UN Approves Start of Nuclear Ban Talks

November 2016

By Kingston Reif

Defying pressure from the major nuclear-armed powers, UN member states set the stage for negotiations next year on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

The UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with nuclear disarmament issues, on Oct. 27 adopted overwhelmingly a landmark resolution “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

Supporters of treaty to ban nuclear weapons, including survivors of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, displayed banners for their cause near the United Nations on October 21. (Photo credit: ICAN)The vote was 123-38, with 16 abstentions, on the resolution put forward by Mexico, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Nigeria, and South Africa. The full General Assembly is expected to approve the measure by year-end.

The resolution passed despite aggressive lobbying by nuclear-armed powers France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which have said they will not participate in such treaty negotiations. As a group, however, the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations were divided on the resolution.

The resolution calls for a one-day organizational meeting to be held in New York “as soon as possible” followed by two negotiating sessions in 2017 on March 27-31 and from June 15 to July 7.

The push to begin negotiations on a ban treaty reflects growing concern among non-nuclear-weapon states about the devastating humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, the rising risks of conflict between states with nuclear weapons, and frustration at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament by the nine nuclear-armed countries.

Advocates said the ban treaty would be an interim step, leaving the issue of eliminating nuclear weapons for subsequent negotiations. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil’s permanent representative to the UN, said in an Oct. 17 statement that the treaty would be “part of a gradual process, which begins by setting out core prohibitions to be followed by elimination and verification arrangements.”

A majority of the nuclear-armed states voted against the resolution and cited risks of commencing negotiations on a ban treaty. 

In an Oct. 27 statement on behalf of France, the UK, and the United States, Alice Guitton, the French permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said that although the commitment of the three countries to a world without nuclear weapons remained “unshakeable,” a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would not move toward that goal and instead would “distract attention” from more practical and verifiable disarmament steps. 

Russian Foreign Ministry official Vladimir Yermakov went much further, arguing that the hasty adoption of a legally binding prohibition would be “destructive,” “catastrophic,” “treacherous,” and “thrust the world into chaos and instability.” 

In an unexpected move, China broke ranks with the rest of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and abstained. 

The other nuclear-armed states took varied positions. India and Pakistan abstained, North Korea voted yes, and Israel, which does not officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons, voted no. 

The resolution was opposed by nearly every U.S. treaty ally in Europe and Asia, often labeled “umbrella states” because they rely on the U.S. nuclear arsenal to help protect them.

The sole exception was the Nether-lands, which abstained. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said that the Netherlands “sincerely supports a ban on nuclear weapons” but that there were problems with the resolution, according to Dutch broadcaster NOS. The lower house of the Dutch parliament had pressed the government to support the resolution. 

Sweden, which is not a member of NATO but has increased cooperation with the alliance in recent years due to concerns about Russian behavior, voted for the resolution. 

In an Oct. 17 nonpaper obtained by Arms Control Today, the U.S. mission to NATO urged alliance members and partners “to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons…ban, not to merely abstain.” The nonpaper warned that “efforts to negotiate an immediate ban on nuclear weapons or to delegitimize nuclear deterrence are fundamentally at odds with NATO’s basic policies on deterrence and our shared security interest.” 

The First Committee vote followed on the heels of an open-ended working group that met in Geneva this year, in which a majority of participating states expressed support for starting negotiations on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.” None of the nuclear-armed countries attended the sessions. (See ACT, September 2016.

The working group’s final report said a new instrument “would establish general prohibitions and obligations,” which could include a number of elements, such as “prohibitions on the acquisition, possession, stockpiling, development, testing and production of nuclear weapons.”

A Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons?

The UN General Assembly’s First Committee last month passed a resolution to start negotiations to draft a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The following are excerpts from statements during the debate:

“The argument is often heard that nuclear deterrence is indispensable for national security. Austria does not believe this. If this were to be the case, then more states could feel the need to follow the same logic and want to acquire these weapons. We would embark on a dangerous path. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use—be it intentional or accidental—could not be contained and would inevitably fall back on the users themselves…. Some voices claim that negotiating a prohibition convention would be an unrealistic option. We do not believe that a negotiating process with the participation of the majority of states lacks credibility nor realism. No similar legally-binding instrument has started with universality, so we cannot expect this here, either. We are also realistic that the elimination of nuclear weapons is not something which can be achieved overnight and by way of a prohibition convention alone. Rather, it would lay the basis on which the necessary system to ensure its complete and verified implementation could subsequently be established.”

—Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria, October 14, 2016

“Though some are dissatisfied with the pace of disarmament, we remain convinced that the pragmatic and consensus-based approach that has successfully brought us to this point remains the right one going forward. Today, some states believe the time has come to abandon this pragmatic and consensus-based approach and instead pursue a radically different path that would simply declare a ban on nuclear weapons. We must evaluate this new approach using the same criteria that we apply to our current one. Will it improve global security and stability or undermine it? Will it build a coalition for disarmament or fracture the international community? Will it lead to real reductions in nuclear weapons or be a treaty for political, not practical effect? How can such an approach be verified? The United States has carefully applied these questions to the ban treaty concept and it fails to successfully meet the necessary criteria for success….

“The current challenge to nuclear disarmament is not a lack of legal instruments. The challenges to disarmament are a result of the political and security realities we presently face. The United States is ready to take additional steps including bilateral reductions with Russia and a treaty ending production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, some states are currently unwilling to engage in further nuclear reductions, and others are increasing their arsenals. At the same time, violations of international norms and existing agreements are creating a more uncertain security environment and making the conditions for further reductions more difficult to achieve. A ban treaty will do nothing to address these underlying challenges.” 

—Amb. Robert Wood, United States, October 14, 2016

“Australia’s position on the proposal before the committee to begin negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons has been consistent and clear: we do not support such an approach. “A ban treaty would not rid us of one nuclear weapon. It would not change the realities we all face in a nuclear-armed DPRK [North Korea], or tensions among major powers. And without the involvement of states possessing nuclear weapons, the practical value of negotiating a ban treaty is a questionable exercise.”

—Amb. John Quinn, Australia, October 17, 2016

“Such a treaty is not an end in itself nor a panacea to cure an otherwise ailing regime. It will be thoroughly compatible with the [nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty and the wider nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. By doubling up on their commitment never to acquire nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapon states which decide to take part in it will only reinforce their own credentials and the international nonproliferation regime. Further efforts needed to attain the complete elimination of nuclear arsenals can be pursued either within a framework laid out by the prohibition treaty—an approach supported by Brazil—or in parallel to it.”

—Amb. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil, October 17, 2016