A quiet revolution took place in Oslo earlier this month. More than 120 governments, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and civil society gathered to debate the problem of nuclear weapons, not in military and geopolitical terms, as has been done for decades, but through a humanitarian lens. Never before in the 68 years of the atomic age has there been any serious discussion at a governmental level of the catastrophic harm caused by nuclear weapons, nor a concerted push by states to outlaw these weapons completely.
The five major nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China - were understandably unhappy about this Norwegian government initiative. Just days before the conference kicked off, they issued a joint statement declaring that they would boycott it, even though a couple of them had earlier indicated that they would attend. But this was not enough to deter other governments from taking part, including many members of NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea, all of which rely on America's so-called "extended nuclear deterrent."
It was a major strategic blunder on the part of the "P5" nuclear powers not to show up. Their absence only ensured that the discussion remained focused on the horrific effects of nuclear weapons, immediate and long term, and the need for a ban. Representatives from one state after another rose to express their grave concerns over the continuing threat that nuclear weapons pose to all humanity. The Red Cross warned that no national or international response capacity exists - nor could one ever be developed - to respond effectively in the event of even a single nuclear detonation, let alone in the more likely scenario of a nuclear exchange.
Some international media outlets felt that the absence of the United States and other powerful states diminished the meeting's significance. But if these countries had considered the meeting unimportant, they would probably have turned up. They appear concerned that the new humanitarian-based approach to nuclear disarmament has the potential to disrupt the status quo of disarmament inaction. At the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva - a body that has been moribund for 17 years though it schedules meetings approximately five months out of the year - the P5 delivered statements deriding the Oslo conference as a "distraction" from the many "practical" nonproliferation and arms control measures they are pursuing.
But this is mere rhetoric. No nuclear-armed nation has shown any genuine commitment to eliminating its nuclear weapons. They pay lip service to nuclear disarmament - making "unequivocal undertakings" to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world - but at the same time invest billions of dollars in the modernization of their nuclear forces, with the clear intention of retaining them for many decades to come. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, have suggested that nuclear disarmament is a centuries-long process.
The focus of the P5 is on curbing proliferation: preventing North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons program any further and ensuring that Iran does not use its enriched uranium for bomb-making. But the P5 can hardly take the moral high ground on nuclear nonproliferation while refusing to make any meaningful progress in abolishing their own vast nuclear stockpiles. As Desmond Tutu recently opined in Britain's Guardian newspaper: "We cannot intimidate others into behaving well when we ourselves are misbehaving. Yet that is precisely what nations armed with nuclear weapons hope to do by censuring North Korea . . . and Iran."
Achieving a Ban
So how will the Oslo conference help to overcome this logjam? We have learned from processes to ban other categories of weapons that cause unacceptable suffering - such as antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions - that adopting a humanitarian-based discourse is an important first step. New coalitions of states can be formed and longstanding deadlocks broken. For both of these types of weapons, the major producers and users claimed they were essential for their national security. But disarmament campaigners, humanitarian relief agencies and like-minded governments demonstrated that, from a humanitarian standpoint, bans were necessary. In a few short years, treaties were negotiated and brought into force.
The Oslo conference has the potential to lead us to a negotiating process for a ban on nuclear weapons. The Mexican government has already announced a follow-up conference. Other governments have indicated a willingness to host further conferences. The precise aim has not yet been stated. However, it would likely be a treaty that prohibits the use, production, testing and possession of nuclear weapons and establishes a legal framework for their elimination. This new international legal instrument would create a powerful global norm against nuclear weapons, speeding up the process for total nuclear disarmament.
Even without the support of the P5 and other nuclear-armed nations, the benefits of a ban would be considerable. For example, with an international ban in place, would it be tenable for the British government to proceed with the renewal of its fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines, a decision on which is expected in 2016? Would the five NATO states that host US nuclear weapons - Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey - be able to keep doing so? Would countries such as Australia and Japan still consider it acceptable to claim reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence? Would banks around the world be comfortable financing companies that manufacture nuclear arms?
It would be unrealistic to expect that one day all or most of the nine nuclear-armed states - the P5 plus India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - would be willing to sit around a table together and agree to eliminate their nuclear weapons. This is simply not how disarmament will come about. Most of these states have said that they will only do away with their own nuclear weapons once all other nuclear weapons in the world have been dismantled. We clearly should not rely on their leadership in this endeavor. Non-nuclear-weapon states - which make up the vast majority of states in the world - must drive the international push for a ban.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which coordinated civil society participation in the Oslo conference, has used the analogy of a train journey to describe what began in Norway this month: We have left the platform in Oslo. Before too long, we will arrive in Mexico; and there will be a series of further stops. Along the way, some governments will get off; others will come on board. But the momentum will continue throughout, sustained by the overwhelming will of the world's people to achieve a more peaceful future, free from the threat of radioactive incineration. That momentum will take us to our destination - a ban on nuclear weapons. Reaching that place is an urgent humanitarian necessity.
Tim Wright is on the International Steering Group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. He served as a civil society delegate to the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, Oslo, Norway.