A deranged man drove along Westminster Bridge with murderous recklessness, crashed his car, stabbed a policeman, and achieved all the publicity which he presumably desired when the two sides in the “War on Terror” immediately awarded deep political significance to his actions. We can know nothing about the dark workings of the mind of this man, but enough has emerged of his troubled background to suggest that obsessive devotion to a political cause which advocates violence may have given him an outlet for his own suppressed rage. (Research in Northern Ireland has strongly indicated that the IRA attracted a disproportionate number of recruits with existing mental health problems.)
On March 23rd the Guardian devoted seven pages to coverage of the Westminster atrocity; the victims were people with whom we could identify and the deaths occurred in a place that we all know and love. Meanwhile tucked into the ‘international’ section on page 21 was another headline: “At least 33 killed in airstrike on Syrian school by US-led coalition”. I was struck by the deep irony of it all.
Violence breeds violence and in the modern age killing people should be a completely unacceptable — and ultimately futile — way of settling disputes of any kind, whether domestic or international. The days of glory in war are long gone. The advisors of President George W. Bush were very ill-advised to coin the phrase “war on terror”: an appellation which immediately gave the perpetrators of violent atrocities the glamour which they craved. The recent death of former IRA leader Martin McGuinness is a reminder that even in the bitterest of disputes, all parties have ultimately to agree to talk to each other.
Despite the condemnation of the actions of Khalid Masood by all except his fellow jihadists, the extraordinary fact remains that the majority of our political representatives are content to endorse a defence policy which relies on nuclear weapons — weapons designed to inflict unimaginable destruction and suffering on civilian populations. I find this very odd.
The current Newsletter is being prepared a few days later than usual so that it can carry an up-to-date report from the UN in New York where representatives of a majority of the world’s nations gathered on March 27th to begin historic negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
Despite a YouGov opinion poll showing that 75% of the population thought that the UK should take part, our Government has decided to join other nuclear weapons states in boycotting the conference. Could it be that the members of the UN Security Council’s ‘nuclear club’ feel that their privileged position is under threat?
The talks that began at the United Nations in New York on 27th March are expected to be concluded by mid-July with the signing of a new international treaty that will ban nuclear weapons on the same basis that all other weapons of mass destruction have been banned. Despite the reduction of nuclear stockpiles since the end of the Cold War, there are still about 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, the detonation of any one of which would lead to humanitarian catastrophe. It is now nearly 50 years since the conclusion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], and despite going through the motions of a Review Conference every five years, the nuclear weapons states have totally failed to make any progress on fulfilling their obligation to negotiate “in good faith and at an early date” the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals. Indeed, participants at the most recent NPT Review Conference failed even to agree the text of a Final Statement.
This is the context in which the non-nuclear majority in the UN General Assembly decided to take matters into their own hands, firstly convening a series of conferences to explore the position of nuclear weapons under international humanitarian law and finally taking the decision by a large majority to set up the 2017 Nuclear Ban conference. A memo from the US to all NATO capitals was leaked to the press last year: the US was planning to boycott the ‘Ban’ negotiations and was urging all its allies to do likewise. The fact that the nuclear weapons states are panicking demonstrates just how powerful a treaty could be in undermining the moral and legal acceptability of nuclear weapons.
Of course a nuclear ban treaty will not in itself get rid of nuclear weapons, but even though a similar Landmines Treaty has still not rid the world of all landmines, countries (like the US) which are not even signatories to the treaty have nonetheless stopped using them. International treaties have moral as well as legal significance and establish new norms.
“Indeed the impact of the new treaty is already being felt. The initiative has exposed nations such as Australia, Canada, Norway and Japan once considered supporters of disarmament as a significant part of the problem,” writes Tim Wright of ICAN†. “Under pressure from parliamentarians, the media and ordinary citizens, their officials have been compelled to explain, often with great awkwardness and reluctance, their opposition to outlawing the very worst weapons of mass destruction. More than ever before, these countries are being challenged to end their reliance on US nuclear forces.”
† International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
As the talks opened on 27th March, Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations, stood outside the conference hall, flanked by the Deputy Ambassador of France and the British Ambassador, and delivered a statement: “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons but we have to be realistic”. She explained that she and her colleagues were not participating in the talks because they do not believe that these negotiations will lead to effective progress on global nuclear disarmament — something of a circular argument — and she declined to take questions. The official UK government position remains as stated in answer to a parliamentary question asked by Green MP Caroline Lucas: “The best way to achieve this goal [effective progress on nuclear disarmament] is through gradual multilateral disarmament negotiated using a step-by-step approach and within existing international frameworks”. Meanwhile the British parliament has confirmed that it is willing to commit up to £200 billion in modernising Trident and maintaining British status as a nuclear power for at least another thirty years.
