Talking to the hand

Humanitarian Initiative, Vienna

The criticism launched against the idea of a ban treaty has so far been lacking both evidence and logic.

By Kjølv Egeland

The Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna showcased the increasing diplomatic attention to the call for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. An obvious metric of this apparent traction for a ban treaty was the large number of states that supported the commencement of negotiations on a treaty whether the nuclear-armed states like it or not. Another was the more vocal and organised opposition to a ban treaty. The potency of an idea is often best measured by the reactions it provokes.

In this post I discuss four objections to a ban treaty voiced in Vienna. These four objections share the basic claim that a ban treaty in one way or another will have negative political consequences, but differ in their depths of reasoning. Although they may seem legitimate on the face of it, they do not hold up on closer scrutiny.

The first and most ambitious formulation of the ‘negative consequences claim’ was made by the United Kingdom: ‘[T]his [ban-treaty] approach fails to take account of, and therefore jeopardises, the stability and security which nuclear weapons can help ensure.’

There are several problems with this claim: Firstly, it is not backed up by any kind of evidence. A pair of claims—that the ban-treaty approach does not take security into account and that nuclear weapons are a source of stability and security—are meshed together and presented as a premise. But this ‘premise’ is not obvious to most of the civil society and many, if not most, states, which believe that it is nuclear weapons that endanger security, not their eventual prohibition. Secondly, the argument has the implication of encouraging proliferation. If nuclear weapons do in fact offer stability and security, more may indeed ‘be better’, as Kenneth Waltz famously argued.

A second and slightly less ambitious version of the ‘negative consequences claim’ was made by Canada: ‘[A] Treaty banning nuclear weapons, without the endorsement of the main stakeholders […], seriously risks undermining the NPT’.

Again, no evidence was offered to back up this hypothesis. The audience in Vienna was left wanting of any justification for it. Rather than undermining the NPT, the most logical immediate effects of a ban treaty adopted without the participation of the nuclear-armed states on the NPT would be to contribute to the implementation of the ‘effective measures’ referred to in the NPT itself, and to strengthen the non-nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to non-proliferation. As others have argued, most encompassing multilateral legal regimes—such as those on world trade, environmental protection, and human rights—have been both deepened (stronger obligations) and broadened (applying to more actors) over time, without the original building blocks or foundations losing their relevance or applicability.

“Rather than undermining the NPT, the most logical immediate effects of a ban treaty adopted without the participation of the nuclear-armed states on the NPT would be to contribute to the implementation of the ‘effective measures’ referred to in the NPT itself”

A third version of the ‘negative consequences argument’ was made by a handful of umbrella states, including Belgium, Canada, and the Czech Republic. Belgium asserted: ‘[A] declaratory ban of nuclear weapons in itself would not guarantee their elimination’ (emphasis added). This argument was first made by Australia last year.

The claim that a ban treaty would not guarantee the elimination of nuclear weapons is hard to disagree with. It does, however, appear as a somewhat unfair standard against which to hold a treaty banning nuclear weapons, or any other international legal instrument for that matter. The UN Charter does not guarantee world peace; the conventions on human rights do not guarantee that these rights will be respected; and the Convention on Chemical Weapons does not guarantee a chemical-weapons-free world. They are human attempts at making international affairs a bit less lawless. The same could be said to apply to a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The fourth negative consequences claim about a ban treaty—the ‘shortcut argument’—was made by other umbrella countries including Italy, Germany, Poland, Japan, and Estonia. Poland, for example, announced that it did not agree that the humanitarian initiative should aim at the negotiation of a legally binding instrument, and that there are ‘no shortcuts on our road to a world without nuclear weapons.’ According to the standard usage of the term, a shortcut is an ‘alternative route that is shorter than the one usually taken’, but this was obviously not what these countries had in mind. Rather, they seemed to suggest that the ban treaty would be a ‘detour’ or ‘dead end’.

“There is an urgent need for evidence in diplomatic discussions about nuclear disarmament.”

Again, it’s hard to disagree. Only the nuclear-armed states can get rid of the world’s nuclear weapons. But few ban treaty proponents actually argue that a ban treaty would by itself lead to a world without nuclear weapons. Rather, it’s been presented as a tool to stigmatise investment in problematic industries; to prepare the ground for more substantive discussions on elimination further down the road; and to guilt-trip the nuclear possessors to disarm.

There is an urgent need for evidence in diplomatic discussions about nuclear disarmament. Unsubstantiated claims like ‘a ban treaty will undermine the NPT’ or ‘a ban treaty will induce the nuclear armed states to disarm’ are just that: claims. And as such, they must be argued and corroborated, not masked as facts. By contrast, normative arguments about the ‘legal gap’ cannot be debunked by empirical evidence. But that does not exempt such arguments from criticism and debate. As major powers with long-term interests in the deliberative climate of the international society, the nuclear-armed states should engage constructively in such debates. The ‘talk to the hand’ diplomacy exercised by certain states can only last so long.

Kjølv Egeland is an adviser at International Law and Policy Institute and is undertaking doctoral studies in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Twitter: @kjolvegeland