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Reflections on the Groundbreaking UN Nuclear Ban Treaty

By Ramu Damodaran

Image credit: UN Academic Impact

The writer is Chief, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosted in the Department of Global Communications. This OpEd first appeared in this week’s #WhyWeCare, @ImpactUN on January 22.

NEW YORK (IDN | UNAI) – Memory, more than modesty, made me miss mention last week of the single exclusive conversation I was privileged to have with Brian Urquhart and which lasted all of ninety seconds. [2021-01-22]

He had concluded his formal service with the United Nations the very month my own association with the organization began; nineteen years later the wise and visionary Vera Jelinek planned a course on the UN’s 60th anniversary at New York University‘s Center for Global Affairs (CGA) which had, under her direction, come into being, along with a Master’s of Science in Global Affairs Programme, just months earlier.

She was kind enough to ask me to choreograph it and the immediate inaugural speaker who came to mind was Sir Brian, the grace of his ready acceptance matched only by the breadth he brought to a summation of sixty years in sixty minutes.

At the end of the evening, which culminated in a lively question and answer session, I walked him to the nearby subway train and, in the seclusion of that September sunset, asked him what he thought the most important lesson we had learned from the United Nations which it had originally not thought to impart. He thought a while and, as we reached the glow of green globe at the station, replied: “That you need not begin with all, start with a few and the rest may yet follow.”

A wise adage, and one which had attended the raft of human rights treaties and conventions over the years; rather than being universal and aspirational, they sought signature from those willing to abide by its provisions.

In theorist terms this would imply treaties bringing together only those who already lived by its rules, but that was a limitation Sir Brian would not accept, the evidence of such a venture in a wholly different area, that of disarmament, dramatically seen in the Chemical Weapons convention just thirteen years earlier; today “193 States have committed to the Convention; 98% of the world’s population live under the protection of the Convention, 98% of the chemical weapons stockpiles declared by possessor States have been verifiably destroyed.”

I thought of that long and unexpected journey this week as we looked ahead to two important dates. One, this Sunday the 24th, the 75th anniversary of the very first General Assembly resolution, Resolution 1/1, on the “establishment of a commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy” whose terms of reference included the making of proposals “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

Two days short of that 75th anniversary, today, 22 January 2021, the intent of such a proposal was realized with, in Sir Brian’s phrase, the start with the few who gave life and legality to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and its entry into force as the “first international legal instrument which makes nuclear weapons illegal, prohibiting their development, testing, production, acquisition, stockpiling, use, deployment or threat of use. The Treaty will also prohibit the provision of assistance to any state in the conduct of prohibited activities. It is notable that, even with all their destructive power, nuclear weapons are the last form of weapons of mass destruction to be prohibited.”

The cerebral and benevolent WPS Sidhu, of CGA, has launched a monthly newsletter from the center’s “UN initiative”; its October issue captures the sense of achievement when Honduras became the fiftieth State to ratify the treaty, setting into motion the ninety days necessary for its entry into force culminating today.

True as it is that the Treaty will only bind those states which have formally signed and ratified it, and those who have not do not have any formal obligations under it, the conventions on chemical and biological weapons set precedent and hope; as Dr. Sidhu has written in the Oxford Handbook of International Organizations, Resolution 1/1 “set apart atomic weapons, which appeared only in 1945, from biological and chemical weapons, even though it stressed the threat posed by the latter. While chemical weapons in particular have gained the reputation of a ‘poor man’s nuclear bomb’, are more likely to be used by terrorists, and grabbed headlines following their use in Syria, the victims of some chemical and biological weapons can be effectively treated. In contrast, there is no known treatment for the effects of nuclear radiation.” 

How far we have come in fifteen years is dramatized in the remarks Secretary-General Kofi Annan made to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2006, when he said “it is shameful that last year's Summit Outcome does not contain even one word about non-proliferation and disarmament – basically because states could not agree which of the two should be given priority. It is high time to end this dispute, and tackle both tasks with the urgency they demand.”

That urgency extended beyond the peace and security arena to that of development; as Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, wrote in the UN Chronicle, “Article 26 of the Charter of the United Nations recognizes disarmament as a precondition for durable peace, security and development by calling for the maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion of the world’s economic and human resources for arms.”

