When the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1987, it meant the 96 ground-launched cruise missiles at Greenham Common – each with a warhead 15 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb – would be scrapped. This week that important treaty is being killed off by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, putting the world at heightened risk of pre-emptive nuclear weapon use and war.
When it was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF treaty also freed me up to leave the Greenham Common women’s peace camp and get on with the rest of my life. I’d arrived on 9 August 1982 – the anniversary of the second atomic bomb, in Nagasaki – and planned to stay a week. After five extraordinary years of feminist peace action at Greenham I left the camp and began organising for further disarmament treaties.
At Greenham we climbed over fences, cut barbed wire, and danced at dawn on the huge concrete silos. The INF treaty removed most of the fences and emptied those silos. We occupied the air control tower and revealed its appalling instructions for how the US air force planned to deal with accidents involving nuclear or chemical weapons. That tower is now a museum to remember the cold war and civil society. With local “Cruisewatch” groups, we disrupted the base and painted the massive “transporter-erector-launchers” that were driven along British roads in nuclear war games. The treaty required those launchers to be destroyed.
We took Reagan to court in the US on the basis of the humanitarian harm caused by nuclear weapons. We didn’t get our injunction to halt the cruise missile deployments at that time. But two decades later, updated facts and evidence of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons were used to achieve the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which bans the activities that for over seven decades have enabled states to acquire, produce, station, deploy, use and threaten to use nuclear armaments.
We learned from other diplomatic processes not to over-negotiate the technical details. Recognising that one size does not fit all, the TPNW – which was negotiated and adopted by the UN general assembly – was framed with prohibitions and obligations that are universally applicable, while its structure has in-built adaptability to enable different levels of nuclear weapons programmes and policies to be addressed and eliminated without conferring special status or privileges on anyone.
Bilateral and limited agreements like the INF treaty, which eliminated cruise, Pershing and SS20s from Europe, were essential to stem the nuclear arms race in the cold war. While deploring the decision by Trump and Putin to scrap it, we also need to recognise that to prevent a new nuclear arms race and war in today’s more complicated world, we have to act collectively and involve the non-nuclear as well as nuclear governments.
The INF treaty was the product of public rebellion, but it was signed in 1987 by just two leaders. So it can be killed off by two more. For 30 years those nuclear launchers have stayed off the roads of Europe. They will be deployed again unless we can take these nuclear options away from everyone.
While living outside the Greenham nuclear base, I came to understand what we really need. Not weapons and power, but people and community: creative and nonviolent, feminist and humanitarian. At Greenham we based our strategies on scientific facts and evidence, and also on channelling deep human emotions like fear and love into power for change. We needed to be activist and analytical, political and diplomatic, courageous and truthful, no matter who tried to silence us. I became convinced of the importance of strengthening international law with treaties and other kinds of political and diplomatic agreements. And I recognised the power of nonviolent creative actions.
The INF treaty was a vital instrument of disarmament in its day. Now, as I look to the future, I am more thankful than ever for the feminist-humanitarian activists, nuclear bomb survivors, doctors, teachers and scientists who built on that experience, understood how our security context changed after 2002 and moved swiftly to strategise a way to ban all nuclear weapons. Together we built a feisty new International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). And I’m relieved that we were in time for the UN to negotiate and adopt the TPNW. Without that, the demise of the INF treaty would pose even greater risks.
These are dangerous times. We have the TPNW, but international treaties are only as effective as the people and institutions that make them work. This is the real world. We have the legal frameworks to make multilateral nuclear disarmament work. What we lack are leaders who understand what is at stake and can take the tough decisions to end their policies of mass annihilation and say no to the military-industrial vested interests and profiteers.
Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, we have to come to terms with the fact that we will only survive if we all link up and challenge the threats of nuclear weapons and the climate emergency together.
• Rebecca Johnson is director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and and founding president of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons