A Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was concluded by 122 nations, all non-nuclear, at the UN General Assembly in July this year. Popularly referred to as the Ban treaty, this marked a significant event. A multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument that prohibits development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, transfer, possession, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, as well as their use or threat of use had been concluded for the first time. It opened for signature on September 20, when 50 countries quickly signed it the same day.
It is heartening that the Nobel Prize Committee chose to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 to the International Campaign for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the advocacy group that was largely behind the success of the ban treaty. Four hundred and sixty eight non-governmental organisations under ICAN’s umbrella worked with commitment and passion over the last ten years to draw attention to the catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. ICAN became the representative of public frustration and the force of civil society on dangers that the presence of nuclear weapons spelt for the world. The Nobel citation to ICAN rightly highlights their groundbreaking efforts towards creating public awareness.
However, once the celebrations are over, ICAN must give serious thought to actual elimination of nuclear weapons because for all the seminal importance of the ban treaty, it cannot become a serious step towards disarmament unless nuclear possessors accept to eliminate their arsenals. At this juncture, none of the NWS appears to be in a mood to do so. In fact, if anything, the rift between the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) is likely to deepen at the next NPT RevCon in 2020. The world seems to be caught between these two camps – those wanting to make nuclear weapons somehow disappear and those asserting their salience like never before since the end of the Cold War. In fact, the ongoing stand-off between USA and DPRK has only made the possibility of their acceptance of the ban treaty, and by extension of others, even more remote.
In this context, it is important that all supporters of real elimination of nuclear weapons appreciate the fact that the pathway to elimination is as important as the process of elimination itself. Only by following the right measures that enhance security rather than creating more insecurities and rifts is universal nuclear disarmament going to be possible. India has always maintained that while the goal of nuclear disarmament is worthy of pursuit, the manner in which it is obtained is as important. It is for this reason that India has advocated a step by step approach where each step reinforces the possibility of the next.
With the ban treaty, a step has been taken, even if only by non-possessors of the weapon for now. The next task should be to build bridges to cover three chasms – between NGOs and governments; between NWS and NNWS; and between adversarial nuclear rivals. ICAN can make a real difference by reaching out to all stakeholders to make the pursuit of the cause of disarmament as inclusive as possible. Consensus will have to be forged, however difficult it may appear.
Lastly, it may be recalled that at the dawn of 2017, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that maintains a Doomsday Clock to indicate the proximity of the world to Armageddon, adjusted the hand of the minutes closer to midnight by 30 seconds. So, we are at only two and a half minutes to ‘midnight’. Events through 2016 that included acts of nuclear brinksmanship by USA, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan were the reasons for the growing pessimism on the fate of the world. Much the same has continued this year too. But, the conclusion of the ban treaty and the acknowledgement of its import through the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN are promising developments. For their promise to be realized, however, ICAN must use its large network and influence to create a more consensual and inclusive atmosphere in which NWS can be made to move towards, what the Peace Prize announcement described, “the balanced, gradual and carefully monitored elimination of nuclear weapons.”
At a personal level, ICAN’s recognition touches a chord since the cause of universal nuclear disarmament has been dear to me for over two decades. My hope now is that this moment should be prudently seized by right thinking individuals, organisations and nations to move forward constructively. History shows that momentum for disarmament is never easy to build, nor sustain. Civil society movements have been active in the past and yet not gotten results. ICAN has succeeded in creating public sentiment. It must now help create the necessary atmosphere in which governments are willing to disarm. This cannot happen by conclusion of a treaty that nuclear weapon possessing nations refuse to become party too. It can happen when they are made to agree to go down one step at a time, each of which strips the nuclear weapon of its salience. Pushing for a universal no first use commitment by all nuclear possessors could be one way of doing so.