Photo: UN General Assembly Hall. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2017

UN Takes First Major Step Towards a Nuclear Ban Treaty

By Rodney Reynolds

NEW YORK (IDN) – Despite an organized boycott by over 40 countries, including four major nuclear powers, a UN conference aimed at negotiating an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons made a significant breakthrough in its first-ever attempt at a legally-binding instrument to eliminate one of the world’s deadliest weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Even without the participation of nuclear states, the ban treaty will have a powerful impact, predicted the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). “Treaties often change the behavior of non-party States, including the ban on WMDs and Law of the Sea”.

The international community adopted treaties banning biological weapons back in 1972 and chemical weapons in 1992, both WMDs, followed by the elimination of indiscriminate killer weapons such as anti-personnel landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008.

The President of the Conference, Ambassador Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica, told reporters on March 30 she was hopeful that nuclear states will eventually get onboard once the treaty is in place, with final negotiations scheduled to take place in New York, June 15 through July 7.

The meeting, which took place March 27-31, was a remarkable success in terms of numbers. It was attended by 132 out of 193 UN member states, plus the active participation of over 220 civil society organizations (CSOs) – and was backed by more than 3,000 scientists from 80 countries, including 28 Nobel Laureates, who expressed their support to “ban the bomb,” in an open letter to the UN.

“Scientists bear a special responsibility for nuclear weapons, since it was scientists who invented them and discovered that their effects are even more horrific than first thought,” said the letter, which was handed over to Ambassador Whyte.

Professor Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physics, said: “I see nuclear weapons as a real threat to the human race and we need an international consensus to reduce this threat.”

Currently, the U.S. and Russia have about 14,000 nuclear weapons combined, many on hair-trigger alert and ready to be launched on minutes notice.

Joseph Gerson, Director of the Peace & Economic Security Program at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Co-Convener of the International Peace & Planet Network, told IDN “the can-do spirit and depth of governmental-civil society collaboration was remarkable and the result of decades of peace movement advocacy and organizing.”

“But, the world is being driven by forces pressing in opposite directions,” he cautioned.

From South Korea and Japan to the Netherlands and Germany, Gerson pointed out, “political forces in the nuclear umbrella states will need to press their governments to opt for the Ban and Prohibition Treaty instead of continued collaboration with those who would end all life as we understand it.”

Should some NATO member states or U.S. Asian allies desert the nuclear powers, there will be important momentum toward a nuclear weapons free future, he noted.

Gerson also called for clear-eyed sobriety. “There is no expectation that once the treaty is negotiated, signed and enters into force it will immediately result in the nuclear powers opting to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.”

“The Nuclear-Nine, who are spending unimaginable amounts to build new generations of nuclear weapons and their delivery system for the 21st century, will tell us that treaties that they haven’t signed or ratified don’t apply to them.”

The United States has “all options on the table” – including a first strike attack – in its confrontation with North Korea.

With NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders and the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. and Russia have returned to an approximation of their Cold War nuclear confrontation. India and Pakistan continue to exchange threats, and the Brookings Institution warns us that an accident or miscalculation during provocative military exercises could all too easily escalate beyond control, he warned.

Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association said that although the world’s nuclear-armed states are boycotting the negotiations, “this unprecedented new process could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use.”

“This is a worthy goal that is consistent with the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and the requirement established by Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires all states to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

All 132 countries participating in the session shared a single vision: a world without nuclear weapons. And while some disagreement was expected, there was broad agreement among many countries on most elements of the proposed treaty, said ICAN, one of the CSOs leading the effort at formulating the treaty, in a statement released March 31.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s Executive Director, said: “We made exciting progress this week in our campaign to close the gap in international law and ban nuclear weapons. No one was distracted by the opposition. We look forward to closely reviewing the draft text.”

Ambassador Whyte is expected to produce a text in the coming weeks which will be discussed during the final round of negotiations in June-July.

The just-concluded meeting focused on the proposed goals, objectives, and preamble of the treaty, which will include a prohibition on the possession, development, testing, and use of nuclear weapons and assisting other countries with them.

The opposition to the proposed treaty, led by the United States, also included Russia, UK, and France, four of the major nuclear powers, who are also permanent members of the UN Security Council. The other dissenters included Israel, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

When the General Assembly took a decision in October 2016 to launch negotiations on the proposed treaty, three other nuclear powers, namely China, India and Pakistan, abstained on the vote while North Korea voted for the ban treaty.

Surprisingly, Ambassador Nobushige Takamizawa of Japan and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva said an international treaty “without the involvement of nuclear weapon states [would] only deepen the schism and division” in the international community.

“We will continue to pursue realistic and effective disarmament measures and will work to create a security environment conducive to the elimination of nuclear weapons,” said the envoy, who comes from the only country that suffered the devastation after-effects of nuclear destruction.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed hopes that the proposed instrument will also strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and advance the world closer to the total elimination of nuclear weapons and that it would make important contribution to nuclear disarmament and to “our ultimate objective of general and complete disarmament.”

“We need to find a new way to inspire and motivate the public in support of disarmament, in the same way that they have been energized to respond to the challenge of climate change, an existential threat facing humanity,” he stated.

Pointing out that the major nuclear powers have continued to reduce the size of their arsenals, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft of UK told reporters he will not be participating in the talks “because we do not believe that those negotiations will lead to effective progress on global nuclear disarmament.”

The United States was equally adamant about the boycott. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters: “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic.” “Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?” she asked.

Responding to Haley’s comments, Rick Wayman, Director of Programs at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, said: “In an epic role reversal, we saw U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley protesting outside the UN General Assembly Hall while the majority of the world’s nations, supported by NGOs from around the world, began negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons.”

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation will continue to support the good faith efforts of those negotiating a nuclear ban treaty and oppose the nuclear weapons states’ efforts to keep nuclear weapons in perpetuity, he declared.

According to the Foundation, the proposed treaty is expected to: legally bind parties from using, possessing and developing nuclear weapons, and assisting others in those activities; work in concert with the existing regime of nonproliferation and disarmament agreements; and strengthen the norm against indiscriminate weapons and provide countries a method to meet disarmament obligations.

Projecting into the future, the Arms Control Association said if the treaty is to be effective it should (a) specify which activities related to nuclear weapons possession, nuclear sharing planning, development, production, and testing are prohibited; (b) be consistent with existing treaties that prohibit or limit certain nuclear weapons-related activities, including the NPT; and (c) provide for pathways by which states that now possess nuclear weapons, or are part of alliances with nuclear-armed states, can support the new nuclear weapons prohibition treaty before they become a full-fledged member of new instrument. [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 March 2017]

Photo: UN General Assembly Hall. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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