On the 7th July 2017, the United Nations (UN) adopted the first treaty imposing a total ban on nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons covers all aspects of nuclear weapons, including use and threat of use, testing, development, possession, sharing and stationing, and offering any kind of assistance to another state that is engaging in these activities. Nuclear armed states may join, and destroy their weapons, or destroy their weapons and join the Treaty. 

The majority of UN member states voted to adopt the Treaty following international concerns about the ecological and humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. The practical impact of the Treaty, and the stigmatisation of the weapons, is understood by the nine nuclear-armed states – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – who refused to participate, and who put pressure on other UN member states that have economic or military dependence on them.

The only NATO member participating at the Treaty Conference – having been mandated to do so by its Parliament – was the Netherlands. It cast the sole vote against the Treaty’s adoption, with a caveat that “the treaty teaches us the valuable lesson that non-nuclear-weapon states have their own responsibilities and should not hesitate to take them”. The United States approached other NATO members in advance of the negotiations, asserting the limitations that the Treaty would place on US strategy, and indicating that they should not participate. 

The United Kingdom government lobbied hard against the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty, and it opposed Scottish representation at UN headquarters in New York ahead of the vote. Nonetheless, a civil society delegation from Scotland, accredited by organisations with consultative status at the UN, did travel to New York to lobby in favour of the Treaty. Bill Kidd MSP presented a letter of support to the Conference President from Scotland’s First Minister.

In this extended interview, a member of that Scottish delegation, Janet Fenton, speaks to CABLE about the experience of being at the UN on such a momentous occasion, the vote, and what she thinks the Nuclear Ban Treaty will achieve.

Q: Janet, how did a Scottish delegation come to be at the UN in New York for a vote on banning nuclear weapons?

A small number of Scottish campaigners have been part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) since its inception in 2007. Bill Kidd MSP is very active and has attended gatherings and hosted many parliamentary events on this issue. The late John Ainslie of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND) contributed a lot of technical expertise and formal reports to the international campaign until his death. ICAN works through its partners around the world, including SCND and others in the UK who add the international disarmament aspect to their work, sharing information and resources. ICAN has gained great success in engaging more diplomats through civil society knowledge, which has contributed to its rapid growth across the world

Of course, after the 2007 Scottish election delivered a parliament that was able to represent Scottish opposition to nuclear weapons, the sense of outrage about the democratic deficit in playing host to weapons we didn’t want was growing. But there was also a sense that we didn’t want to take a NIMBY position regarding the UK: we wanted completely rid of Trident, not just for it to be moved south. The direct action activities of Trident Ploughshares and Faslane 365 that had helped us to elect that parliament had been supported from all over the world. We learned that these weapons present a shared threat that borders cannot contain. Entering the independence referendum debate, there was one view, strongly held by many folk, that Scotland could do better if it became a small country contributing to world peace.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has Consultative Status at the UN, with two main commitments. First, to people’s voices being heard in international negotiations. Second, to using International Humanitarian Law instead of weapons to resolve intergovernmental disagreements. Its disarmament programme, Reaching Critical Will, co-ordinates and enables civil society and NGO access at the UN.

Another civil society group, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, really got the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) going when they warned that even a ‘small’ nuclear exchange could annihilate millions through radioactive poisoning, temperature drop and crop failures, leading to famine, with the most devastating effects being felt in countries that were not nuclear-armed. This challenged the idea that the nuclear-armed states could be described as  ‘civilised’, or that non nuclear-armed countries could be left out of the negotiations.

The reality of nuclear weapons was explored through three conferences convened to look at their catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Scottish CND representatives were able to attend two of them. This resulted in the Austrian Government making a pledge for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and then the UN set up a special Working Group to establish how this could be done. By this time, apart from Scottish CND and WILPF, there were other groups who understood that this was of huge significance, including Quakers (Northern Friends Peace Board), Trident Ploughshares, Christian CND, and Scrap Trident. There were others, but those were the main ones.

