Negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons start at the UN today. This groundbreaking conference will take place after 123 countries voted in support of the plan at the General Assembly last year.
The international community has finally lost patience over nuclear disarmament. For decades the nuclear weapons states have been required under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to give up their arsenals but little progress has been made. So the global majority of states has taken the matter into its own hands by launching the ban treaty negotiations. Their determination to make progress on this crucial issue is reflected in public opinion here in Britain. A Yougov poll published last week showed that the overwhelming majority (75%) of the British public think the government should attend the talks.
And of course in terms of our longstanding national policy that is exactly what should happen. All British governments, since the NPT was signed in 1968, have been committed to multilateral nuclear disarmament. Indeed in July last year, when MPs were asked to vote for the £205 billion plan to replace our own Trident nuclear weapons system, the government's motion explicitly stated that it would press 'for key steps towards multilateral disarmament'.
Regrettably, we now know this was a hollow promise. Alan Duncan, the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said recently that the British government intends to boycott the conference.
Its position is contradictory in the extreme. Steps that could break a decades-long deadlock on this issue will be compromised because the government thinks 'these negotiations will [not] lead to effective progress on global nuclear disarmament.'
It begs the question, what precisely does the government think will promote progress on global nuclear disarmament? It insists that it wants a 'step by step' process to that goal, but when will those steps be taken, especially when its most recent step has been to commit vast sums to a new fleet of nuclear weapons submarines. Surely one of those steps must be to sit down with world leaders to discuss a way forward? What will be lost by participating?
The importance of this issue is perhaps clearest for the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs. Members of the Hibakusha, the Japanese name given to survivors, will tour Britain this week as the talks commence.
One of them, Yamanda Reiko, recalls the moment the bomb dropped on Hiroshima: 'The children in the sports ground started to shout "It is B29! B29!" [...] Suddenly the rain started which made us completely wet - we were told later that this was the black rain. The sun had disappeared in the sky and a grey cloud had spread all over.' The black rain was radioactive fallout. In Hiroshima alone 200,000 were killed through the impact of blast and radiation.
In recalling their own harrowing experience of the realities of nuclear warfare, the Hibakusha will ask why Britain is not attending the UN talks.
It will be up to us to demand that our government does.