Photo: Applause for adoption of the UN Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons on July 7, 2017 in New York. Credit: ICAN - Photo: 2017

Opening for Signature of the UN Treaty a Milestone for Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons

By Sergio Duarte, Ambassador, former U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs*

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – The opening for signature of the Treaty on the Prohibitions of Nuclear Weapons on September 20 at the United Nations in New York marks a milestone in the long history of efforts by the international community to eliminate the most destructive and cruel of all weapons invented by man.

The wide adherence to the negotiating process of the Treaty, carried out with the strong support of civil society organizations, reflected a growing global recognition that a ban on nuclear weapons is an integral part of the normative framework necessary to achieve and maintain a world free of such weapons. It is not a hasty or impromptu movement born out of frustration for the protracted lack of concrete progress on nuclear disarmament or by humanitarian considerations. Rather, it responds to a longstanding aspiration of humanity.

Humanitarian concerns were responsible for the first agreements on chemical weapons, concluded after the end of World War I. The multilateral process that led to the complete outlawing of such means of warfare took several decades: bacteriological (biological) weapons were outlawed in the 1970’s and the Convention on chemical weapons entered into force in the 1990’s.

For its part, the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons has long been the subject of international debate at the United Nations since 1946. Unfortunately, however, it did not yet reach a fully satisfactory solution. The very first Resolution of the General Assembly decided to create a Commission charged with, inter alia, “making specific proposals for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons”.

The rivalry and mistrust between the two major powers of the time prevented any progress and efforts were abandoned a few years later. Since then, a number of partial measures were negotiated, all of them dealing with the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, the conclusion of irreversible, legally binding multilateral agreements on the elimination of such weapons has proven elusive. According to estimates, over 15.000 nuclear weapons still remain in the possession of nine countries – the United States and Russia together accounting for 13,800.

The quest for the elimination of nuclear weapons continued over the decades. A notable effort was the proposal by Costa Rica and Malaysia of a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention in 1997, which was updated in 2007. Former Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon brought this idea again to the fore in his 5-point nuclear disarmament plan in 2008. All States agree on the need to do away with nuclear weapons, an objective also recognized in the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) and in many other international agreements.

The possessors of nuclear arsenals and most of their allies have so far taken a negative attitude toward the Prohibition Treaty. But the new instrument does not seek a ban in isolation of other measures. Neither does it disregard the consideration of the global security environment in the action leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

No one disputes that the international community faces serious security challenges. Incidentally, many of such challenges result in fact from the very existence of nuclear arsenals. Early involvement and participation in the ban process would have enabled nuclear weapon States to raise and explain the security concerns that seem so overwhelmingly important to them.

The assertion that the conditions that would make the negotiations realistic do not exist right now has served to justify the indefinite maintenance of the current status quo. Such conditions, by the way, have never been clearly formulated. An open discussion with the States holding that view would have been useful to clarify many points of mutual interest.

Another allegation against the negotiations on a ban was that they would not be based on a consensus and would therefore risk increasing the schism between haves and have-nots. That schism is an inherent feature of the NPT, which instituted a division of the world into two groups of States.

The Prohibition Treaty is meant to apply erga omnes and aims at eliminating the gulf between the two groups of States. The credibility and effectiveness of the NPT is being undermined not by calls to implement Article VI but by the perceived lack of compliance by the armed States with their commitments to nuclear disarmament. The obligation contained in Article VI was clarified by the International Court of Justice in 1996. It requires not only that its Parties engage in good faith negotiations for the achievement of nuclear disarmament, but also to bring them to a conclusion.

Over seventy years since nuclear weapons first appeared and forty-seven years after the entry into force of the NPT, the words and deeds of the nuclear weapon States amount to an indefinite postponement of the fulfillment of that obligation.

The United Nations General Assembly decided to establish September 26 as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This year’s celebration of that date follows the opening for signature of the Prohibition Treaty. The General Assembly also decided to convene a UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament no later than 2018 in order to evaluate progress and advance further the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Recent UN High Level Conferences have been very successful, such as the ones on Climate Change, on Oceans and on Migration. States must avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in a process aimed at bringing new impetus to the non-proliferation and disarmament debate and at promoting concrete progress in this field, with the active participation of civil society organizations. Rather than dismissing the newest instrument, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as unhelpful or counterproductive, States are expected to ensure that it is used as a new and effective tool toward the common objective of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

*Sergio Duarte was the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (2007-2012). He was the President of the 2005 Seventh Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. A career diplomat, he served the Brazilian Foreign Service for 48 years. He was the Ambassador of Brazil in a number of countries, including Austria, Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia concurrently, China, Canada and Nicaragua. He also served in Switzerland, the United States, Argentina and Rome. Since end of August he is President of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 September 2017]

Photo: Applause for adoption of the UN Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons on July 7, 2017 in New York. Credit: ICAN

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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