Nuclear weapons are in the news again, for all the wrong reasons. But the adoption of a new UN treaty could kickstart a re-energised effort to abolish these expensive, dangerous and immoral weapons which have no place in today’s world.
On 7 July the UN General Assembly adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the nuclear ban treaty. It was voted in by 122 countries, with only one country voting against. However, all nine nuclear weapon states, and most nuclear umbrella states, failed to attend the treaty negotiations and boycotted the vote.
Among those states is Britain which, despite constrained public finances, is seeking to spend over £200 billion over thirty to forty years replacing Trident.
This is hard to justify when evidence is mounting that the UK faces a health funding crisis. Earlier this year the British Red Cross was forced to intervene and assist UK hospitals in 20 A&E departments, calling the situation a ‘humanitarian crisis’. More recently, a study by the Nuffield Trust found the NHS was under pressure in several key areas, after a decade which has seen some of the lowest spending increases in history.
This problem is coupled with uncertainty in future public finances stemming from Brexit, and reports of overspending on the nuclear deterrent. A recently released report from a government watchdog on major projects criticised Trident replacement efforts as poorly managed, over-budget and beset by technical problems.
By abandoning our reliance on an increasingly redundant and dangerous approach to national security, Britain can win on two fronts. Firstly, it can reduce the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war whilst adopting a more convincing approach to national security. Secondly, it can demonstrate its diplomatic prowess and take a lead on multilateral disarmament and make the world safer.
As explained in the Medact report ‘A safer world: treating Britain’s harmful dependence on nuclear weapons’, there are better ways of achieving peace and national security than through the retention of nuclear weapons:
‘While nuclear weapons give us a terrifying military might, they do not prevent or counter new forms of warfare and non-state terrorism; nor can they be used to fight sea level rise, extreme weather, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance and rising levels of inequality.‘
Although the nuclear ban treaty only applies to those countries who ratify it, it demonstrates huge international support for full nuclear weapons disarmament. There were three key drivers for the adoption of the treaty.
The first was the obvious need to place nuclear weapons on an equal footing with other abhorred and indiscriminate weapons, including landmines, and chemical and biological weapons, which had all been previously made illegal.
The second was the growing scientific understanding that a limited regional nuclear war could result in severe climatic disruption and a deterioration of food supply that would place up to two billion people at risk of starvation.
The third driver was the fact that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was not working. Although the treaty committed all nuclear weapon states to make genuine efforts towards disarmament, in reality, they have been modernising and upgrading their weapons systems (as with Trident).
The last five years has seen the world grow more dangerous and unstable. The number of armed conflicts across the world has grown, whilst a backlash against globalisation has resulted in a rise of aggressive, nationalist and authoritarian governments. Climate change and resource scarcity are further acting as ‘threat multipliers’. Thus, the risk of nuclear weapons being used mistakenly, accidentally or stupidly has probably grown.
Ultimately, long-lasting and sustainable peace and security can only be built through international cooperation and the adoption of a multi-dimensional peacebuilding strategy. By choosing to relinquish its nuclear weapons, the UK could play a major diplomatic role in catalysing genuine multilateral disarmament across the world.
In the UK, doctors and health professionals are renewing interest in dismantling Trident from both a moral and medical standpoint but also a simple economic case.
You can do your bit. In September over 500 peace activists, academics, medical professionals and students from across the globe will be meeting in York to bring fresh momentum both to the national and international fight to relinquish nuclear weapons and make the world a safer, healthier and wealthier place. Why not join us?
Dr David McCoy is the director of Medact, a UK public health and peace-building charity
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