Nuclear Weapons and the Language of ‘Power’
Wed 3rd Jun 2015
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.
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
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:
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
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
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
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:
the same time, eliminating nuclear weapons is only possible through
substantive and constructive engagement with those states which possess
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
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.
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.”
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
The 2015 NPT RevCon ended in failure, with no final outcome report agreed. As Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will wrote:
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
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.
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.
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.