The UN adopts first-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Disarmament advocates see hope although N-armed nations are unhappy
“Voting has been completed. The machine is locked,” announced the secretary conducting the voting process for the adoption of a UN treaty at the United Nations headquarters in New York. As the screen displayed the results – 122 in favour, one against and one abstention – the room erupted in thunderous applause giving the world its first-ever treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons on July 7. The initiative, led by Austria, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and New Zealand, is the first multilateral legally binding instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years.
“The treaty represents an important step and contribution towards the common aspirations of a world without nuclear weapons,” Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for UN secretary-general António Guterres, said following its adoption.
“The secretary-general hopes that this new treaty will promote inclusive dialogue and renewed international cooperation aimed at achieving the long overdue objective of nuclear disarmament,” he added.
The ten-page treaty is encompassing in its prescriptions: it prohibits a full range of nuclear-weapon-related activities, such as undertaking to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, as well as the use or threat of use of these weapons.
It will be open for signature to all governments at the UN headquarters in New York beginning September 20 and will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 50 countries – making it an international law.
However, the global pact faced strong opposition, especially from the nine nuclear-armed states, which boycotted the negotiations. The Netherlands, which has American nuclear arms in its territory and is the only NATO country to attend the discussions – voted against the resolution saying that that the asks of the treaty is not something that NATO can accept. Singapore was the only country that abstained. The key players, namely, the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel, did not join the discussions.
“The nuclear states, particularly the US, were opposed to considering the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and tried hard to undermine the efforts that resulted in the nuclear ban treaty,” Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for her contribution towards banning landmines, told Governance Now.
Japan, the only country to have been attacked with an atomic bomb, also chose to stay away from an association with the treaty.
In a joint press statement issued on July 7, the delegations of the US, the UK and France said they “have not taken part in the negotiation of the treaty… and do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it”.
“This initiative clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment,” they said. “Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.”
The deterrence theory – which holds that a nuclear war can be avoided if the first attacker is assured that it would be destroyed in return – has not been able to keep peace and the threat of nuclear war at bay, say disarmament advocates.
“The theory only works if you are ready to use nuclear weapons, otherwise the other side will call your bluff,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a Geneva-based coalition of groups that advocated the treaty, told the New York Times. Deterrence is also “based on a perception that leaders are rational and sane”, she added.
But how effective would such treaty be if it does not have the commitment of the governments that actually possess nuclear stockpiles?
“We know from experience with other prohibitions of weapons, such as the ban on landmines and the ban on cluster bombs, that treaties can have an impact on states outside the regime. Norms matters to states, even if they oppose them,” Fihn tells Governance Now.
“These states will need to be related to a new reality now, where the majority of the world will consider these weapons illegal. The nuclear armed states’ strong reactions against this treaty and their attempts to stop it shows that they are fully aware of its potential impact,” she adds.
All of this is important in moving the world away from “accepting the reality of nuclear weapons,” Williams argues.
Increasingly unsafe world
In current volatile times of muscular posturing and flaunting of nuclear capabilities the importance of the coming together of 122 nations cannot be overstated.
Russian president Vladimir Putin withdrew from a landmark nuclear security agreement with the US in October last year that committed to destroy military stockpiles of plutonium – an important step towards gradual disarmament by the world’s two biggest nuclear-arms stockpilers. It was also to prevent the possibility of such deadly material falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.
“The deal has no bearing on the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by Russia or the United States. Instead, it concerns 34 tons of plutonium in storage in each country that might go into a future arsenal, none of which has yet undergone verifiable disposal,” reported the New York Times in October last year.
Meanwhile, Russian and American jets whiz past each other over the waters of the Black Sea.
The Donald Trump administration remains unclear about its nuclear policy, which is being elaborated only through the American president’s tweets calling for the US to further “strengthen and expand” its nuclear capacity – currently unparalleled in the world.
“That is dangerous, Cold War thinking. Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict against another nuclear-armed adversary, even in small numbers or in a regional conflict, there is no guarantee that there will not be a nuclear response and a cycle of escalation leading to all-out global nuclear war,” writes Daryl G Kimball in a July 10 editorial in the Arms Control Association.
