Dream on

October 09, 2017


ON the same day that the Nobel committee announced the award of its Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), our foreign minister warned India of “dire consequences” in the event of an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear installations. His comments were made in response to the Indian air force chief’s claim that India could locate and destroy Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, particularly the tactical nukes it is developing for battlefield deployment.

This exchange highlights the fact that with its choice of Ican, the Nobel committee has awarded a dream, rather than a reality, or even a realisable goal. Paradoxically, the award’s celebration of Ican’s idealism — its vision of a nuke-free world — underscores the growing likelihood of nuclear conflict in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Ican is so aware of the near-impossibility of its mandate that when it received the call from the Nobel committee it assumed it was being pranked.

The award could not be more timely, however: while Pakistan and India continue their nuclear-tipped sabre-rattling, North Korea is flexing its nuclear muscles, and has this year tested both a nuclear bomb and missile-delivery systems. The Trump administration is also likely to refuse to certify the historic Iran nuclear deal this week, paving the way for Congress to potentially reimpose sanctions, resulting in the deal’s collapse.

The road to global nuclear disarmament is long.

Ican recognises that the nine nuclear-armed states are unlikely to abandon weapons as a state-level, top-down policy decision. It therefore focuses on generating pressure both at multilateral fora and at the grass-roots level to nudge along policy shifts. While Ican’s major achievement to date is getting 122 countries to sign the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the bulk of its work is in support of almost 500 disarmament, humanitarian and environmental organisations working towards a nuke-free world. It aims to mobilise civil society by spreading awareness of the enormous toll of nuclear warfare, and thereby generate anti-nuke pressure from the bottom up.

As threats of nuclear conflict increase, non-nuclear countries and multilateral institutions are likely to increasingly call for restraint and the abolition of nukes. For example, one of Ican’s goals is the establishment of a special UN working group on advancing nuclear disarmament. The campaign’s public pressure tactics are also likely to have some influence in countries such as the US, Britain and France, where civil society can mobilise effectively against nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, these countries are unlikely to disarm, citing the presence of nuclear weapons in less democratic and less stable countries as their rationale. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, argued earlier this year that the US could not sign Ican’s nuclear prohibition treaty because it did not believe regimes such as that in North Korea would ever get around to banning nuclear weapons. Sadly, nukes beget nukes.

But in the event that a campaign to abolish nuclear weapons gains momentum, nuclear-armed countries, particularly those that perceive their programmes to be under threat, are likely to amp up rather than cease production. North Korea, for example, is pursuing a larger, more mobile and better concealed stockpile in response to US threats against its facilities. This cycle of paranoia and production is of course familiar to Pakistanis too. Nuclear-armed countries that face pressure to abandon their programmes cite the Libyan case as the reason why disarmament is not possible: when Muammar Qadhafi agreed in 2003 to surrender Libya’s weapons, he was promised improved ties with the US; in 2011, the US facilitated Qadhafi’s overthrow and killing. Thanks to this scenario, calls for disarmament are often perceived as precursors to invasion.

Owing to these dynamics, state-led disarmament policies — both by super and emerging powers — remain pipe dre­a­ms. And Ican’s model of promoting civil society activism against nuclear weapons is unlikely to succeed in the nuclear-armed countries that provoke the greatest concerns about conflict and proliferation. Pakistan offers a good example of how nuclear programmes are necessarily enmeshed with nationalist sentiment and pride. Where dissent or criticism of security policies is often perceived to be a form of treachery or worse, who would dare to raise a voice against a nuclear programme?

If anything, Ican’s tactic of mobilising the grass roots against nuclear weapons indicates how very long the road to global disarmament will be. For civil society to take the lead and pressure governments into rethinking security policies, democracy — and with it principles such as the right to information, accountability, transparency and free speech — must be deeply entrenched. The debate about whether the humanitarian and environmental costs of nuclear warfare outweigh strategic objectives can only take place in an open, discursive and democratic environment — too bad the dream of democracy may be as elusive as one of a nuke-free world.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2017