Public morality and private profit: the case of nuclear weapons

On 21st June governments and civil society representatives from across the globe assemble in Vienna for the first meeting of State Parties of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The event will see the gathering of State representatives (Ministers and Diplomats) alongside city mayors, regional government representatives (including from Scotland), Trade Union representatives and faith groups. We might well recall the famous opening words of the UN Charter “We the peoples”. In 1945, at the founding of the United Nations states, the representative leaders of the people affirmed the dignity and worth of the human person and renounced the use of force except in the common interest. The work that started in 1945 continues in Vienna today.

After decades of work we now collectively recognise that the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons contravene well-established principles in international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians in conflict. Such protection is a fundamental principle promoted by the UK government and almost all other States. Building on this principle, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has entered into forced and now has 86 State signatories. It has 61 ratifications in national legislation of UN member states including in Ireland and Austria. It was originally commissioned through a majority vote at the 2016 UN General Assembly and a year later 122 nations supported the text of the Treaty.

I draw attention to this international majority consensus for a reason. As private entities, our major banks and pension providers are not directly subject to an International Treaty that is binding on States, but nevertheless have a choice to make. If they aspire to be apolitical (as most do) they will respond to the international consensus on the illegality of nuclear weapons. Alternatively, they can choose to subscribe to the partisan position of the UK government that is forced to resist this UN Treaty due to its continued adherence to its own nuclear arsenal. I find it baffling, but not surprising, that most financial institutions in the UK, even those banks with a global market, adopt the latter parochial position. Some do so because they lack awareness, others because they support a dogma that resists any interference with decision-making based purely on financial grounds.

The Joint Public Issues Team are in dialogue with 15 major UK banks and pension providers through our support of Investing in Change. Can they be persuaded to change? A response from their own customers and pension fund members is most likely to tip the balance. It is after all entirely unacceptable that pension members should have to move their pension fund to a niche ‘ethical’ option in order to avoid investment in activities that are banned by international law.  In our discussion with banks and pension providers we are clear that the law has changed; the narrative on nuclear weapons has changed; and so must they.




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