A first of its kind convergence is taking place this week at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, where more than 120 countries are discussing a formal and comprehensive ban on use, possession, production and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Octogenarian Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, gave an evocative speech in the UN General Assembly this week at the beginning of the negotiations.
Thurlow, in her speech, gave a fervent call for banning nuclear weapons while her generation of victims fade away.
An unprecedented moment
There are two things that make the negotiations distinct time:
– First, the initiative seeks to outlaw all atomic weapons, going beyond the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which created categories of nuclear haves and have-nots. If adopted by a majority in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the proposed Nuclear Ban Treaty would make all nuclear weapons illegal.
Although a legal ban is not the same as physical dismantling of existing stockpiles, it would be an important step in stigmatising and discouraging atomic weapons.
The negotiations are aimed at filling the ‘legal gap’ in the international system concerning nuclear weapons.
– Second, this new initiative does not depend on bringing the Nuclear Weapons States on the table and convincing them for disarmament. Institutionalising a legal prohibition requires a majority with the UNGA and an overwhelming majority of countries in the world have been supporting nuclear disarmament at various forums including NPT Review Conferences.
In fact, the frustration with decades of disarmament efforts, within the NPT architecture, thwarted by the nuclear powers, has been the key reason behind this process.
It started with a conference in Oslo in 2013 on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, where new evidence of the unacceptable consequences of a future nuclear use were presented by leading scientist bodies, civil society organisations as well as former policy makers.
The Oslo Conference brought forth newer evidence – from the declassified nuclear command and control information to scientific studies on potential consequences of a nuclear war and testimonies of victims of nuclear tests from across the world of irreversible, unacceptable damage that a nuclear use would unleash.
For the first time ever, global civil society organisations and governments of non-nuclear states addressed the issues of catastrophic impacts of an atomic detonation.
The Oslo Conference was followed by similar conferences in Mexico and Austria in the subsequent years, emphasising on the need to rethink nuclear weapons in the light of new evidences and find a way to bridge the legal gap as nuclear weapons are the only form of WMDs which are not legally prohibited.
Various prominent actors like the non-aligned nations and other disarmament groups like Global Zero, renowned international bodies such as the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear Weapons (IPPNW), the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Committee (ICRC) have supported this initiative, asserting that no civil response could be possible in the event of a nuclear explosion.
India shedding its moral fig-leaf
However, the Indian government under Narendra Modi has chosen to stay away from these negotiations. And this is a big departure from India’s long-standing posture on nuclear disarmament, which it maintained even after conducting nuclear tests in 1998.
Unlike other Nuclear Weapons States, India has adopted a morally righteous stance of demanding a comprehensive and global disarmament, alleging that the existing nuclear regime, which is centred around the NPT, does not go that far. India posited itself in the world as a reluctant nuclear power which has been forced to go nuclear, after getting frustrated with pursuing nuclear disarmament for decades while the P-5 refused to negotiate nuclear abolition.
This morally upright posture, and the rallying cry against what India called ‘nuclear apartheid’ has resonated with large sections of its public.
This posture has been used to justify nuclear weapons, even as scholars and peace activists on the other side have questioned not just the consistency of supporting nuclear-free world and going nuclear ourselves, but also the military efficacy, huge costs and risks of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.
Therefore, staying away when an actual opportunity of negotiating a comprehensive ban has arrived, is a complete turn-around from the moral rhetoric on which support for nuclear weapons in India has been perpetuated.
The Modi government has summarily abandoned the traditional Indian posture of being a reluctant nuclear power which is still ready to embrace nuclear disarmament if it is discussed in an universal, non-discriminatory and legally binding terms.
The importance of the ban treaty currently under negotiation is that it would establish, for the first time, a universal and global, legal and moral principle highlighting the criminality of possessing, let alone producing, and using nuclear weapons.
While it does not ensure an immediate and actual physical dismantling of nuclear arsenals, it is definitely much larger in its scope than the universal no-first use treaty that India has proposed internationally in the recent years.
As Professor Achin Vanaik, a renowned scholar of international relations and a famous peace activist, suggested – “India, while staying out of the NPT, has always made much of its public commitment to universal nuclear disarmament. It is now being put to the test of matching its deeds to its words. Its refusal to participate in the negotiations shows that it has failed this test.”
Why so silent?
The domestic media’s silence over the issue is equally shocking. Newspapers have headlines like ‘Nuclear ban talks begin at the UN, but US and others boycott’ (Indian Express 27 March), but without any mention of India’s boycott.
No editorials, no major Op-Eds, no panel discussions holding the Indian government responsible to its own rhetoric have appeared in any of the major newspapers or television channels.
This signifies a silent and complete burial of the principled foreign policy matters and all things nuclear, and a brazen ganging up with the P-5 and their supporters, whom India has been castigating for perpetuating the nuclear apartheid.
Modi’s India has shed all pretensions of a principled foreign policy. From adopting a moral stance even in support of its nuclear weaponisation, to an open refusal to join nuclear ban negotiations even if all nuclear weapons are banned, India’s love for the most destructive weapons has brought it a long way.
The author is Senior Researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP).