Banking on a ban: nuclear ban negotiations side event

On the opening day of the UN negotiations for a new legal instrument banning nuclear weapons, PAX and the Future of Life Institute hosted a side event on the impact a treaty banning nuclear weapons would have on nuclear-armed states. Speakers included Fabian Hamilton, Member of the UK Parliament; John Tierney (Council for a Livable World); Max Tegmark (Future of Life Institute & MIT); and Ray Acheson (Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom).

Mr. Hamilton noted that this is a key moment in history and that any country committed to a world without nuclear weapons should be in the room negotiating the ban. He expressed disappointment with the UK’s failure to attend and its recent decision to renew the Trident nuclear weapons programme, both of which demonstrate a lack of commitment to nuclear disarmament. After hearing statements by survivors of the bomb, he said, there is no way anyone could believe nuclear weapons were ever acceptable. For him, the ban is the backdrop by which we will advance nuclear disarmament.

Mr. Tierney, a former US Congressperson, discussed the impact a nuclear weapons ban treaty could have on the United States. He reflected on previous experiences with weapons prohibitions, which show the US is impacted by norms and stigma against inhumane weapons. A nuclear weapon ban treaty could have a comparable effect on the United States—though the Trump administration represents a wild card. He noted that the difficulty of something does not convey the right to oppose it. He suggested three steps to a world without nuclear weapons—first the NPT, second the ban, and third the verifiable elimination of stockpiles.

Mr. Tegmark provided a scientific perspective for nuclear disarmament. The Future of Life institute gathered over 3000 signatures of scientists, including Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking. As someone who looks at the universe from a 13.8-billion-year perspective, the concept of nuclear weapons is “absolutely ludicrous”. The risk of near misses is a case study in recklessness. As a physicist, he referenced using force to move something as analogous to the ban and its associated stigma: this could be the push to get disarmament going.

Ms. Acheson explained how a financial ban of nuclear weapons production could significantly impact the nuclear-armed states, since private companies are responsible for a major part of those arsenals. Divesting from those companies would send a clear signal that nuclear weapons are unacceptable, making production economically unviable. Thus it would significantly impact the nuclear-armed states opposing the ban treaty. She also discussed other transformative potentials of the ban treaty, including on international relations at large.

The discussion covered a variety of issues, yet came back repeatedly to the power of including a specific reference to financing in the provision prohibiting assistance in the new treaty. Despite coming from varied experience and backgrounds, all panellists agreed that the prohibition would have an impact on the nuclear armed states—maybe not today, but soon, and for the rest of time.

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