Along with some concerned individuals, they put money and encouragement into enabling me to attend and participate in the sessions of the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) in Geneva, for Scotland. When the OEWG agreed the recommendation that a Conference be organised by the UN in New York on writing the Ban Treaty, that group also enabled me to be in New York, along with Bill Kidd, last October (2016) to do my bit and to see it being agreed.

All these international gatherings had allowed regular international Campaigners Conferences. The UK itself has had meetings in London in the Medact office from time to time since 2007. European ‘Academies’, like the one SCND staffer Flavia Tudoreanu attended, helped to build knowledge and capacity. Good email communications with the International Steering Group of ICAN helped Scottish campaigners understand that plenty of capable people in New York would help ensure that the Treaty was adopted.

Once we had the Conference dates, interested Scottish groups started planning, particularly through the Scrap Trident Coalition because most disarmament groups in Scotland are part of that. We thought that another reason to be there was to make sure that the international community understood and supported the unique position Scotland is in: a country which hosts nuclear weapons that it has democratically rejected.

It’s always very difficult to find the money needed for all the disarmament activities we undertake. The political climate with Trident, Theresa May, Brexit and its impact in Scotland, was using all our resources. Spring and summer are already busy with lots of festival activities so having enough volunteers to do everything was hard too. It seemed unlikely we could recruit a team or raise the funds to send a team for the March meeting in New York as well as sending out a team in June.

The International Steering Group told us that the second meeting was the one where we could make the most impact. So we used my feedback, and Bill Kidd’s work on the March meeting, to raise awareness – and money – for sending out a Scottish team to New York in June.  Scottish CND agreed to be secretariat for a Ban Treaty Working Group, which including funding a staff member, Flavia, to go to New York. We wrote the various begging letters to raise funds, hosted a “Banboree” event, and auctioned an art work which was kindly donated by the artist Alasdair Gray. We recruited a team using a selection process. Everyone had to attend briefings, read up on the negotiations, and agree to undertake meetings and write articles afterwards.

Our team for New York included two young graduates. It was thanks to the United Nations Association making an extra contribution that we managed to take two. One was Amy Christison, a graduate of the University of St Andrews. The other was an international PhD student, Dagmar Topf Aguiar de Medeiros. We also had Andy Hinton, who’s an experienced campaigner from north of the Central Belt. Then there was the veteran (87 year old) campaigner from Scotland, now resident in the United States, Isabelle Smith which was really useful as she’s a very good communicator with great experience. We also didn’t have to find fares or accommodation for her! Dr Michael Orgel from Medact Scotland was visiting the US at the time and he was able to join us. And then there was me.

Q: What did the Scottish delegation do once it arrived in New York? How did you go about your business?

The ICAN Steering Group had arranged orientation meetings before the start of the Conference. Our team were just there from the first week, and Bill Kidd did not make it until the last week, when the Scottish Parliament was in recess. So apart from Bill, and Flavia whose flight held her up, we all went to the first orientation.

We had a chance to meet with other campaigners and meet the ICAN New York team who would direct and support what we were there to do. It was very welcoming and friendly, and held in a space near the UN so people knew how to get there We had some discussion of the draft treaty – which had come out in May – and the key points that should be added or removed were explained by our experts. There was also a briefing on the procedure within the UN building so that people knew what was acceptable during the proceedings and where the main resources were in the building.

Leaders for the different teams tackling aspects of what was to be done introduced themselves and the work, and we signed up for what we wanted to do the next morning. The main strands are monitoring, which involves very close listening to the diplomats’ presentations, and note taking, which gets fed back to a team leader and informs what progress is being made during the day’s talks. It can also mean ‘counting’ the diplomats in the room, which became very important when we needed to make sure that all the diplomats would be eligible to vote.

The Scottish delegation’s Side Event at the United Nations in New York. Janet Fenton sits in the centre. © Scottish CND. All Rights Reserved.