“Despite the deterioration of relations, there is no reason why the United States should try to match Russia weapon for weapon, dumb move for each dumb move,” he adds.
North Korea unabashedly continues testing its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons – the most recent one was shot off on July 4.
North Korea is now “a strong nuclear power state” and has “a very powerful ICBM that can strike any place in the world,” said a visibly excited anchor in a rare announcement by the state-run North Korea network after the July 4 tests.
Russia and China condemned the missile launch and asked North Korea to declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, while calling on Washington to “immediately” halt deployment of its THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.
North Korea’s missile posturing has been effectively used by the nuclear-armed western powers for justifying their boycott of the negotiations leading to the nuclear ban treaty. It has called the UN and advocates’ efforts reckless when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is threatening America with an attack on its soil.
“We have to be realistic,” Nikki R Haley, the American ambassador to the UN in New York, said when the talks began in March. “Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”
“Regarding security concerns, states still need to follow rules of international humanitarian law when deciding how it’s security needs will be protected, Fihn argues. “Indiscriminate weapons that target civilians are not acceptable means of defence anymore. The treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons recognises this, as it’s based on humanitarian concerns,” she adds.
The treaty is a strong statement by the majority of non-nuclear states assuming a stand against the unfairness of holding the world at ransom with a threat of a nuclear war and its potentially disastrous consequences. It also reflects the frustration of governments due to the slow pace of nuclear disarmament – both through the nearly five-decade-old nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the lack of progress in the negotiations under the aegis of the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD).
“We feel emotional because we are responding to the hopes and dreams of the present and future generations,” said ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica, who served as the president of the UN conference that negotiated the treaty in response to a mandate given by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). She told a news conference that with the treaty the world is “one step closer” to a total elimination of nuclear weapons.
By resolution 71/258, adopted in December 2016, UNGA decided to convene in 2017 a UN conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, with the participation of international organisations and civil societies and encouraged all member states to participate. The conference was held in New York from March 27 to March 31 and from June 15 to July 7. It also held a one-day organisational session on February 16.
The decision to convene the conference followed from the recommendation of the open-ended working group, chaired by Thailand ambassador to the UN in New York Thani Thongphakdi, on taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations. The primary mandate of the open-ended working group was to “address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that would need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons”, said the UN.
The text of the treaty says that it is “concerned by the slow pace of nuclear disarmament, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies”, and the waste involved in producing and maintaining nuclear resources.
“The treaty was developed in the knowledge that the nuclear-armed states would likely refuse to participate. The key thing is that it changes the legal landscape and provides an opportunity for a large number of states to confirm that they consider these weapons unacceptable and illegal under international law,” Richard Moyes, managing director of Article 36, a British organisation that works to prevent harm from nuclear and other weapons, tells Governance Now.
This treaty will not change the position of nuclear-armed states immediately, he adds, but it provides the proper foundation for challenging those positions over time.
“Because of their stark humanitarian consequences, nuclear weapons clearly should be illegal. This treaty is saying that nuclear-armed states do not have the power to stop that law being made,” Moyes says.
The treaty “reaffirms” that the full and effective implementation of the NPT, serves as the “cornerstone of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime” and has a vital role to play in promoting international peace and security.
This part of the text rankles Indian negotiators, given their long-standing resistance to the NPT. On the contrary, western powers among the P5 nations want to strengthen the NPT. The pact seeks to contain the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five original nuclear-armed states and the current P5 members of the US, Russia, Britain, France and China. The non-nuclear nations who sign up are not allowed to develop atomic weapons in exchange for a commitment that the P5 countries move towards nuclear disarmament and provide a guarantee for non-nuclear states’ access to peaceful nuclear technology.
In response to questions on the joint statement by the US, Britain and France, Whyte Gómez said that the NPT was adopted decades ago and did not enjoy a large number of accessions. It opened for signature in 1968 and came into force in 1970. In 1995, it was extended indefinitely with a total of 191 governments including the P5 member-states, coming on-board.
