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The Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons At A Glance
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Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Alicia Sanders-Zakre, (202) 463-8270 ext. 113

Updated: June 2017

Background

The initiative to negotiate a "legally binding instrument" to prohibit nuclear weapons is the result of a yearslong process that grew out of a renewed recognition of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the rising risk of accidental or intentional nuclear use, and a growing sense of frustration that key nuclear disarmament commitments made by the nuclear weapon states were not being fulfilled.

The 2010 Conference to Review the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) unanimously "expresse[d] its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons."

These concerns motivated a group of states, including Norway, Mexico, and Austria to organize a series of three conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in 2013 and 2014.

Following the conclusion of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, these states and a group of others agreed to set up an Open Ended Working Group in 2016 on taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations.

The 2016 Open Ended Working Group led to the formulation of a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to start negotiations in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The resolution passed the UNGA First Committee by a vote of 123-38 with 16 abstentions in November 2016 and was subsequently adopted by the UNGA as a whole.

Costa Rica’s UN Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez (left), president of the UN conference to negotiate a nuclear-weapons ban treaty, chairs a meeting of the conference March 30. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The first negotiating session was held at the UN in New York from March 27-31 with some 130 governments, and dozens of civil society organizations, participating. The president of the negotiations, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez, compiled these opinions into a draft treaty for a "Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons" (CPNW) that was issued May 22 in Geneva. The second and final round of negotiations will take place from June 15-July 7 in New York, at the end of which states hope to conclude a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty.

Reactions from the Nuclear-Armed States

Nuclear weapons states and many of their NATO allies have opposed the initiative from the beginning. Although the United States and the United Kingdom participated in the 2014 Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, leaders from Washington and the other nuclear weapon states boycotted the Open Ended Working Group sessions and the 2017 negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

These states contend that the nuclear prohibition treaty will distract attention from other disarmament and nonproliferation initiatives, such as negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty or ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They have expressed concern that the a nuclear prohibition treaty could undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - and the extensive safeguard provisions included therein - by giving states the option to "forum shop," or choose between the two treaties.

Arguments for the CPNW from Proponent States

Supporters of the CPNW argue that new treaty will close a "legal gap" that exists regarding nuclear weapons, which are not expressly outlawed by the NPT even though their use would be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict. They argue that the CPNW initiative reinforces the NPT and the requirement in Article VI for nuclear disarmament and that it can reduce the salience nuclear weapons and help prompt more urgent action to reduce nuclear risk and promote disarmament.

What Will Likely Be Included in the CPNW?

During the first round of negotiations in March 2017, states expressed differing and overlapping perspectives on what should be included in the treaty. Treaty supporters appear to be in general agreement on elements to include in the preamble of the treaty, including references to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the suffering of victims due to nuclear use and testing, the nuclear disarmament obligations set out in Article VI of the NPT, and incompatibility of nuclear weapons use with international humanitarian law. Supporters also repeatedly expressed their desire for the preamble to acknowledge that the prohibition treaty complements existing nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament legal frameworks, such as the NPT and the CTBT.

States agree on many prohibitions to include in the treaty, including the prohibition of use, acquisition, possession, development and transfer of nuclear weapons, and the prohibition of assistance with any of these activities. But views were mixed on other matters including inclusion of a prohibition on nuclear explosive testing (which is already prohibited by the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty), threat of use of nuclear weapons, and transit and financing of nuclear weapons.

One positive obligation – assistance to victims of nuclear testing and use, including environmental remediation for land impacted by nuclear weapons – is also widely supported by negotiating states and is included in the draft treaty text.

While most states concur that the treaty should be lean and simple and without extensive verification provisions, a few, including Cuba, Iran and Venezuela, have called for a robust and comprehensive treaty.

It is still unclear how the treaty will handle the potential future accession of nuclear weapons states to the CPNW and the process of verifying their eventual non-nuclear status. Ambassador Gomez Whyte’s draft text, and the additional non-paper she submitted, takes into account the possibility that some states might disarm before joining the treaty (as South Africa did before it joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state), as well as the possibility that nuclear-armed states might declare their intention to join to be followed by a process of verifiable and irreversible disarmament.

Timeline

2010
May 3-28: The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference acknowledges the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. 

2013
March 4-5: The first conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons takes place in Oslo, Norway. 

2014
February 13-14: The second conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons takes place in Nayarit, Mexico.  
December 8-9: The final conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons takes place in Vienna, Austria.  
December 9: 127 states endorse the Humanitarian Pledge, calling on all NPT states parties to renew their commitment to Article VI of the NPT and to take interim steps to reduce the risk of nuclear use.

2015
October 29: The UN General Assembly First Committee votes 135-12 with 33 abstentions on a resolution to create an Open Ended Working Group to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. 

2016
February 22-26: The first Open Ended Working Group to take forward nuclear disarmament meets in Geneva, Switzerland. 
May 2-4 and 9-13: The second Open Ended Working Group to take forward nuclear disarmament meets in Geneva, Switzerland.  
August 16-19: The third Open Ended Working Group to take forward nuclear disarmament meets in Geneva, Switzerland, approving a final report by a vote of 68-22 with 13 abstentions.  
October 27: The UN General Assembly First Committee on disarmament adopts a resolution to begin negotiations in 2017 on a nuclear prohibition treaty by a vote of 123-38 with 16 abstentions.  
December 23: The UN General Assembly approves resolution to begin negotiations on a nuclear prohibition treaty adopted by the First Committee by a vote of 113-35 and 13 abstentions.

2017
March 27-31: The first round of negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons takes place at the United Nations in New York.  
May 22: President Elayne Whyte Gomez presents the first draft text of the treaty at the United Nations in Geneva.
June 15-July 7: The second round of negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons will take place at the United Nations in New York.

Posted: June 6, 2017