PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Jan 21 (IPS) – Alyn Ware is Peace and Disarmament program Director for the World Future Council and Right Livelihood Laureate in 2009. Many of us around the world breathed a sigh of relief yesterday (Jan 20) as the ‘nuclear football’ (the briefcase with nuclear weapons codes and communication links for the President to launch a nuclear attack) was passed from Mr Trump to President Biden, as the new president was inaugurated.
This change of administration comes as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enters-into-force (Jan 22) and as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of UN Resolution 1 (1) which established the global goal for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
One year ago the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to Midnight, indicating the very high risk to humanity from nuclear weapons and climate change. These recent developments give some hope for reducing the risk of nuclear war and for making progress toward nuclear disarmament.
With 4000 operational nuclear weapons in the US arsenal, over 800 of them on high alert ready to be fired in minutes, having had a somewhat irrational US Commander-in-Chief over the past 4 years, with the authority to unilaterally launch these weapons on a whim, has been nerve-wracking.
Will the new US administration end the threat of a nuclear war, undertake initial disarmament steps, and bring the nuclear-armed States together to negotiate for phased, verified and enforceable nuclear disarmament? We don’t know.
But there are some positive signs. Joe Biden was Vice-President for Barack Obama, who launched a very ambitious effort to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world, but only achieved incremental measures to support this goal – such as the new START agreement, Iran agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), some global measures on nuclear security and the start of a process to achieve a Middle East Zone free from Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction.
President Obama was unable to reign in nuclear weapons development and production due to a congress that insisted on increasing the nuclear weapons budget and supporting new nuclear weapons systems. Indeed the entire Republic Caucus in the Senate refused to ratify the new START Treaty with Russia unless the President agreed to nuclear weapons modernization and an increased budget.
In addition, President Obama was unable to significantly lower the role of nuclear weapons in US policy. He attempted to adopt a no-first-use or sole purpose policy twice in his presidency, but was beaten back by domestic opposition and by NATO allies insisting on the first use option to ‘protect’ them from Russia.
President Biden might be able to advance on both these issues. He has a Democratic majority in Congress whose leadership has indicated support for no-first-use. And there is growing support in allied countries for stepping back from the nuclear brink.
Indeed, a policy of no-first use has now been supported in declarations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The declarations are adopted by consensus by all member parliaments including the European countries, Canada, USA, Russia and the former soviet countries.
There is also growing support publicly and in the US Congress to cut nuclear weapons budgets in order to focus more on human security issues like climate protection and the pandemic.
This includes a new Defense Spending Reduction Caucus in Congress calling for a 10% reduction in military spending to free up resources to address the pandemic. Cutting a significant portion of the nuclear weapons budget would be the easiest way to make this 10% cut. The Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditure (SANE) Act, introduced in the US Senate by Senator Markey and in the House by Rep Blumenauer, indicates how substantial savings on the nuclear weapons budget could be made by immediate unilateral cuts. With Democrats now controlling both houses, there is possibility for progress on these.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a renewed global call by non-nuclear states for the achievement of a nuclear-weapon-free world.
The US, other nuclear armed States and the allied states have all said that they will not join the treaty. It is unlikely that a Biden Administration will change the US position, let alone convince other nuclear armed states to join the TPNW. And if the nuclear armed and allied countries don’t join, they are not bound by it.
However, a number of civil society statements released in conjunction with the entry-into-force of the TPNW (see below for links to them) have highlighted that all countries, including the nuclear armed and allied states, are bound by existing international law that prohibits the threat or use of nuclear weapons and requires the elimination of these weapons.
The TPNW did not arise in a legal vacuum. The threat or use of nuclear weapons was already affirmed by the International Court of Justice in 1996 as generally prohibited under international humanitarian law, i.e. the laws of warfare which are binding on the nuclear armed states.
The Court also affirmed an obligation under both treaty and customary international law to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. And the UN Human Rights committee in both 1984 and more recently in 2018, affirmed that international human rights law, which is also binding on the nuclear armed States, established similar prohibitions and obligations.
Mr Trump did not appear to respect the law, unless it served his agenda. However, President Biden is much more committed to law, and could be persuaded by these legal developments to act in good faith and with determination to advance the objective of a nuclear-weapons-free world through a number of concrete steps.
In addition, States parties to the TPNW could make a significant impact on the nuclear armed States by banning the transit of nuclear weapons in their territorial land, sea and airspace. Or they could make an impact on the nuclear arms race by ending public investments in the nuclear weapons industry.
So far, none of the states joining the TPNW have followed up with such implementing measures (although some States had adopted such measures prior to the TPNW). The First Assembly of the States Parties to the TPNW, which will occur within the next year, provides an opening to encourage the TPNW countries to do so.
Civil society action will be necessary to move the governments to take action. If this becomes a priority, then there is a possibility that these political openings will enable humanity to finally abolish nuclear weapons to assure a sustainable future.
Civil Society statements:
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