A nuclear working group at the UN concluded its work in Geneva today and the overwhelming majority of governments recommended that the UN General Assembly set up a conference in 2017 to negotiate a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction that are not outlawed by international treaty. But that is about to change.
After more than twenty years of nothing, this working group just had a breakthrough. 107 governments said they support:
“The convening by the General Assembly of a conference in 2017 open to all states, international organisations, and civil society, to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading towards their total elimination”
It was a group of Pacific Island countries that said these exact words first. Diplomats who have personal connections with nuclear weapons- relatives who remember seeing the bombs explode in the distance. Friends that can never go home to what were once islands of paradise, and are now radioactive wastelands.
The 54 member African Group, the 33 member Community of Latin America and Caribbean countries (33) also voiced their support for a conference in 2017. For the first time, the ASEAN grouping (11) added their collective voice to this call for negotiations next year on a new nuclear weapons treaty.
It is now up to the October meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee to take up this recommendation, and set up a meeting next year to negotiate a new treaty to finally make nuclear weapons illegal.
The vote: 68 for-22 against -13 abstain
The recommendation for the General Assembly to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate a new treaty outlawing nuclear weapons was contentious. So much so, that Australia called for a vote on the recommendation, and the report. The rules of procedure are simple: a majority of those present and voting yes, win. And the majority were clear they want a conference in 2017.
Putting people first
This breakthrough is result of the new global discourse on nuclear weapons. Since Norway hosted the first conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2013, the effect of the weapons on humans and the environment has taken center stage.
Three conferences were held on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (Norway, Mexico, Austria). These brought together governments, academia and civil society for fact based examination of what the weapons can do- and what can be done to mitigate their effect. The result was: nothing. The conferences found that there is no way to recover from any use of nuclear weapons in populated areas, and no way to prevent the damage from crossing borders.
No one can deny the catastrophic humanitarian harm that would be the result of any use of nuclear weapons. By discussing the effect of the weapons, they have been increasingly seen as illegitimate. The majority of countries have rejected the use of nuclear weapons, under any circumstances.
There are only a very few countries that still hold onto the idea that nuclear weapons are useful. It is actually less than 20% of UN members. These countries include the possible use of nuclear weapons in their security strategies or doctrines. Overwhelmingly, however, the recognition is that any use of the nuclear weapons would have a catastrophic effect not constrained by national borders.
Banning the bomb
International treaties exist to prohibit all other weapons of mass destruction (Chemical and Biological) as well as to outlaw other weapons with indiscriminate effects (anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs). The fact that nuclear weapons are not clearly illegal is simply bizarre.
No weapon has ever been eliminated before it was made illegal, and nuclear weapons are no exception. A ban would not only make it illegal for nations to use or possess nuclear weapons; it would also help pave the way to their complete elimination. Nations committed to reaching the goal of abolition have shown that they are ready to start negotiations in 2017.
The overwhelming majority is about to ban the bomb.
Photo: Xanthe Hall/IPPNW