METTA SPENCER: Let’s talk about the negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. Have you’ve been in New York observing the doings?
CESAR JARAMILLO: Not yet in this three-week session but I’m going down there for the last week of the negotiations, ending on July 7. I think there will be something historic coming out of it. It’s taken decades of effort to get to this point, but honestly, the toughest part will begin only after the treaty. That’s when we have to address the utter lack of political will in the centres of power, the nuclear weapons states. I’m a skeptic on that. There is no interest in nuclear abolition as a concrete goal.
SPENCER: That’s true of governments, but if you look at the polls, public opinion in every country has favored nuclear weapons abolition for many years. Only two countries have dropped even marginally below 50 percent: Israel in one poll and Pakistan in another. The others are way above 50 percent and Canada has been nearly 90 percent.
JARAMILLO: Yes, I’ve seen those. Canada’s something like 88 percent. But there’s not much connection between that and the decisions taken by government. Nearly 90 percent and still the government’s position is absolutely contrary to that. Still, some of those poll results need to be taken with a grain of salt. When approached and asked whether they want to abolish nuclear weapons, most people will say yes, but how many of them actually care about it enough to demand it? “
SPENCER: It’s hard, but we’ll do it. Now we’ll have a tool!
JARAMILLO: Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook allow for greater youth engagement. ICAN—the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—is very refreshing and very successful at engaging youth. Still, there is a lot of preaching to the choir. A few days ago in New York there was a very inspiring women’s march to ban the bomb. It got virtually zero coverage. There was a huge uproar when Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. The boycott of the nuclear ban negotiations is at least as consequential. Climate and nukes are the two really existential threats.
SPENCER: Right. So give us a quick history of how this humanitarian initiative got this far.
JARAMILLO: What is going on in New York now caps a recent movement that focused on the humanitarian imperative to ban nuclear weapons. A few years ago the discourse around nuclear disarmament started to more explicitly mention the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons, although since Hiroshima, people already knew that nuclear weapons were bad.
SPENCER: As opposed to the discourse of strategic analysts who talked about how many each side could afford to relinquish, since they all needed nuclear weapons for their “security.” Nobody in that community would say “You simply cannot use these things under any circumstances.”
JARAMILLO: Right. That wasn’t in the discourse. There was a big problem of translation—the threat is real, but how do we get it to resonate to the visceral, human level?
SPENCER: So who started this renewed look at the human consequences of nuclear weapons? Was that ICAN?
JARAMILLO: There was formidable work by civil society and then three stages in quick succession between 2013 and 2014, led by the governments of Norway, Mexico, and Austria. They hosted three multilateral conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
SPENCER: Who got them to do that?
JARAMILLO: It was an idea whose time had come. Civil society activists played a big part. But also, progressive countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, and Austria became increasingly vocal. In the conferences, the voices of Hiroshima survivors were very prominent, as were the views of organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross.
SPENCER: Did any nuclear states attend those initial meetings?
*JARAMILLO:*Those states and their allies, including Canada, showed no enthusiasm about the negotiations. All five nuclear states boycotted the first conference, but Canada, Germany, and the other nuclear-aligned states were there, seemingly as mouthpieces for the nuclear weapons states. By the third conference, the one in Austria, the “Western P3” were present: the US, France, and the UK. They challenged the rationale for the conferences, but not persuasively. The claimed that there was nothing new, in terms of political attention. They said, “We’ve known all along what the risks are. We’ve tried to keep nuclear weapons safe.” But they missed the intangible sense of momentum—the impatience about the lack of progress toward concrete disarmament.
This came to a head after the last conference in 2015 at the five-yearly Review Conference in New York of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. One of the measures of success of NPT Review Conferences is the ability to arrive at a consensus document. In the previous review conference in 2010, there was a consensus document—albeit reflecting the least common denominator. But in 2015 there was no consensus document. That revealed the schisms that were building up—the sense of failure of the NPT regime to deliver on the promise of abolition. Even the Red Cross, which proudly asserts its neutrality, has said: It’s time for a ban! There is no excuse! The incompatibility of nuclear weapons with fundamental principles of international humanitarian law—precaution, distinction, proportionality—should be self-evident.