It is fitting then that the launch next week of the Book Club with Jeffrey Sachs, the inspiration behind the dynamic Sustainable Development Solutions Network , will feature a conversation with Dr Martin J. Sherwin, who has written extensively on nuclear issues and had in an interview noted how “the demonstration of the (atom) bomb. was supposed to awaken the world to the danger of nuclear weapons and the need to have an international control of atomic energy commission to really get rid of nuclear weapons (but that didn’t) happen. We now live in that world.”

In 1968 the UN General Assembly had called “upon national and international scientific institutions and organizations to co-operate” with the UN in “research on disarmament” (A/RES/24/54); in the half century since then that cooperation has extended to universities and civil society entities, including faith based organizations; as eminent journalist Ramesh Jaura notes, “the need to accelerate progress toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, encourage youth engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and expand the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) network of universities (was) highlighted in a wide-ranging proposal by Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Buddhist movement".

"With 12 million members around the world, SGI is a community-based network promoting Buddhist humanism and peace. The SGI President has been issuing peace proposals since 1983, offering a Buddhist perspective and solutions to global problems on January 26 every year to commemorate the founding of the organisation. Titled ‘Toward a New Era of Peace and Disarmament: A People-Centered Approach’, the 2019 annual peace proposal, released in Tokyo, focuses on expanding the scope of ratification of the TPNW to achieve its entry into force. Dr. Ikeda (urged) the creation of a group of like-minded states to deepen the debate and promote ratification – Friends of the TPNW.”

On Valentine’s Day 2017, even as diplomats the world over were engaged in preliminary discussion on what was to emerge as the TPNW a few months later, I was at an event hosted by another faith-based organization, the Baha’i International Community, which focused on children who have lost, or who face losing, parental care.

Co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations, it featured a heart wrenching talk by 17-year-old Mianna from Chicago who grew up in foster care. The usually ebullient and effervescent Permanent Representative of Austria, Jan Kickert, was a different self that afternoon as he spoke movingly of the “child that loses his or her parents also losing his or her “first line of protection.”

I have often thought of that phrase as the negotiations towards, and ultimate realization of, the treaty, in both of which he played so pivotal a part, progressed, for is security from nuclear weapons not ultimately our first line of protection and would its denial not render all later lines redundant? That Austria was in the lead in conceiving and bringing into fruition the treaty is academically fitting; the Nobel Prize for Physics in the year of the inception of the United Nations went to Austrian scientist Wolfgang Pauli, often described as the "conscience of physics," scornful of anything that was flawed or false as “ganz falsch”, utterly wrong.

Resolution 1/1 in many senses was a reflection of that conscience, the conscience of science, a conscience that stands steadfast against the ganz falsch of subordinating it to destructive ambition. Writing in the “Austrian Review of International and European Law” in 2010, Vienna born jurist and scholar Peter Weiss spoke of “the Faustian bargain between the first of these four elements (in 1/1) – universal access to nuclear technology for peaceful ends – and the other three – ensuring that this new source of energy would not repeat the dreadful history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to this day has never ceased to plague international and domestic lawgivers,” a tension he sought to address through a “Model Nuclear Weapons Convention”.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly two years later, Cora Weiss, creative champion of non-violence, argued for the “adoption by the UN of a Convention on Nuclear Weapons is the best step to a nuclear weapons free world” and an essential element to the realization of a culture of peace.

Central to that culture is the humanitarian element of which Jan Kickert often spoke when referring to what is now the TPNW, an echo of what the former mayor of Hiroshima, Takashi Hiraoka, had remarked in an address at Utah Valley University in 2008, of the importance of remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“When paired in the same sentence, they make us think about the nature of human beings,” he had said, “because the tragedies of the two cities pose questions about who we are and how far we, as human beings, have moved away from our rational nature.” And so, beyond the supposedly strategic, the polemically political, the deviously diplomatic, even the stealthily scientific, lay the simple premise Ambassador Kickert averred, that peace is the essential human condition and its preservation a condition above all humanitarian.

A premise that came to my mind again this week as I browsed through “The Present in Delhi’s Pasts”, written by the leading scholar on medieval India, Sunil Kumar, whom we lost this week, and its captivating image of “areas (that) had experienced their share of violent transitions, their paths equally layered with years of peace,” the geology that endures firmly in our history, or as firmly as the threat of sudden annihilation will allow. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 January 2021]

Image credit: UN Academic Impact

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