By Tony Robinson
On December 23, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly approved an historic resolution to launch negotiations in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The vote follows a decision on 27 October, 2016, by the General Assembly’s First Committee – which deals with disarmament and international security matters – to begin work on the new treaty despite fervent opposition from some nuclear-armed nations.
The resolution was adopted by a large majority, with 113 UN member states voting in favour, 35 voting against and 13 abstaining. Support was strongest among the nations of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. A cross-regional group comprising Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa initiated the resolution and are likely to lead this year’s negotiations.
U.S. Objections and Obstruction
At a UN budget committee meeting earlier, the United States attracted the ire of other nations when it objected to a funding request for the planned four weeks of negotiations on the treaty, to be held at UN headquarters in New York. But under intense pressure from supporters of nuclear disarmament, it eventually withdrew its objection, and the committee authorized the request.
In a leaked document distributed to all NATO members in October ahead of the First Committee decision, the United States – which possesses some 7,000 nuclear weapons – urged its allies to oppose the resolution and to boycott the negotiations, fearing that the treaty would erode the perception that nuclear weapons are legitimate for certain nations and make it more difficult for NATO to engage in nuclear war planning.
Other Countries Taking a Stand for the Resolution
A number of close US allies that voted against the resolution or abstained have indicated their intention to participate in the negotiations anyway, in order to help shape the treaty. For example, the Netherlands, which hosts US nuclear weapons on its territory and abstained from voting, has confirmed that it will take part, and Japan’s foreign minister, despite opposing the resolution, wants his country to attend.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is urging all nations to take part. “Every nation has an interest in ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used again, which can only be guaranteed through their complete elimination. We are calling on all governments to join next year’s negotiations and work to achieve a strong and effective treaty,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN.
ICAN stressed that the negotiations should proceed whether or not nuclear-armed nations agree to participate. “As a matter of principle, weapons that are indiscriminate in nature and are intended to cause catastrophic humanitarian harm should be prohibited under international law. This new treaty will place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as other weapons of mass destruction,” said Fihn.
“We believe that, through its normative force, the nuclear weapon ban treaty will affect the behaviour of nuclear-armed nations even if they refuse to join it. It will also affect the behaviour of many of their allies that currently claim protection from nuclear weapons, including those in Europe that host nuclear weapons on their territory. It will contribute significantly towards achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world.”
Most Viable and Promising Pathway Forward
The negotiations will be divided into two sessions, from 27 to 31 March and from 15 June to 7 July. ICAN plans to send a large delegation of campaigners to both sessions. The campaign is urging governments to make every effort to conclude the treaty by the end of the four weeks of negotiations, noting that much preparatory work has already been done, including by a UN working group that met in Geneva last year.
The treaty is likely to include provisions similar to those found in existing treaties banning biological weapons, chemical weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. These include prohibitions on use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention and transfer, as well as assistance, encouragement or inducement of anyone to engage in any of these prohibited activities.
Multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament have been deadlocked for two decades, as all nine nuclear-armed nations have invested heavily in upgrades to their nuclear forces. Alternative proposals for advancing a nuclear-weapon-free world have failed to gain traction or produce results. A majority of UN member states view the ban treaty approach as the most viable and promising pathway forward.Φ
Tony Robinson, Humanist Movement activist, is co-director of Pressenza and author of the book Coffee with Silo and the quest for meaning in life.