Lobbying involves working with diplomats from UN member states who should be encouraged to articulate their position more strongly, or where reassurance might be offered. It also includes giving briefings to the diplomats in the room, or contacting diplomats from states who are not in the room, by visiting them at their ‘missions’, or temporary offices outside, but near to, the UN building. Some of this is done by email or phone. You can also approach the diplomats respectfully when they are available to speak.

There is also a social media team, taking pictures and holding interviews for publication, and an action team that works on creating attention-grabbing moments around the Conference.

Although this was all a bit daunting, the Scottish team had discussed a lot of the expectation in advance. We were well-prepared. And the session was so friendly and informative. There was a real sense that there were tasks for everyone and the ICAN’s strong can-do culture was very reassuring. Collecting the much-coveted UN Pass was a source of pride, although we felt a little anxiety over whether all our the paperwork had been properly completed. But having met people at the orientation session, there were a few kent faces in the morning to give reassurance.

“Collecting the much-coveted UN Pass was a source of pride, although we felt a little anxiety over whether all our the paperwork had been properly completed.”

There was an interfaith vigil outside the UN at eight am every day. There was a campaigner’s briefing at nine am in the special NGO room, where we could catch up with what was happening, learn about some side events taking place that day, and plan our days. Most days, we finished between five and six pm. The Scottish team met at the end of each day, often for food, and we made sure that our blog was sent home, as well as exchanging our experiences and detailing how the meetings we attended could contribute to our work at home in Scotland. Evening events hosted by different groups added to the long and fascinating days.

A major thing for us was the Side Event that we organised to share the Scottish perspective on nuclear wepapons. We used a selection of videos, and had a panel that included an Israeli disarmament campaigner presenting on living in a ‘secret’ nuclear-armed state, and a Netherlands civil society CEO on how the democratic will of the people has built to challenge US and NATO policy on nuclear weapons. Our event went smoothly and it was well attended. We made lots of connections that we can build on in our future work. A Scottish briefing was submitted informally to the conference which you can read on the nuclearban.scot website.

Then there was the other half of our team back in Scotland, following everything, working really hard, tweeting, doing Facebook, and lots of press work.

Q: Did your delegation come under kind of any pressure from representatives of the UK government while you were at the UN Conference?

You know, it is a strange thing but I didn’t actually feel that so much in New York. Despite a very realistic understanding of what we are up against from the UK government when I am in Scotland. I don’t mean to be disrespectful when I describe the meeting our Scottish delegation had with the UK Ambassador – in his office, which is entered by going through a bullet-proof airlock – as being somewhere between an episode of Yes Minister and the final speeches from Dr Strangelove. The ‘step by step approach’ was referenced, but he never described any ‘steps’. The Non-Proliferation Treaty was dredged up, but there were no concrete examples of any planned actions towards the complete elimination of weapons that the Treaty compels its signatories to undertake.

“The pressure I have been aware of on my return home has been the silence from the media, the lack of discussion on what the Treaty is, and what it means for Scotland.”

The pressure I have been aware of on my return home has been the silence from the media, the lack of discussion on what the Treaty is, and what it means for Scotland. I guess we have to focus on those three realities: the democratic deficit across the world; the key part that civil society is now playing throughout the international community; and the way that the Treaty and its prohibitions will change how ordinary people can see these things. The pressure I do feel is how to effectively communicate how the Ban Treaty can start to turn the tide.

Q: What was the mood in the Conference chamber when the vote passed?

It’s very difficult for me to communicate this because it is so personal. I’ve been campaigning for nuclear disarmament since the sixties when our cry was “Ban The Bomb!” And now it has happened. Right up to the last session, everyone was engaged with the process and I was in a room full of old people, young people, international diplomats of the highest intellectual calibre and scientists with impeccable credentials. Also men and women who had been directly affected by radioactive poison, hideous burns, the loss of their families, their homes, and their lands. There was such determination, the application of so many intellects, the love from so many hearts, all focused on completing the task that the Conference had set.

