and no one else is allowed.’ And that really worked quite well. Only four more countries developed nuclear weapons after that. But the rest of the world understood that it was a bad idea. And the big bargain in that treaty was that the five countries that got to keep their nuclear weapons only got to keep them for a while—they committed, that one day they would disarm, but there was no timeline in the treaty. So I think that was a huge success.
In the ‘80s, we saw these huge, huge public mobilization movements and millions of people demonstrating on the street trying to stop the nuclear arms race. And they were very successful as well. They didn’t get total nuclear disarmament, but the nuclear freeze movement achieved a huge victory.
We were very, very close to disarmament at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev and Reagan. And that was also a huge success. Governments negotiated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prevents countries from testing nuclear weapons. And that hasn’t entered into force yet, but almost all states have signed it. It has not been ratified by some key players, like the United States, but the norm is still there, and it’s been quite an effective treaty despite that it’s not yet entered into force. Only one state has continued testing, and that’s North Korea, since the treaty was signed.
But somewhere along the way we got very focused on non-proliferation and trying to stop the testing, stop them producing fissile material, and we forgot to work on the fundamental delegitimization of nuclear weapons. We forgot to say that nuclear weapons are unacceptable. That is what we’re trying to do right now.
SUSI: The world is different in a lot of ways than it was in 1945. The UN is different in a lot of ways. Remember, one of the purposes of the UN at the outset was to help countries decolonize and to restore them to their own people, and that process took some time. In a lot of those countries, those former colonized societies are coming back and saying, ‘well, we have a voice of global security as well, and this is part of ensuring our security.’
This is the moment where this perfect storm has come; we’re prohibiting illegitimate weapons. It’s going to be fun!
BEATRICE: I think that we’ve been very inspired in ICAN by the campaigns to ban landmines and the campaigns to ban cluster munitions, because they were a different type of treaty. Obviously chemical weapons were prohibited, biological weapons were prohibited, but the landmine and cluster munition processes of prohibition that were developed on those weapons were about stigmatizing the weapon, and they didn’t need all states to be on board with it. And we saw that it worked. Just a few years ago, the United States—who never signed the landmines treaty—announced that it’s basically complying with the treaty. They have one exception at the border of South Korea. That means that they can’t sign it, but otherwise they are complying with it. The market for landmines is pretty much extinct—nobody wants to produce them anymore because countries have banned and stigmatized them.
And with cluster munitions we see a similar trend. We’ve seen those two treaties work, and I think that’s also why we feel confident that we can move ahead this time, even without the nuclear-armed states onboard. It will have an impact anyway.
This podcast was edited by Tucker Davey.