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Margaret McCartney: Nuclear weapons do harm, even if never used

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 06 September 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j3978

The UN new treaty to ban the use of nuclear weapons. The Emperor’s new clothes.

McCartney questioned why the UK didn’t turn up to a UN vote in July to approve banning nuclear weapons.(1) This is wiser than the Zarocostas’ naïve enthusiasm commending an “historic milestone” but deserves comment(2)

First, since the 1955 Russell–Einstein Manifesto, the UN bureaucracy has been issued several treaties (Partial Nuclear Test Ban in 1963, Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968). However, no action despite recurrent breaches: a) there are now 14 states with, or sharing, nuclear weapons. Worst, modernisation of weapons continues.(3) b) in 2016, the UK House of Commons voted to renew the British nuclear weapons with the Dreadnought-class submarines; c) the world share of the French nuclear arsenal has increased steadily from 0.1% at the height of the Cold War in 1966 to 1% in 1991 and reached 1.9% in 2016.( In 2015, President Francois Hollande stressed the need for a nuclear deterrent in "a dangerous world".

Second, in 1991, Ukraine inherited 5,000 nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union, making its arsenal the third-largest in the world. In 1994, Ukraine adhered to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation with the condition that its borders were respected.(Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances) All nuclear weapons were disassembled in Russia in 1996. On 18 March 2014, after a military intervention, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol administering them, de facto, as the Crimean Federal District. Now Russia is also running militant-controlled parts of east Ukraine. UN-treaties are scraps of paper. Crudely put, those relying on UN are terminally screwed.

I guess UK didn’t turn up to the vote because UK does not want to put its head in the sand. Indeed, while soft diplomacy may be required as a first step, here it was a slippery slope from complacency to complicity. Last, as a clinician, my first concern is about another UN treaty: The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Indeed, tobacco kills more than nuclear weapons and this UN treaty is also a smokescreen.(4)

1 McCartney M. Margaret McCartney: Nuclear weapons do harm, even if never used. BMJ 2017;358:j3978.

2 Zarocostas J. The UN adopts treaty to ban the use of nuclear weapons. Lancet 2017. Online July 13. S0140-6736(17)31870-6

3 Lowe I. Three minutes to midnight. Australasian Science 2016, March, p 49.

4 Braillon A. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Lancet 2016;387:1907.

Competing interests: No competing interests

13 September 2017
Alain Braillon
senior consultant
University Hospital
80000 Amiens, France