Banning nukes is easier than you think

Recent years have seen leaders lining up to make resounding speeches calling for a nuclear-free world – but when it comes to action, so far they seem to be running in the opposite direction.

Just a year ago Gordon Brown told a conference in Delhi that he would work to “achieve a world that is free from nuclear weapons.”

It is difficult to see the connection between those words and his government’s policy to build new submarines to carry Trident nuclear weapons to 2050 and beyond.

The cold war-era thinking lingers. This, coupled with pressure from US weapons manufacturers, means that the struggle to see soaring rhetoric transformed into concrete action is intense.

On Monday, protesters will be descending on Aldermaston to take part in the Trident Ploughshares blockade of the nuclear bomb factory.

This non-violent civil protest is in response to Britain’s determination to renew Trident and build the next generation of nuclear weapons – a decision made despite Brown’s avowed desire to show leadership in nuclear abolition.

In the face of such confused or hypocritical “leadership,” citizens of nuclear states must do all they can to move their governments to take real action on disarmament.

With support from the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Nobel peace prize recipients such as myself have been intensifying our efforts to press nuclear governments to fulfil their disarmament obligations.

My sister Mairead Maguire was joint winner of the peace prize in 1976. She and I came together with others last August to protest against US nuclear weapons in Los Alamos, the birthplace of the nuclear bomb. And we will come together again in Aldermaston.

When people come together in common cause, the seemingly impossible becomes feasible.

I helped to found the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which grew from two non-governmental organisations to 1,300 in 90 countries and brought about the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997.

For the first time in history, a weapon widely used by militaries around the world was completely banned. Landmines were commonly used and caused mass destruction in slow motion, maiming or killing one farmer or child at a time.

The landmine campaign forged a new model of disarmament as humanitarian action where civil society brings an issue to the attention of governments and then partners with like-minded states to start a negotiating process.

More and more people then felt compelled to join negotiations because of domestic and international pressure.

The successful model of civil society-government partnership was more recently emulated by the Cluster Munitions Coalition, which was launched in 2003.

That coalition’s pressure helped push governments to coalesce around the leadership of Norway to begin negotiations of a treaty to ban cluster bombs.

This led to the successful conclusion and adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008.

That success again underscored the critical importance of citizen diplomacy in moving governments to take action that they otherwise would not take if left to their own devices.

While the obstacles might seem insurmountable, there is no reason why these successes can’t be repeated with nuclear weapons.

They derive their strategic importance less from their military utility than from the status and deterrence value that certain governments attach to them. Governments tell their citizens that nuclear weapons are there not to be used but to deter others from using them.

The problem is that nuclear deterrence relies on a weird logic that requires a constant threat to use nuclear weapons and can fail at any time.

The current Trident system, based on 160 warheads, is capable of destroying 1,200 cities like Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Listening to the survivors of these two attacks, we can gain some sense of the terror on a massive scale of a nuclear attack.

We can imagine the bombs being detonated over our own cities – intense flashes and waves of fire that vaporise the living, leaving behind only shadows on stone.

Many who survived would have terrible injuries while others would appear unharmed until they fell to the slow sickness and death from radiation poisoning.

It’s not enough for government leaders to say they want a nuclear-free world. They have to mean it and work for it.

For that to happen, citizens have to raise their voices loudly and consistently to push Brown and his government to do what they otherwise would not do.

Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines received the Nobel peace prize in 1997.

The Trident Ploughshares Aldermaston blockade begins at 7am on Monday February 15. Jody Williams and others will speak at a CND public meeting on nuclear weapons on Tuesday 16 February at 7pm at the London School of Economics. For full details visit

This article is from UK’s daily Left newspaper, Morning Star.

Photo: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0