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A Bold Move Toward A Nuclear-Weapon-Free World

By Jamshed Baruah

GENEVA (IDN) - The United Nations General Assembly will consider during the period October 24 to November 2 a resolution to launch formal, multilateral negotiations in 2017 on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.

Sponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, the resolution has been submitted on September 28. "It will likely be approved with more than 120 states in support", said Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association (ACA). "The proposal may allow for consideration of several options and proposals, including a ban treaty," he added.

For seven decades, UN members have pushed and prodded the world’s nuclear-armed states to address the threats posed by nuclear weapons, recalled Kimball. 

The first resolution of the UN General Assembly First Committee on international security, which was adopted in 1946, established a commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.

The draft resolution was submitted to the UN General Assembly in New York nearly one week before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivers in The Hague on October 5 its judgments on nuclear disarmament lawsuits aimed at holding the nuclear-armed nations accountable for their breaches of Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and customary international law. The Republic of the Marshall Islands filed the lawsuits on April 24, 2014 in the ICJ.

The judgments will address the questions of jurisdiction of the Court and admissibility of the Applications in the cases against India and Pakistan. In the case against the UK, the judgment will address the preliminary objections raised by the United Kingdom.

Announcing the resolution at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 21, Austria’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz said, “experience shows that the first step to eliminate weapons of mass destruction is to prohibit them through legally binding norms”.

The resolution follows three international conferences in 2013 and 2014 to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and an Open-ended UN Working Group 'Taking Forward Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations' in 2016 at which the overwhelming majority of states supported the call for ban treaty negotiations in 2017. The negotiations would take place over two sessions comprising a total of 20 days in 2017.

According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the adoption of this resolution would mark a major breakthrough for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not yet explicitly banned by an international treaty, unlike chemical and biological weapons. In recent years this has come to be considered an anomaly and an obstacle to progress on nuclear disarmament.

Historic breakthrough

As discussions in the UN Working Group revealed, opposition to the resolution from the nuclear-armed states is expected to be fierce. Already they have sent “démarches”, or diplomatic instructions, demanding that governments withdraw their support for ban treaty negotiations. Many expect this pressure to continue behind closed doors during consultations on the resolution in New York.

The negotiations of the ban treaty will pose very uncomfortable questions to the group of non-nuclear weapon states in nuclear weapons alliances with nuclear-armed states. Several of these governments have already faced significant domestic pressure for their opposition to the negotiation of a prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Australia was widely criticized for attempting to thwart the recommendation of a ban treaty at the recent UN Working Group in Geneva, while the governments of the Netherlands and Norway have also been rebuked for their opposition to the ban by the political majority in their own national parliaments.

Nevertheless, ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn says: "This is an historic breakthrough in global efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. A treaty banning nuclear weapons will be of enormous importance in establishing a clear, legal rejection of these weapons by the majority of the international community and has the potential to jump start the nuclear disarmament movement – even in the face of resistance from the nuclear-armed states.”

ACA's Kimball says: "At its core, the initiative is an expression of frustration with the inability of the nuclear-armed states to follow through on their NPT Article VI disarmament commitments. Non-nuclear-weapon states argue, justifiably, that the grave risks posed by nuclear weapons underscores the need to act with greater urgency."

In response, Kimball added, major nuclear-weapon states insist that the pursuit of disarmament must be “step by step”, which requires time and the right security conditions. They reject the new initiative to negotiate a ban treaty or framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons as “unrealistic.” Some U.S. officials argue it would be “polarizing and unverifiable” and distract from more effective disarmament initiatives.

"The reality is that, since 2010, the pace of progress on disarmament has been underwhelming at best. For nearly two decades, the multilateral Conference on Disarmament has failed to agree to begin talks on the long-sought ban on fissile material production, as well as on other disarmament proposals, due to the blocking strategies of a few states," says Kimball in a comment titled 'The Debate Over Banning the Bomb'.

In 2013, President Barack Obama invited the Kremlin to negotiate a further one-third cut in U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals. But President Vladimir Putin has said “Nyet”, and the nuclear-armed states have failed to advance new nuclear disarmament initiatives, Kimball recalls.

"Meanwhile, a new, global technological arms race is underway. Nuclear risks and tensions are growing. The United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom are poised to spend vast sums to improve and maintain their Cold War nuclear delivery systems for decades to come. Russia is believed to be developing new types of nuclear weapons. China, India, and Pakistan are also introducing new nuclear capabilities.

"Clearly, as most non-nuclear-weapon states contend, in order to attain and maintain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally binding norm to prohibit such weapons. A ban treaty or framework agreement on their elimination is fundamentally consistent with the spirit of Obama’s 2009 call for action to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, and it would advance the goals of the NPT. To suggest otherwise defies common sense," writes Kimball.

Although the world’s nuclear-armed states will likely boycott the negotiations, he says, the process and the final product could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use – a worthy goal.

The ACA Executive Director points out that negotiations on a ban on nuclear weapons development, possession, and use are not a substitute for necessary, progressive steps on nuclear disarmament.

Nuclear disarmament is a joint global enterprise. Nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states can and should do more to promote concrete action on disarmament and non-proliferation.

These include verifiable cuts in nuclear arsenals, adoption of new policies that reduce the risk of nuclear use, securing a fissile cut-off and control treaty, entry into force of the global ban on nuclear testing, and measures to establish the conditions for new nuclear-weapon-free zones.

U.S. response

How should the United States respond? Kimball writes: Rather than foster resentment by actively lobbying states not to vote for the resolution and participate in the negotiation, Obama administration officials and their successors should take the high road.

They could simply say that, “at this time, given the global security environment, we cannot join the ban treaty but look forward to observing the negotiations and will continue to work with all states to pursue more effective, verifiable measures to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons”.

"Washington also can provide stronger leadership to jump-start progress on effective measures to ease nuclear tensions and reduce the role, number, and skyrocketing cost of nuclear weapons. For example, the current or next president could direct the Pentagon to trim the U.S. deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by one-third, which would still meet official U.S. deterrence requirements, regardless of whether Russia reciprocates.

"Achieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons requires bold and sustained action. The coming ban treaty negotiations are not an all-in-one solution, but do represent an important new contribution," writes Kimball. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 September 2016]

Photo: The UN General Assembly Hall. Credit: Manuel Elias/UN.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.