From Kitchen Table to the UN


It’s now time to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

By Adrian Glamorgan, Executive Secretary, Quakers in Asia West Pacific

It’s easy to think that getting people out on the streets is the given way to campaign for change. Witnessing one’s call for peace, out in public, seems always worth doing. But sometimes the best place to start change is around a kitchen table. A kitchen table, a group of friends, and some strategic thinking: one focused campaign on a significant piece of a puzzle to enable larger change to happen. That’s how the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) took its firm start, around that kitchen table in Melbourne. Glance only for a moment at the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize that came out of that – it’s lovely to see, but everyone knows it is less important than the real prize, which has been the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which came into effect on 22 January 2021. This extraordinary campaign can teach us something, through its focus and steady clarity, and inform the work still to be done: to ensure the election of a Labor government can deliver on its promise to sign the nuclear ban treaty in the life of this parliament.

Jo with ICAN Nobel Prize
Jo Vallentine with Dimity Hawkins of ICAN displaying the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to ICAN at the Walyalup Centre Nuclear Hub. A. Glamorgan

A Little History

After the Cold War, the palpable apprehension about nuclear annihilation – and we came close a few times in the 1980s – disappeared, and with it, many people’s concern. The urgency that in the past had brought about global marches in the hundreds of thousands and millions, had ebbed from public consciousness. Instead, peace meant stopping the endless and senseless wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The damage of those conventional wars was real and immediate. There were threats those wars would endlessly extend. The neo-cons who had persuaded the US government (and with it, Australia) to illegally invade Iraq now looked eastward, to Iran. The rehearsed preparations for war were on show. It seemed the sad delusion of US exceptionalism might drag Australia into yet another war of choice, causing pain and suffering in South Asia, draining the coffers of much needed work on environment, education, health and overseas aid. All this was undermining the idea that a defence department is supposed to work on, well, defence, and a foreign affairs department is supposed to value diplomacy, including the benefit and goodwill divided produced by overseas aid.

Besides, in the post-Cold War period, there were signs that nuclear weapons were on the downward trend. We learned South Africa had unilaterally disarmed, the ex-Soviet states had renounced the storage of former Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil, and a quiet disarmament and auditing program involving US and Russian scientists was de-escalating tensions. The numbers of nuclear weapons were coming down from 70,000 to 14,000. Still enough to destroy all life on earth – but, you know, heading the right direction. 

Despite these efforts, the opportunity was missed for general and complete disarmament promised in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, to which almost all countries of the world are signatories. That same US exceptionalism clung tight to its capacity and military doctrine, willing to kill hundreds of millions of civilians in other countries, should it be attacked itself. By 2005 disarmament nuclear treaty talks had descended into a shadow play of pretence. The United Nations’ meetings were a charade. The nuclear weapon states basked in their own sense of prestige. Although the nuclear power states might have had their nuclear weapons pointed at each other, and be willing to take the rest of us and life on earth with them, but they could come to furious agreement on one thing: they were joined in their single minded refusal to give up their weapons, or talk meaningfully about it.

The rest of the world understood there is never the right time to give up weapons of mass destruction, when you own them. It is easy for a nuclear nation to argue that these weapons – you know, the ones that cause intergenerational harm and could wipe out life on earth in one long nuclear winter – are, luckily, in safe hands. By the time you have a narcissist in the White House, or someone of dubious judgement in Downing Street, or a tsarist in the Kremlin, the claims to ply sophisticated military strategies of “extended nuclear deterrence” aren’t quite so convincing. In fact, they are quite worrying. It is too late the same afternoon one of these weapon states makes a wrong or accidental launch.

By the early 2000s, something had to be done. The day the International Campaign to Ban Landmines succeeded in shaping international law through the Ottawa Treaty, founder Jody Williams quipped that nukes ought to be next. One campaign had helped mobilise civil society across all the inhabited continents: the same model could apply. In 2005 Malaysian obstetrician Datuk Dr Ronald McCoy encouraged peers in the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War to start a coalition he called the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In 2007, around a kitchen table in Melbourne, the idea was made a reality.

The trick was for this group of friends to focus. It was one campaign, with one purpose: to honour Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1970, by proposing a complementary treaty that did just what Article VI promised to develop – provide an international instrument that provided the mechanism for the complete and general nuclear disarmament. The new framework did not try to disarm the world in one moment.  But it did provide a framework with certainty and stability, and trust-building measures. It also provides for attention to be given to the environmental costs of the nuclear weapons age, as well as assistance to those sufferers of nuclear weapons through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as testing (including in Australia). 

ICAN organisers and the civil society networks around the world might have hoped to have had the support of the nuclear weapon states – USA, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India and North Korea – but that was not forthcoming. However, there were ready allies. Middle level powers and small countries were fed up with the false starts and dead ends of the NPT negotiations. Diplomacy is not just about buffets, and listening to long and dull speeches. It can be about the kind of change the world wants to see. And so middle level powers and smaller Caribbean nations and churches and unions and greens parties and social democrat groups around the world got organised.

The significant strategic insight was to spot the way the nuclear charade continued. It had always revolved around security. By security, the nuclear weapons states limited their understanding to guns and bombs and of course, nuclear weapons. Their diplomacy supported the threat. But true security is much wider. Such talk of military security had bound Reviews of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation into what was deemed “international realism,” a small world of game theory constrained by advisers (mostly men) in general’s uniforms.  