The former Indian permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the current Indian ambassador to Spain – and one of the best disarmament negotiators globally – DB Venkatesh Varma, in a speech on February 13 in Mexico City, said that the NPT regime “chose to focus on restraints on possession of nuclear weapons rather than restraints on their use, for the primary purpose of stabilising nuclear deterrence, rather than finding a replacement”.
India has also argued that the treaty does not have international verification mechanisms and that the right platform for this discussion is the CD.
Last year, it abstained at the vote in the First Committee and UNGA resolution that called for the conference to negotiate nuclear ban treaty.
“We are not convinced that the proposed conference in 2017 convened under GA rules of procedure can address the longstanding expectation of the international community for a comprehensive instrument on nuclear disarmament,” India had said last year in its ‘explanation of vote’.
Amandeep Singh Gill, the current permanent representative of India to the CD, told the CD in March that “the decision [to not participate in the UN conference on nuclear ban] has not been easy for India”.
“We appreciate the sincere effort behind the initiative and remain willing to work with the sponsors to reduce the role and military utility of nuclear weapons, to prohibit their use under any circumstances and to eliminate them globally,” Gill said.
The CD “with an agreed mandate as part of comprehensive and balanced programme of work” could begin “immediate work” on the essential elements of a multilateral framework for nuclear disarmament. Gill emphasised that the essential elements were the “three pillars: a universal prohibition, complete elimination and international verification”.
Varma in his February speech had also emphasised that the CD is the appropriate platform for such negotiations and the three pillars being necessary elements of such a pact. “It is of course tempting that we pick and run with one of the pillars, as indeed is being proposed in the ban treaty negotiations that will commence next month,” Varma had said.
Given the situation in the Indian subcontinent and the unpredictable events in its border with China, India considers it beyond “practical politics to expect states to venture on the road to nuclear elimination at a time of an acute accentuation of nuclear risks”.
Varma had also argued for a gradual disarmament process through: minimising chances of unauthorised or accidental use of nuclear weapons or their access by terrorists, by doctrinal measures of narrowing-down the circumstances of their use, thrashing out a global treaty that make deterrence the sole purpose for the existence of nuclear weapons, and finally agreeing on an international legal instrument that prohibits the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstance and completely de-legitimising nuclear weapons.
This approach would “presuppose… a universal commitment based on a shared belief that the world can be made safer through nuclear disarmament and not its mirror opposite argument, made in particular by the new found devotees of the concept of strategic stability – that puts the onus on the world being first made safe for nuclear disarmament”, Varma said.
Fihn, however, disagrees with some of the Indian arguments offered for not joining the recent treaty negotiations.
“The treaty does include an obligation to verify. If you don’t have nuclear weapons, the treaty requires all states to verify it through safeguards with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. If you have nuclear weapons, the treaty requires states to negotiate a time bound, verifiable plan for dismantling its stockpiles of weapons,” she says referring to the statements that there is no verification imperative in the newly adopted nuclear ban treaty.
“The CD has been deadlocked for over 20 years and it’s unlikely that any progress on disarmament will be taken there,” she adds.
Williams also argues on similar lines about India's stand on the matter.
“India’s excuse about lack of verification measures in the treaty is just that – a convenient excuse for not participating in the negotiations. If it really cared about verification measures it would have participated and contributed strong language on verification.”
“States that want no action always say that the Conference on Disarmament is the correct forum for such negotiations. That is because nothing ever happens there. Look at the record of the CD in recent times. It is quite useless,” she says.
Prior experience with treaties that banned land mines, biological and chemical arms and cluster bombs have shown the enormous impact that such pacts have on stigmatising and eventually eliminating deadly weapons of mass destruction. That is the kind of outcome disarmament advocates are hoping for from the nuclear ban treaty.
“We will work that all states sign this treaty on 20th September when it opens for signature,” Fihn says.
New Delhi on July 18 said that it doesn’t recognise any change in international law relating to disarmament from the promulgation of this global nuclear pact.
“Recognising that certain states currently want to continue possessing nuclear weapons, the treaty provides a framework for such states to join in the future. It doesn’t prejudge the details of that but provides a framework that will ensure oversight of that process if or when they join,” Moyes says.
(The article appears in the July 16-31, 2017 issue of Governance Now)