Last month, the second international Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons officially opened in Mexico, with atomic bomb survivors as well as delegates from over 147 nation states attending.
The conference – held in Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit – was sponsored by the Mexican government and followed the first meeting in Oslo in March last year held by the Norwegian government.
Many pressing issues were on the agenda for discussion yet, like last year, the five nuclear powers – USA, UK, Russia, China and France (known as the P5) – chose not to attend. The UK government issued the following response to their invitation:
“We remain concerned that many supporters of the conference appear to have a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting nuclear weapons outright as their ultimate goal.”
This cautious approach reflects the nature of the debate taking place within the UK itself – or rather, the lack of debate. This silence by the UK government seems odd when you consider that in 2016 they will have to decide whether to renew Britain’s nuclear weapons system, Trident.
Does anyone care about Trident?
Trident replaced Polaris in the 1980s and consists of four submarines, each one capable of carrying 16 missiles. With the UK’s current nuclear capacities, Trident is over 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that hit Hiroshima in 1945 and replacing it is likely to cost the public purse more than £100 billion.
In spite of this, the discussion over its renewal has been disconcertingly muted, and the government’s refusal to engage with the issue on an international level is demonstrative of this.
Ignore the nuclear debate at your own risk
This caution is dangerous: Britain must think again before distancing itself from the debate, or else it risks playing down the gravity of the humanitarian costs incurred by communities in the aftermath of nuclear attacks, or the use of other WMD.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still in living memory. If we can take one element of good from the devastation they caused, let it be the rich appreciation that decades of research and survivor accounts can give us of the long-term environmental, economical, developmental and health consequences of nuclear weapons.We should not turn our backs on this wisdom and view the UK’s domestic debate in a political vacuum, but rather engage with history and use it to frame the debate.
It’s good to talk
What was particularly remarkable about the discussion in Mexico was that it marked an ideological shift, where nation states departed from the belief that nuclear weapons remain central to national security. Instead, they recognised nuclear weapons not as a symbol of world order, but as instruments of irreversible and catastrophic destruction.
Over the course of the conference, nation states convened to lay the groundwork for a new international treaty with the end goal of banning these weapons. The issue at hand for the UK to acknowledge is not whether this view conflicts with the present government’s stance, but that isolating itself from developments of this kind will inevitably marginalise the UK’s role in the formation of this legal framework in the future.
If the UK and other P5 members want to remain at the forefront of the nuclear weapons debate and want to maintain their eminence in the international community, a change of course is required. WMD Awareness is working to support this change through initiatives such as Talking Trident – a national debate engaging with young adults and telling the untold stories behind nuclear weapons in the UK.
Developments such as the Mexico conference may only come once in a lifetime. This is the worst time for the UK government to retreat from an issue which will shape global politics for generations to come.
Claudia Hyde, 19, is an Ambassador for WMD Awareness and a student at the London School of Economics