Instead, ICAN, wider civil society, and a new alliance of middle power nations, focused on the abhorrent and irreversibly catastrophic humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Nuclear destruction is the closest thing to hell humanity has imagined. It’s a ferocity that incinerates cities in a nanosecond, maims survivors for decade, travels in the genes of subsequent generations, and is capable of ending civilisation with a whimpering nuclear winter. The threat is being underestimated by national leaders, forcing The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to bring forward its Doomsday Clock forward to a metaphorical “100 seconds to midnight” for the failure of governments around the world to act on nuclear disarmament, climate change, and emerging technologies.

Promoters of the nuclear ban Treaty want genuine multilateralism (rather than nuclear bipolarism) and commitment to genuine security – the sort of security we can see wrapped up in the Sustainability Development Goals, and cooperative management of conflict.

The United States derided the Prohibition Treaty. They boycotted all negotiations, meaning that they weren’t able to play the old diplomatic game we saw during the Kyoto Protocols – first promising to sign only if the agreement was watered down, demand endless concessions, and then at the last moment, walk away from a now viscerally weakened agreement.

Instead, the General Assembly itself adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on 7 July 2017. The Treaty awaited 50 signatures and ratifications by UN state parties. That happened in January 2021, and Mayors for Peace, Medical Association for Prevention of War, and the Conservation Council held a party down at Kidogo, in Fremantle, to celebrate. The work started again, at a different level.

Through the focused effort of ICAN over several years and its supporters, the Australian Labor Party adopted signing and ratifying the Treaty. Mayors for Peace also achieved national support for signing the Treaty through the Australian Local Government Association. ICAN and others lobbied parliamentarians to sign the pledge. And at last we have a supportive Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, who has the numbers in the Lower House, with Greens and teal support in the Upper House, ready to sign the Treaty in the life of this government.

Happening Now

Jordon at Fremantle Nuclear Hub
Senator Jordon Steele-John, who holds The Greens Peace and Nuclear Disarmament portfolio, at the Walyalup Centre Nuclear Hub. A. Glamorgan

Labor’s election happened only a few weeks before the first Meeting of State Parties for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons met in Vienna in June. The City of Fremantle, which is lead city for Mayors for Peace in our region, hosted a “Nuclear Hub” in the new Walyalup Centre, along with the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (Australia) and the Conservation Council. Mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge welcomed 65 people to the new Walyalup Centre, and scores of people online.  After a live cross to Vienna, speaking with ICAN representatives at the conference, there was  a lively panel featuring Greens elder Jo Vallentine, Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John, and Labor Member for Fremantle, Josh Wilson. Their memorable accounts of how they have been touched by the nuclear stories of survivors was a transforming moment for many in the audience ‒ reaffirming the centrality of the humanitarian perspective to why we must eliminate nuclear weapons.

There is further work to be done. What is the role of the Greens? Firstly, members can update themselves on the exciting new treaty implementation plans agreed in Vienna. Then there is the need to promote the value of this Treaty with the community. Engaged advocates should prepare to tackle disinformation from nuclear weapon states and their allies. At least the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will now be dropping its frankly ludicrous claims about the weakness of the Treaty, such as its supposed lack of verification details. (The NPT lacks many things, including verification details, but that does not stop it from being useful.) Opponents of the Treaty might try to “manufacture doubt” by claiming that the NPT, AUKUS, and nuclear power submarines prevent us from signing the TPNW. Such attempts at confusion should be promptly dismissed. These separate campaigns deserve discussion, but in other contexts. Focus instead on the urgency of signing the Treaty, to properly honour our Nuclear Non-Proliferation obligations – and be on the right side of history.  

Aotearoa/New Zealand has signed the TPNW, and is still in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community within the United States. Being non-nuclear has never stopped friendship between NZ and the US – and nor need it stop Australia defining a more independent stance, one more in keeping with our size and geography, just as ASEAN nations do.

The government will need some time to work within its own processes to deliver on its promise. Political history may prompt campaigners to highlight past transgressions of ruling governments, but that might be the trap of fighting the last “war”.  Let Australians instead take the Albanese government at its word, expect the best, and learn from the ICAN campaign itself: stay focused, firm, and connected.

The First Meeting of State Parties in Vienna was a picture of what the United Nations could be. From first person accounts, diplomats had a sense of what could be achieved, and have been establishing a workable, intelligent framework for implementing the details of the Treaty. It was energising people, much to the surprise of veteran diplomats who themselves felt change was possible. And for the first time, an Australian government MP attended as observer. Change is possible. Change is happening.

Now is the time to contact your local member of parliament – definitely do that – but also make appointments with Senators, who tend to be overlooked. Check the ICAN website, and follow their tips about who, how and what to lobby. Write the letters, be polite, expect the best. In fact, why not invite friends around to your kitchen table? Lay out some food, paper and pens, and get started. Kitchen tables, like protest on the streets, can be another great place to start changing the world.

Header photo: Jo Vallentine, Jordon Steele-John and Josh Wilson at the “Nuclear Hub” in the Walyalup Centre, Fremantle, during first Meeting of State Parties for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. A. Glamorgan

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]