SPENCER: Was the failure of the NPT Review conference the impetus that brought it to the General Assembly?
JARAMILLO: In a way. Usually the year after an NPT review conference there is no meeting, and then the second year and fourth year, they have preparatory committee meetings. So in 2016, which would otherwise have been an off-year because it was the year after the failed 2015 review, there was a process in Geneva—an “Open-Ended Working Group.” It recommended that the General Assembly convene a conference in 2017 toward a legal abolition of nuclear weapons. So the vote in the General Assembly happened late last year—December of 2016.
SPENCER: But there also had been an Open Ended Working Group in 2013. I was in Geneva and I attended it.
JARAMILLO: Oh yeah, there’s more than one. But this one in 2015 was purpose-driven. Everyone was wanting to arrive at a resolution calling for negotiations leading to a nuclear weapons ban.
So a couple of months before the General Assembly was going to vote, a NATO document started circulating showing that the United States called on its NATO allies, including Canada, not merely to abstain, but to vote against L-41 (the name of the resolution), and not to participate in the negotiations when they commence. Canada quickly obliged on both counts. They voted against setting up the negotiations and, when it passed anyway, has not attended them.
SPENCER: What will they call that ban? A “treaty” or a “convention”?
JARAMILLO: That hasn’t been decided yet. But there is no ambiguity about what it will be: a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.
SPENCER: A prohibition against what—the possession of nuclear weapons? Or a whole bunch of additional things?
JARAMILLO: Yes, the whole laundry list: stockpiling, possessing, use, threatening to use—every dimension of nuclear weapons. If I had to pick one dimension, it would be “possession.”
SPENCER: And until now one could say that it has not been illegal to possess nuclear weapons. Some would say it has been illegal to use them, but it has not been clearly illegal to own them until now, right?
JARAMILLO: Yeah, I think there has not been absolute clarity. There are some people who say, “Well, this is not really necessary, for the NPT makes it illegal.” I’m not convinced. Yes, the NPT imposes the obligation to disarm, but that has been interpreted as a sliding obligation. There is no unequivocal illegality in the way that there is with every other category of weapons of mass destruction. There is a chemical weapons convention; there is a biological weapons convention, there is a landmines treaty, etc., but for the most destructive weapons of them all, nuclear, there is no explicit prohibition on possession. And even the prohibition of the other weapons—chemical and so on—has not eliminated all of them from the face of the earth, but the prohibitions have strengthened the taboo against these weapons. And it will be useful to fill that legal gap about the illegality of nuclear weapons as well.
*SPENCER:*Yet there are opponents to the process. Let’s consider the arguments that they put forward. There are two kinds of arguments. One comes from the nuclear weapons states themselves, who obviously want to keep their lethal toys. And we can later get to the discussion within the peace movement by people who are abolitionists but who do not think a ban is the way to go. So first, what do countries in NATO say about why they oppose a ban?
JARAMILLO: In my assessment, virtually every argument that NATO states put forward has a weak foundation.
SPENCER: But they talk about a “step by step” process. They say, “We are getting to nuclear disarmament, but by a series of steps.
JARAMILLO: It’s a ploy. Who’s going to oppose “steps”? Obviously steps are involved in any endeavor. It is the way these “steps” have thus far been implemented. In the end, they say a serious nuclear abolition is “premature.”
SPENCER: What would make it “mature”? What has to happen?
JARAMILLO: Exactly! They say that international security conditions are not “ripe.” There are sources of tension around the globe that involve nuclear weapons states. But ideal conditions would be an impossibly tall order. There will never be ideal conditions. Neither Crimea nor Syria nor the South China Sea is going to be the last source of tension.
Another argument they give is that the ban treaty would undermine the NPT—the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime. But if anything, I see the contrary. Article Six calls for good faith negotiations for disarmament. After entry into force in ’96, the World Court further clarified that obligation and added that it’s not just to engage in such negotiations but also “to bring them to a conclusion.”
SPENCER: The nuclear countries seem to assume that the NPT gives the original five nuclear weapons countries the right to own them—that they are legitimately maintaining their weapons.
