The Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Ban: From Horror to Hope and Humanity

By Barbara Birkett

The horror is that the Doomsday Clock is now at two and a half minutes to midnight, the worst setting since 1953.

We see that, seventy-two years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nearly fifty years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force, negotiations toward nuclear elimination have been stalled for two decades at the UN Conference on Disarmament. There are still nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the planet several times over, and the original two nuclear nations, under deterrence doctrines, have become nine. It is noted recently that, under the guise of maintaining their nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states have been modernizing them and making them more powerful, (eg some US warheads becoming effectively three times more lethal)1 and further heightening US and Russia tensions, diminishing the reassurances from the START treaties. Nuclear arsenals are obviously no protection from terrorist attacks or accidental launches.

From horror to Hope …

The hope began again in 2006 when IPPNW and others resolved that a new approach to nuclear disarmament was required, and that helping the development of a path to a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons was a major priority. In 2007 the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) began in Australia. Mayors for Peace and Jody Williams were early supporters. Ban Ki Moon in 2008 called for a world free of nuclear weapons. The effects of nuclear weapons on human beings rather than legal niceties were to be emphasized in communications. Over the years the campaign developed to include over 400 NGO partners in about a hundred countries.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, concern was expressed at the catastrophic humanitarian harm of any use of nuclear weapons. Campaigners emphasized that other weapons whose use was contrary to international humanitarian law, such as biological, chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster bombs were banned or stigmatized. Furthermore, the non-nuclear weapon states felt that they could no longer be held hostage by policies of the nine nuclear weapon countries and the umbrella states. The International Red Cross/ Red Crescent was a leader in 2011 in challenging the world, noting that there could be no humanitarian response to nuclear weapons and calling for their abolition.2

Three humanitarian conferences were held. The first, sponsored by Norway, was in Oslo in 2013, the second in Nayarit, Mexico in 2014, and the last one in Vienna in 2015, where the Humanitarian Pledge was produced and signed by 127 countries (but not by Canada and many of the nuclear umbrella states). The conferences were addressed by Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors such as Toronto’s Setsuko Thurlow. Papers were presented which demonstrated that even a limited nuclear war such as might occur between India and Pakistan using a hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs would kill up to two billion people. The initial deaths would be from the blast, fire, and radiation. Later mortality would come from lingering radiation effects and from famine induced by massive clouds of smoke blocking sunlight for several years and producing crop failure.3

… and Humanity

NGOs from about a 100 countries have played a prominent part in this campaign and many young people were among its enthusiastic supporters. In 2015 the American Medical Association warned of the catastrophic effects on the world’s food supply of even a limited nuclear war. In September 2016, four health federations—the World Medical Association, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the International Nursing Council and IPPNW—said in an editorial in The Guardian, “Banning and eliminating nuclear weapons is a high global health priority.”

In February, May, and August 2016 meetings were held of a UN Open- Ended Working Group (OEWG) which led to a UN First Committee October vote and then a General Assembly vote in December 2016 calling for negotiations at the UN for “a legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination.” The draft resolution was supported by 123 countries. The European Union supported the pursuit of negotiations for a ban treaty. The organizing meeting was held in February, 2017. The first negotiation meetings will start at the UN on March 27 this year.

Canada attended the OEWG meetings, but, like many of the nuclear umbrella nations, did not play a constructive role there. It voted against setting up negotiations for a legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, stating that while Canada was committed to the elimination of these arms it should continue along the present “step by step” path. The Netherlands, however, also a NATO member, abstained on the vote. Although Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention wrote to the Prime Minister in November and said “Please support Resolution L41 and make Canada an active participant in a treaty to ban nuclear weapons once and for all,” Canada voted against the process in December and did not attend the organization meeting in February.

On February 5, twenty-one Nobel Peace Laureates urged all nations “to work for the speedy conclusion of this treaty in 2017 and for its rapid entry into force and implementation.”

The organizational meeting on February 16 was attended by over 100 states, with the Costa Rican ambassador confirmed as president of the conference, discussion of rules of procedure and civil society participation were held.

Many who were working for nuclear disarmament have wondered whether the eagerly awaited negotiations starting on March 27 and then continuing in June and July can be anything more than symbolic if nuclear weapon states are not present. Those involved in the process which culminates in this March meeting reply that achievement of a ban will fill a legal gap left by other treaties such as the NPT and by the 1996 judgement of the International Court of Justice. They state that a ban, by establishing firmly the illegality of nuclear weapons, will create a new norm. Similar paths have been followed for the Land Mines Treaty, which led to abandonment of those weapons, even by countries which have not signed that treaty. The panic among nuclear weapon states about the possibility of the ban treaty lends credence to their argument. It is also noted that the nuclear weapons states are welcome to join at any time.

The ban proponents also argue that the existence of the ban will hasten disarmament steps, which have been either stalled in such venues as the Conference on Disarmament or not begun, and that the NPT will be strengthened and its Article 6 will start to be fulfilled. Other measures previously suggested, such as abandonment of first-strike policies, de-alerting, abandonment of Launch-on- Warning, can go ahead, that money spent on modernizing can be used for humanitarian projects and basic human needs, that START reductions could be renewed, ratification of the CTBT occur. ICBMs could be phased out, Ballistic Missile Defence could be decreased, not expanded, and the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s and other security strategies diminished under the ban.

The ban will be present and help re-assure as the verification details are worked out to ensure elimination. As Joelien Pretorius4 has stated “Useful and important as arms control may be, it underemphasizes the urgency of nuclear disarmament…Arms control does not renounce the idea that nuclear weapons, by deterring war, especially nuclear war, benefit humankind. It only tries to “tame nuclear weapons.” Only one approach—the ban treaty—has any hope of leading to general nuclear disarmament”.

Hope for a nuclear- free world has arrived and will energize those gathering in New York on March 27th.

Barbara Birkett is a retired dermatologist, active in Physicians for Global Survival, the Canadian affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).


1 Kristensen, Hans. War-head “Super-Fuze” Increases Targeting Capability of US SSBN Force


3 (see “Nuclear Famine”)

4 Joelien Pretorius, “Development and Disarmament Round Table,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dec.14, 2016.

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Peace Magazine April-June 2017

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