It is important to remember that there are currently only nine nuclear weapons states and that a deep division exists in the international community between up to 130 countries pursuing ban negotiations in good faith and the 40-odd group of nuclear-armed states and their satellites who have been resisting and obstructing their efforts. Do these nations want all non-nuclear states to join the club and embrace nuclear weapons?
“Civil Society Engagement in Disarmament Processes: the case for Nuclear Weapons Ban” is a recent UN publication launched during the conference. A lunchtime seminar heard from Irish diplomat Helena Nolan who said “I am not exaggerating when I say that civil society has shaped the nuclear disarmament fora”.
Civil society has expertise (research and knowledge brings credibility), and the advocacy of civil society raises public awareness and presents a challenge to governments “to do better”. Ray Acheson from Reaching Critical Will said that the politics of the nuclear issue had been patriarchal and patronising but now during the ban negotiations the dynamic has begun to change. “We are the voice of the people, the ones who speak truth to power, and the ones that are fighting every day for a better world.”
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are powerful representatives of civil society at the UN: the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the International Trade Union Confederation, the World Medical Association, the World Council of Churches, the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (itself a global coalition of over 400 partner organisations in 100 countries).
Five UK churches have issued a statement in support of the negotiations in New York “giving thanks for the moral courage being exhibited by all the countries participating in these important negotiations... on behalf of our churches we commit ourselves to working with you and supporting your efforts until all nuclear weapons have been eliminated from the face of the earth”: the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Conference, Quakers in Britain and the United Reformed Church. And a message from the Pope was read by the Head of the Delegation of the Holy See to the meeting: “I extend cordial greetings to you, Madam President, and to all the representatives... participating in the Conference. I wish to encourage you to work with determination in order to promote the conditions necessary for a world without nuclear weapons.”
All of which has been ignored by the British media. Please publicise!
Several of us were privileged to be invited to an awards ceremony in Carshalton where our Chair, Maisie Carter, was presented with a TUC long service award for which she had been nominated by Merton and Sutton Trades Council.
Maisie was initiated into politics by her parents at a very tender age (she remembers chanting support for Dr Salter as a five-year-old on the streets of Bermondsey at election time) and being present at “Aid to Spain” events being planned in her parents’ house during the Spanish civil war. She joined the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union at age 16, and then the NUT after becoming a teacher. As NUT delegate to the local Trades Council she was active in setting up the Wimbledon Anti-Apartheid Campaign and the Merton Miners Support Group during the miners’ strike. Merton Trades Council supported the printers against Murdoch (visits to Wapping with the trade union banner) and when Merton TUC merged with Sutton TUC in the 1990s Maisie was elected President (a post she still holds).
Maisie was a founder member of CND. She also remains active in the Merton Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the West London branch of the National Assembly of Women, of which she was also a founder member. Having been expelled from the New Communist Party in 2001 (for opposing the undemocratic practice of the then leadership), she joined Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2016 and is now a delegate to the constituency Labour Party from the Raynes Park ward.
That lifetime achievement award is well-deserved!
Inspired by the example of a neighbouring CND group, we are hoping to organise a public reading of a play about the women of Greenham Common, tentatively to be held in the new Arts Space in Wimbledon Library.
Alison Williams is coordinating this project and welcomes all volunteers who would like to take part. (It is a large cast!) A preliminary run-through will take place in the Common Room of Alison’s block of flats, Wilberforce House, 119 Worple Road, on Thursday April 27th at 7·30pm. Please get in touch with Alison if you plan to be present: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the week preceding the UN conference in New York, Abolition 2000 UK (a network of more than 200 peace groups, churches and local authorities across the UK committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons by global treaty) commissioned an opinion poll from YouGov. Unsurprisingly, given that there has been next to no coverage in the print or broadcast media, this poll found that most people in the UK were unaware that disarmament negotiations were about to start in New York. In response to the question “Multilateral negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons worldwide are due to begin at the United Nations later this month. Do you personally think that the UK government should or should not be participating in those negotiations?” a massive majority said that the UK should participate, with only 9% against and 16% ‘don’t knows’.
There was no difference in support for negotiations between those who voted Conservative and those who voted Labour at the last election (79% in favour in both cases). The greatest support came from the older age group (65 and over) and the highest percentage of ‘don’t knows’ was amongst younger people, but even this group of respondents were still over 70% in favour of the UK actively taking part in the conference.
The strongest support for participating in the negotiations came from Scotland (82% in favour of the government taking part) and the SNP has sent their own delegation of observers to the UN. A poll conducted in Germany last year indicated that 93% of German citizens supported negotiations to eliminate all nuclear weapons and similar results have been obtained from polls in the Netherlands and in Sweden.
The Fête of the Earth will once again take place in the hall and garden of St Mark’s Church behind Wimbledon Library.
Please be there, please publicise, please donate goods, please spend generously, bring your friends — and enjoy yourselves, because our annual fête is a wonderful social event as well as the major fund-raiser of the year.