In 1981, long before the internet, I was a student in Leeds. My mum, always a good letter-writer, sent me a newspaper cutting about the women who had set up a peace camp outside RAF Greenham Common.
“On 5 September 1981 the Welsh group, ‘Women for Life on Earth’ arrived on Greenham Common, Berkshire, England. They marched from Cardiff with the intention of challenging, by debate, the decision to site 96 Cruise nuclear missiles there. On arrival they delivered a letter to the Base Commander which among other things stated, ‘We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world which is the basis of all life’. When their request for a debate was ignored they set up a Peace Camp just outside the fence surrounding RAF Greenham Common Airbase … Within 6 months the camp became known as the Women’s Peace Camp and gained recognition both nationally and internationally by drawing attention to the base with well-publicised, imaginative gatherings”(1).
Greenham Common was both an RAF base and a USAF base. Over the next period I went to Greenham often, taking part in nonviolent protests against the nuclear weapons due to arrive there. I was one of the local organisers for the ‘Embrace the Base’ gathering when 30,000 women encircled the base, and I took part in nonviolent blockades of the gates.
Greenham women were often arrested and sent to court and fined. If we refused to pay fines we were often sent to prison. There was such a stream of women protesting, going through the courts and ending up in prison, that whenever I got sent to HMP Holloway I would always come across another ‘peace woman’ in the exercise yard.
One of the women I remember vividly from Greenham was Rebecca Johnson. Rebecca lived at the camp from 1982 – 1987.
The ground-launched Cruise nuclear missiles arrived at the base in 1983. In 1987 they were banned and eliminated under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a nuclear arms control agreement between the Unites States and the Soviet Union. The two countries agreed to ‘eliminate their stocks of intermediate-range and shorter-range (or medium-range) land-based missiles (which could carry nuclear warheads). It was the first arms-control treaty to abolish an entire category of weapons systems’(3).
Thirty years later I was watching the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on my laptop at home. It was 2017. The prize had been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in recognition of their work “to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and their “ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons”(4). This referred to the advocacy work of ICAN and its partners in bringing about a global agreement to ban nuclear weapons. In July 2017 an overwhelming majority of nations in the world had adopted the agreement at the United Nations. It is known officially as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and came into operation in January 2021 (7).
There were three incredibly moving and important speeches at the ceremony – by three extraordinary women: Berit Reiss-Andersen (Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee), Beatrice Fihn (Executive Director of ICAN) and Setsuko Thurlow (Campaigner against nuclear weapons). Setsuko was 13 when the atomic bomb was dropped on her home city of Hiroshima. If you haven’t had a chance to hear their speeches, have a listen. They will move you to your core:
Berit Reiss-Andersen (at 14:15), Beatrice Fihn (at 52:26), and Setsuko Thurlow (at 1:11:39).
As I listened the camera scanned the audience, with so many members of the peace movement there from so many countries. Campaigners over so many years. Witnessing an extraordinary moment. There was Rebecca Johnson, who I remembered so vividly from Greenham, in the front row (in green below). Still working passionately for peace all these years on.
Rebecca is Vice President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and a founding Co-Chair of ICAN. She has been involved in the negotiations for the nuclear ban treaty since the start (6).
The treaty ‘prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities’ (7)
To date, 86 states have signed the treaty, and 55 states have ratified the treaty through their parliaments. The treaty is legally binding on those states which have ratified it (8).
A nation, such as the UK, which possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as ‘it agrees to destroy [its nuclear weapons] in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan’(7).
Nations who have ratified the treaty are also obliged to ‘provide assistance to all victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and to take measures for the remediation of contaminated environments’(7).
I feel deeply ashamed that the UK government did not take part in the negotiating of the treaty, that it has not signed the treaty, and that it has not ratified it. At the same time I feel deeply indebted to the countries which have. We in the UK are one of the nuclear-armed states. We are part of the problem. We need to embrace the treaty, and set out a plan and timetable for the destruction of our nuclear weapons.
Not only have we not taken part in the treaty, the UK government actually announced in March 2021 that it was going in the opposite direction. It announced it was going to increase the ceiling on its stockpile of nuclear warheads by more than 40%, from 180 to 260, by 2025 (9).
This is contrary to the UK’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970). In the midst of a pandemic our government thinks it is appropriate to increase the deadliness of our nuclear weapons.
Today our nuclear weapons are no longer land-based. Greenham Common has been designated parkland (10). Today our nuclear weapons are deployed under the water, carried on the submarines based at HM Naval Base Clyde in Faslane in Scotland. A terrible and terrifying base in the most beautiful setting (11).
The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons stands as a call to change, an opportunity to change, a standard showing us we can be different. It would mean changing a policy which has been upheld by successive UK governments. It would mean fundamentally changing how we see ourselves in the world, and what we want to be known for. It would mean recognising the immorality of having nuclear weapons, and the immorality of threatening others with them. It would mean joining the majority of countries in the world in declaring nuclear weapons illegal. It would mean taking responsibility, changing course. As citizens of the UK, can we do that?
Conscience: Taxes For Peace Not War is a partner organisation of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)