JARAMILLO: Of course, it’s a double standard. To the non-nuclear weapons states, this situation is offensive. This notion that it is acceptable for some states to own nuclear weapons but not for others—this is unacceptable. The problem is not the possessor (whether it’s Kim Jong Un or Trump or anyone else) but the weapons themselves! There’s a real risk of miscalculations or accidents and, of course, human folly.
SPENCER: When we ask the Canadian government to support the nuclear ban, they always say that they are doing their very best, but by a step-by-step approach. They say that the next step is to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty—the FMCT—and they are working hard on that. But the FMCT proposal has been stalled in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva for over twenty years. Is there any reason to believe that a new effort to promote it is going to work?
JARAMILLO: No. And there is nothing wrong with working on the FMCT. But if you asked them the same question three years ago they’d have said “FMCT”. Or if you’d asked them five years or twenty years ago, they’d have said “FMCT.” That answer’s getting old! Yes, it’s an important thing to do. A nuclear weapon contains fissile material, which is scarce and highly regulated. The Conference on Disarmament is supposed to arrange controls over the fissile material that is out there. All the fissile material taken out of nuclear weapons when disarming them must be accounted for and no new fissile material should be created. Some people advocate for a multilateral framework—an IAEA-type institution to manage all fissile material in the world. But this has been very difficult because some countries such as Pakistan say that it is inherently discriminatory because they would be more affected by such a treaty than, say, the US.
SPENCER: If we get a real nuclear convention with all the elements—verification, enforcement, the whole nine yards—it will include ?¦
JARAMILLO: An arrangement concerning fissile material! Absolutely. But that’s the problem. FMCT and all these other “steps” have been piecemeal—not components of a credible, multilateral abolition strategy.
SPENCER: If you ask officials in the foreign ministry why Canada doesn’t show up in the ban treaty negotiations, they don’t want to say “Because the US told us not to.” They will say, “It’s pointless unless the nuclear weapons states themselves are willing to participate. It’s a futile exercise that will give the illusion of progress when it’s really not. So we have to wait for the nuclear states to be willing to join it.”
To me, that’s silly. Suppose rape and embezzlement were not illegal and we wanted to pass a law against them. We wouldn’t wait until all the rapists and embezzlers consent to such a law before we would enact it. No. We’d say, “This is illegal, whether you like it or not“ and then go after anyone who violates the law.
JARAMILLO: The same can be said even for firearms. You don’t have to get rid of all of them before making them illegal. Prohibition precedes the actual efforts toward elimination.
SPENCER: I’d like you to explain the dispute among peace activists as to the preferable mechanism?”—whether it should be a ban or a full, negotiated nuclear weapons convention that includes all of the elements required for real abolition—verification, enforcement mechanisms and so on. Some of our friends are skeptical about the ban treaty approach.
JARAMILLO: Well, I’m all for the ban. Some people see it as incompatible with a nuclear weapons convention but it’s not. The end goal is certainly the latter—the nuclear weapons convention. If nuclear weapons are ever to be eliminated, there must be a universal, multilateral, time-bound undertaking for the dismantlement of nuclear weapons, with provisions for verification. Obviously, that requires the involvement of nuclear weapons states. Since that is not happening, what the international community can do to express impatience with the lack of progress is to strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons. That wouldn’t preclude the nuclear weapons convention. I don’t see how it can have negative effects, despite its limitations.
SPENCER: This week at the UN negotiations, there is a discussion going on about what kind of document this ban thing is going to be on July 7. It’s about whether it will just be a statement of prohibition, or whether it should be as detailed as possible, with provisions specified for dismantlement, verification, remediation, compensating victims, and so on.
JARAMILLO: I think that issue will be resolved. These are easy negotiations, precisely because of the boycott by the nuclear weapons states and their allies. Everyone still in the room wants the ban, so they will overcome these issues. I am in the camp of people saying that all these detailed provisions are important but that’s not the main measure of success. The real importance of the ban treaty is political, not technical. We need to leave the door open for the outliers to eventually join.
SPENCER: What will that door be like? One camp says they have to destroy them all before they’ll be allowed to join, but the other camp says, no, they can join the treaty on the understanding that they will destroy them.