The room was full and an overflow space had been opened with video and interpretative links. I was lucky to have a seat. I sat next to the Plowshares nuns, and a new American friend. Bill Kidd was standing at the end of the row. I remember us exchanging a solemn glance.

The opening presentations reflected on our time working together. Then the Conference President – the Costa Rican Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez [President of the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons] asked the room if we had consensus on the draft text of the Treaty. There was a long delay, then the room erupted into applause, then a standing ovation. But we all had been warned at the morning briefing that the Netherlands delegation had been tasked by its government to refuse the adoption, and to call for a vote. As discussed earlier, there was not a sound of demur. We waited, and the arrangement for voting was put in place. It all happened very quickly then. We saw the screen, and the names of the 122 member states who were present and fully credentialed cast their votes.

And then…I was on my feet, my eyes blinded. I was trying to control myself until I looked about and saw the tears on so many faces. We fell into each other’s arms.

Conference President Elayne Whyte Gómez salutes the passing of the vote. Image: Religions For Peace Australia.

What had just been passed was incredible. We had reframed nuclear disarmament as a humanitarian, not simply a security, issue. We had disseminated these arguments through the United Nations, proposed treaty language, critiqued drafts, and lobbied member countries to adopt our preferred positions. A while later, we broke for lunch. And as the Conference President entered the huge UN dining room, a spontaneous round of applause rang out. The whole room was on its feet. And the President and members of her team were all wearing white; the Costa Rican symbol for peace.

 Q: What do proponents of the Treaty think it will achieve?

The Treaty is a game changer. Its objective was clearly stated at the outset of the Conference: “A legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination”. So to ask the question about what we ‘think’ it will achieve is in some way to suggest that there is some kind of a problem with that. Now there may be difficulty in getting there, but there is for me, and at the Conference for others, no problem in stating what we are aiming to do. We negotiated a Treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons in order to prohibit nuclear weapons.

The majority of the UN member states are now vindicated in their belief that it is unacceptable for them to have their people threatened and their lands poisoned. When they sign the Treaty and distance themselves from nuclear doctrines, it’s a step forward in further stigmatising nuclear weapons and those governments who choose to hold them. Practical effects will soon make nuclear weapons more of a liability than an asset when there are difficult practical limitations on moving, storing, equipping and servicing them.

“The majority of the UN member states are now vindicated in their belief that it is unacceptable for them to have their people threatened and their lands poisoned. When they sign the Treaty and distance themselves from nuclear doctrines, it’s a step forward in further stigmatising nuclear weapons and those governments who choose to hold them.”

The required infrastructure is complex and expensive. As the weapons lose any military or political advantage because of these practical difficulties, with increasing intolerance from global populations, the process of elimination may accelerate faster than it did with landmines and cluster munitions which have already effectively been banned. The recent use of chemical weapons in Syria brought condemnation from across the world, although concealing chemical weapons is far easier than it is to conceal a nuclear reactor.

There are important steps that now have to be taken. In the first instance, we need to work to get at least one hundred UN member states signed on at the first opportunity after the Treaty opens for signature. Regardless what the UK government says, all politicians should be informed of, and committed to, the Treaty if they are to get our votes. Additional instruments may be required to enable disarmament but those require the input of the member states who presently own or use them.

The new understanding of nuclear weapons that the Ban Treaty articulates so clearly will have a significant impact. Even if they do not join the Treaty, the nuclear-armed states are not outside the law. The Treaty’s prohibition on ‘threat’ with nuclear weapons directly challenges so-called ‘deterrence policies’ which will complicate policy options for members of military alliances like NATO. Along with increased pressure from the electorate on governments who are accountable to their parliaments, this gives a useful lever to civil society.

For Scotland, this is of huge importance. As a Scot, I want to make sure that everyone in Scotland knows what has happened with the Treaty. And, of course, Scottish independence can mean the end of Trident. This would make the UK the first member state of the UN to disarm after the adoption of the Treaty.

