An Interview with Dr. Rebecca Johnson Executive Director The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplo
1. Have you found any positive signs during the second Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory committee that nuclear disarmament can move forward? What do you think will be the next important challenge for civil society?
Given the feverish predictions from some nuclear-dependent states that the NPT sky would fall down because of the TPNW, it was good that this NPT meeting dismissed such fears. So one very positive sign was that among NPT parties, including the umbrella states that boycotted the TPNW negotiations last year, most accept that this Treaty is now part of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime, and that we all need to work together to reinforce the whole regime—the NPT, the TPNW, the CTBT and also the bilateral treaties from INF to START.
It’s sad but inevitable that some nuclear-armed states are still quite hostile. The NPT gave them special privileges, which they've enjoyed; and the TPNW does the opposite, highlighting the pariah status and abhorrent impacts of nuclear weapons and banning them for everyone. That said, the most hostile exchanges in the NPT meeting were between the United States and Russia over Syria. They all need to learn that they can be stronger and more secure without arming themselves to the teeth.
The Inter-Korean Summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un provided cause for cautious optimism that we may see positive progress toward denuclearizing Korea and building more constructive peacebuilding relations. It’s early days, but much needs to be done to turn the promises into practical disarmament action, including signing the CTBT and TPNW.
ICAN’s biggest challenge is to bring the TPNW into force by 2020 and to bring the nuclear-armed and umbrella states toward supporting, signing and implementing the Treaty. We need to keep up the pressure for the rule of law and human rights to be given priority over nationalism, weapons and war.
2. In what way do you think the TPNW can help tackle the current unstable and uncertain international security environment?
Seeing Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-un make nuclear threats in recent years reminded people all over the world that nuclear deterrence is not failsafe. It stands or falls on the calculations and psychologies of nuclear-armed decision-makers, and that is a very unreliable foundation for security. In this regard the TPNW is more realistic and up to date than treaties founded in the Cold War. Theories of deterrence and the NPT rested on the comforting but illusory notion of “responsible” nuclear-weapon states. By contrast, the TPNW recognizes that there are no safe hands for these unsafe and abhorrent weapons, and they must be fully banned and eliminated.
3. How do you find civil society has influenced the narrative of nuclear disarmament over the years?
The most thoughtful parts of civil society see the world in all its complexity and prioritize humanitarian values such as human and environmental security, sustainability and rights over narratives of national security that are based on military-industrial competitions that lead to arms races, misery and war.
At the same time, we should recognize that much of civil society is still stuck in adversarial relationships with governments and other organisations, playing arms control games for funding rather than trying to find transformative solutions for peace and security.
When I changed my life to campaign against nuclear weapons in 1982, I was mainly motivated by fear of nuclear war. But in meeting and learning from the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and downwinders living near the various test sites, I was convinced that we needed to prevent and not just counteract militarism. I was working on the CTBT at the same time as the Landmines Campaign, and was inspired by how they worked with landmine victims and governments to build on International Humanitarian Law. The humanitarian process to ban nuclear weapons grew out of these earlier campaigns that put human beings and human rights values at the center of disarmament campaigning.
4. You say the TPNW is not a goal but a tool. And you also say that we need to try to make international law locally relevant. Could you expand those points some more?
We achieved the TPNW by a combination of hard work and effective strategy at all levels. But it’s important that no one thinks we’ve reached our goal and can stop now. We’ve only just begun. Now we have a strong TPNW text, we need to make it work for disarmament. It’s not just a piece of paper. We’ve got to use it to put more effective pressure on the governments that currently prevent the elimination of nuclear weapons, whether that’s because they benefit from nuclear weapon policies and believe threatening to use these abhorrent WMD provides deterrence or for any other reason.
That’s why I called the Treaty a tool. In this next campaign phase, ICAN partners will work on two interconnected objectives: to bring the TPNW into force, and to implement it. Implementing the Treaty means using its provisions to bring all states on board, and through them, make the prohibitions and requirements apply to all states, producers and also non-state actors.
This is important because in the first phase of ICAN’s strategy we established the goal of a nuclear ban treaty as the means to mobilize and empower civil society and the nuclear-free governments to take responsibility to ban nuclear weapons. We recognized the need to reframe the nuclear narratives and change the legal and political conditions that have taken power away from the nuclear free governments and given power to nuclear-armed states to obstruct disarmament for so many years. The strategy of mobilizing nuclear free states to take the lead was successful to get the Treaty, but we never intended to stop there. The goal was always to use the ban treaty to fill the legal gap and achieve the elimination of all arsenals.
5. What do you expect from SGI’s activities for abolishing nuclear weapons?
I think it is great that SGI has placed so much emphasis on disarmament education and sharing the hibakusha testimonies. Many people who cling to nuclear weapons do so because they are frightened of someone else’s militarism and aggression, with or without nuclear weapons. We won’t be able to eradicate nuclear threats and weapons unless we tackle those mindsets—and not just the mindsets, but also the weapons of all kinds that are manufactured, sold and used, and the fears that the warmongers cause. As well as disarmament education, we need a lot more peace education, to teach people how to resolve all kinds of conflicts without resorting to personal or political violence, militarism or war.