JARAMILLO: Yes, the short form is “Join and destroy, or destroy and join?” I say that states should not be required to destroy arsenals in order to join, if they are clearly committed to destroying them.
SPENCER: And that is consistent with the Chemical Weapons Treaty, where countries joined and committed to destroying their stockpiles within a specified period of time.
JARAMILLO: Right. But if they don’t, there are only a limited number of things the international community can do to the nuclear weapons states. You can shame them. You can sanction them. Or you can go to war against them.
SPENCER: There’s another possibility. Some say that the text should specify that states should not contribute financially to the creation of nuclear weapons anywhere. It would be like a boycott or a divestment. I don’t know whether any Canadian pension plans or government funds are invested in corporations involved in making nuclear weapons, but that provision would be a neat tool to pressure nuclear weapons states. I don’t think it is in the initial draft of the ban treaty.
JARAMILLO: Yeah. Divestment is one of the few avenues we have recourse to. I’d call this a welcome but modest factor. I doubt that a lack of funding is going to end it. The existence of nuclear weapons is primarily important to states, not private enterprises.
SPENCER: I know. And government officials all consider nuclear weapons as sources of national security. All Western nuclear states, and Russia too. Indeed, Russians seem to cherish their nukes even more. NATO has more conventional weapons than they have, so Russians think they need nuclear weapons to counterbalance them. I have interviewed Russians about this, and you can’t find any who are looking to disarm. For example, Alexei Arbatov, who is the most astute Russian expert on nuclear weapons, just calls for a return to “arms control.”
JARAMILLO: And they have a point. If NATO keeps getting closer and closer to Russia’s borders, of course they’ll have a huge disincentive to take nuclear disarmament seriously.
SPENCER: Yet good old Gorbachev continues to take the most sensible position of all. He would still be happy to negotiate away all nuclear weapons at the stroke of a pen, bless him, but he doesn’t have any clout.
JARAMILLO: Nuclear disarmament takes longer than these four- or five-year periods between elections. A serious abolition effort will take decades, so it has to be a state objective, something that holds across party lines. It can’t be subject to transitory political whims like, say, undoing Obamacare. And for that, public opinion has to have a certain level of awareness about the issue. And we’re not even close.
SPENCER: And it is true that they will want other sources of security, so we need to develop alternatives. When the UN was founded, it was going to protect countries from aggression, so we have to match nuclear disarmament with an ongoing project of strengthening global governance. A democratic world government, not under the control of the P5’s veto, could offer a measure of security.
JARAMILLO: Right. The abolition of nuclear weapons is going to be such a monumental change that it can’t be seen in isolation from other changes—including within NATO. The question is: How do we formulate security arrangements that do not involve nuclear weapons? After the ban, some of the enthusiasm will die down, and we need to go back to some of these less flashy issues, such as: How do we deal with tactical nuclear weapons in Europe? How does that conform to the NPT obligations not to transfer nuclear weapons to other countries? The ban is immensely valuable, but such concrete actions as removing tactical weapons will make the world more secure.
SPENCER: Sure. The tactical nukes (some of which are the size of the Hiroshima bomb) have never been covered by the other disarmament treaties. It’s appalling.
JARAMILLO: And they get away with it. There are clear provisions in the NPT against transfer of weapons, but they claim that no transfer has taken place because the US retains actual “control” of the weapons. That’s unacceptable, and yet they do it! They put them in the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Turkey—close to Russia’s borders. Imagine if Russia did the same, placing nuclear weapons in Nicaragua and Venezuela and Guatemala. We would risk all-out war—another 13 days?¦
SPENCER: Well, we abolitionists have our work cut out for us! But Canada is an easy place to be working on it.
JARAMILLO: Indeed. I’ve always thought one would be lucky to be prime minister and have this issue out there. It’s legacy material. I don’t see any major domestic opposition. You’re obviously in the right, and you don’t even have to deliver abolition. Just position Canada on the right side of history and lead a global nuclear disarmament effort. We’re a middle power. And—boom—there’s a Nobel Peace Prize for the prime minister!
Cesar Jaramillo is executive director of the Canadian peace and disarmament NGO Project Ploughshares. Besides following the issue of nuclear weapons, he is concerned about the weaponization of outer space. Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.