Q: How do you respond to the argument that the Treaty will do nothing to change the stance of the nuclear-armed states? 

The Treaty is an agreement that will be binding on the UN member states who sign it. The Conference was on offer to the nuclear-armed states as a forum where their genuine concerns could be listened to and addressed. They chose not to engage with it. When I pointed this out to a UK Ambassador who was present at, but not participating in, the Open Ended Working Group at the UN, he immediately responded by asking if I thought that the UK should be at the Conference ‘in bad faith’ – an admission that the UK cannot presently conceive of giving up nuclear weapons.

The nuclear-armed states did not want to disarm. So that’s not in the agreement. If they change their minds, there is provision for them to join the Treaty. They can join and destroy their nuclear capability, or destroy and then join. Both options are included to provide the maximum possibility for it to happen. The Conference did not outline systems of verification that weapons are gone, or plans for how they would be destroyed. The states which would need to verify or destroy were not present. So when it comes, it will be their job to satisfy the Treaty signatories that they have devised a safe and fair way to eradicate their weapons in an acceptable manner.

So the question should perhaps be: “Will the treaty make the nuclear-armed states want to disarm?” And I think the answer to that question is: yes, it will help to make that happen.

When it comes to civil society’s role, in Scotland this has already been increased through devolution and a more accessible parliament. By using specialist knowledge and effective advocacy, we can ensure that the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons is always to the fore. We can use our expertise to identify the dangers we face from the nuclear weapon convoys that travel on our roads, the UK’s submissive relationship with the US, the truth about employment numbers and energy supplies, and so on.

On stigmatisation, the naming and shaming of nuclear weapons themselves goes without saying. But more than that, we can be critical of an infrastructure that depends on secrecy, centralisation, enormous material and resource costs, and a highly gendered understanding of strength and control. These things are entirely the opposite of what is needed to address the dangers we face in Scotland, and as part of the global community, from climate change, degradation of the natural environment, cyberwar and terrorism.

“The UK Government will have to deal with all of this. It will also have to deal with a Scotland that doesn’t want nuclear weapons deployed here. And a UK military that would prefer investment in other forms of weaponry. The Treaty will undermine the UK’s commitment to nuclear weapons – as long the people play their part.”

The Treaty will have enormous practical implications for the member states that don’t sign it. The US was well aware of this in making its decision to warn off the other NATO countries from voting for the Conference in October last year [when a UN vote on resolution L.41 set in motion the 2017 conferences]. It could even be that NATO changes its nuclear first-strike policy if the economics, the problems with refuelling, and the disruption in their schedules increase, along with growing international condemnation of their nuclear doctrine. Military alliances between those who sign the Treaty and the nuclear-armed states will be affected. Disinvestment from governments that have signed the Treaty, as well as citizen disinvestment, will impact on the military-industrial-complex across the world, and the cash-strapped UK will feel the pinch.

The UK government will have to deal with all of this. It will also have to deal with a Scotland that doesn’t want nuclear weapons deployed here. And a UK military that would prefer investment in other forms of weaponry. The Treaty will undermine the UK’s commitment to nuclear weapons – as long the people play their part. The world came together in New York in July and used an amazing, non-adversarial, respectful process to hear one another, understand each other’s fears and concerns, and come up with a bold and inspiring Treaty, despite predictions that it was not possible.

If we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we need to use the Treaty rather than doing the work of its detractors for them. We will prevail, or we will perish. In addition to the millions of people who have suffered in the past from the bombs and the tests, it is important to remember that all of the sustainable development goals, all effective challenges to climate change, all efforts to eradicate poverty in Africa and halt the melting of the polar icecaps, will be negated in the event of the deliberate or accidental use of less than half of the payload of one of the nuclear submarines at Faslane.

Janet Fenton is currently Vice Chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Parliamentary Liaison for The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Scottish Branch).

Feature image: the Conference chamber where UN members voted to pass the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, on 7th July 2017. Image: ICAN, with permission.