“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – The Bhagavad Gita – quoted by Robert Oppenheimer as he witnessed the first nuclear explosion.
On the 24th of October, 2020 Honduras became the 50th state to ratify the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and therefore 90 days later, on the 22nd January 2021, the Treaty shall come into force. Nuclear weapons shall become illegal. Contrary to previous Treaties like the Non-Proliferation Treaty it does not contain provision for signatories who are currently nuclear-armed to continue to maintain those arms beyond a time-limited transition and disarming period.
This is potentially as momentous a day as the day these weapons were first detonated in the 1940s and this treaty will have a significant impact on Scotland especially as independence looms and Scotland will have to deal with its own contribution to the proliferation of these soon-to-be-illegal weapons. However, as with all things international law, the effectiveness of this Treaty will ultimately come down to the willingness and ability for the world to enforce it – something that may be hard to do until and unless nuclear states are compelled to sign up to it themselves.
The Treaty in Short
The TPNW has been in development essentially since 2010 when a review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty rejected calls for a disarmament procedure. It finally reached the voting floor in 2017 and passed with 122 countries in favour, 1 (the Netherlands) against and 1 (Singapore) abstention. Among those in favour were South Africa and Khazakhstan (two countries that have successfully disarmed their nuclear programmes – the former indigenously developed and the latter the result of nuclear weapons inherited by the country due to the collapse of the USSR) and Iran and Saudi Arabia (two countries feared to have ambitions of developing nuclear weapons at least in part due to their mutual rivalry). No state that currently opened holds nuclear weapons took part in the vote and some countries – notably the UK – stated an intention to “neither sign, ratify or ever become party” to the Treaty.
Once voted for, the Treaty had to be ratified by at least 50 countries before it would come into force and that threshold was met on the 24th of October 2020 with the ratification by Honduras which came a day after Jamaica and Nauru became countries 48 and 49 to ratify.
Article 1 of the Treaty prohibits states from developing, testing, procuring, manufacturing, stockpiling or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons and it also prohibits states from transferring such weapons within their country or storing, stationing or stockpiling them on behalf of another state.
It also specifically bans signatory states from even threatening to use a nuclear weapon or to in any way assist another country from undertaking activities banned by this Treaty which means that as of next January, a speech like the following could be considered a breach of international law.
If a nuclear armed country ratifies the Treaty then it has 60 days to present to the UN a time-limited pathway to fully disarming itself and there is a provision that countries that host nuclear weapons belonging to other countries must arrange for them to be removed as soon as possible and no later than a date agreed at the first meeting between the countries that have signed (which will take place not later than January 2022).
Interestingly, there is a provision for withdrawal from the Treaty if being a member (somehow) threatens the “supreme interests” of the country but only if the country gives 12 months notice prior to withdrawing and only if the country is not involved in an armed conflict at the point of withdrawal (The UK has been involved in at least one armed conflict almost continuously for much of the last century).
Finally, it is incumbent on all parties to the treaty to co-operate with each other to further the goals of the treaty and for all parties to encourage non-signatory states to sign the Treaty with the ultimate goal being universal adoption and the total disarmament of all nuclear weapons.
You can perhaps see the implications of this treaty for a country like Scotland. When Scotland becomes independent is it my ambition that we join those countries that have ratified the treaty and do so as soon as we are able to. In fact, I would call for all political parties to state their intention to do so at the earliest opportunity. Scottish Green membership voted overwhelmingly to make this pledge yesterday, just hours before the Treaty reached its goal.
Once independence becomes the clear democratic wish of the people of Scotland – either via an independence referendum or another democratic event – then we shall have to begin negotiations with the remaining UK over the separation arrangements. This will inevitably include the fate of the UK’s nuclear arsenal based in Scotland. I have written before about my objection to entering into even an arrangement whereby the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport are leased to rUK on a “temporary” basis on the grounds that history has a track record of such agreements becoming permanent and the very real danger that the price that the UK is willing to pay to keep the weapons in Scotland could be higher than the point at which Scotland becomes dependent on the payments.
The Treaty casts a new light on this argument. If Scotland signals its intention to sign the Treaty as soon as it is able to then that will surely impact the negotiations. In effect, it would have to negotiate the future of Faslane as if we were already committed to signing the Treaty and removing the UK’s nuclear weapons as soon as possible. In fact, under Article 12’s demand that members encourage non-signatories to accept the Treaty, we should use our leverage over the UK’s nuclear arsenal to maximise the chances that removing the weapons from Scotland does not merely result in them moving somewhere else.
The major weakness of this Treaty (and international law in general) is that it is only as enforceable on non-signatories as they allow it to be (see also the demands that the UK ceases illegally occupying the Chagos islands and the UK’s threats to breach its own Withdrawal Agreement with the EU) but Scotland would not be alone in its efforts to comply with the Treaty as Article 7 gives states the right to request assistance from other signatories and compels all other signatories to provide that assistance if asked. It would be a powerful statement of the power of the Treaty if the global community rallied around Scotland to encourage the UK to disarm.
It would certainly be interesting if post-Brexit UK found that its ambitions for new trade deals were hampered by the fact that the majority of the nations it tries to deal with keep invoking the Treaty as a reason to limit their engagement with states that continue to host weapons of mass civilian slaughter or if they collectively agree to avoid exporting materials that could potentially be used to support the UK’s nuclear weapons programme in a manner similar to the countries that have stopped selling goods to the US that could support executions by lethal injection.
Towards a Nuclear-Free World
It’s easy to be cynical about the impact of international treaties like this – especially as nuclear armed states seem confident that they can ignore it. But we should not simply allow might to make right. The world has shown that it can come together to collectively ban that which is harmful to us all (including prohibitions against certain weapons of war or conducts during war).
But we have also seen that strategies such as “multi-lateralism” is simply a way of excusing inaction rather than provoking action. If no country is compelled to take the first step then no country will ever be placed in the position of having to make good its promise to take the second. And every politician knows that a promise they don’t have to enact is almost as good as keeping one.
Though the road to a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons is still there to be taken, yesterday marks a day when we could say that it is no longer impossibly long. I regret that the 2014 No vote means that Scotland is unable to be one of the countries that shall be forever marked as the founding parties to the treaty that made such weapons illegal but I hope that we shall soon join them either as part of the UK or by encouraging the rUK to come with us.
I repeat my call for every politician in Scotland to commit to the goals of this Treaty (even if they think it would be better achieved from within the UK). It’s certainly a question that I shall be raising with candidates courting my vote in next year’s Scottish elections. I encourage all of my readers to do the same and to write to your existing representatives to seek their commitment to a world in which nuclear weapons are consigned to a history in which we threatened to become the destroyers of the only world we know.