Inside the Surprisingly Collegial and Sometimes Ironic Nuclear Weapons Ban Negotiations

Last week, I attended the opening negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons–a significant and somewhat controversial step toward the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The first thing that was clear to me as I watched the talks getting underway in the cavernous United Nations General Assembly hall was that I was witnessing a historic moment. Unlike other types of weapons that can cause mass casualties–such as biological weapons, chemical weapons, and cluster munitions–there is no universal or comprehensive ban on the ultimate weapons of mass destruction: nuclear weapons. Although it would only be an early step, if a nuclear weapons ban treaty is concluded according to the schedule set up for talks by mid-July this year, it would be a dramatic and significant statement against the continued proliferation and deployment of the most devastating weapons humankind has ever known.

HOW DID WE GET HERE? A little background on the impetus for the weapons ban treaty

Under the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), countries with nuclear weapons (the five countries recognized as nuclear-weapons states are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and countries without nuclear weapons agreed on the basic goals of ending the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminating them. Countries with nuclear weapons agreed to “pursue negotiations in good faith” to end the nuclear arms race and to bring about nuclear disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons agreed to forgo nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology. Almost 50 years later, many non-nuclear-weapons states believe the nuclear-weapon states have failed to live up to their end of the bargain.

Plenty of evidence suggests the disarmament agenda has indeed stalled: the ramping up of nuclear modernization programs (including in the U.S. and Russia); dangerous high-alert postures and options for first use; the continued importance of nuclear weapons in countries’ security strategies; and the failure to make progress on specific steps on the disarmament agenda (elements of a so-called “progressive” approach) such as entry into force of a treaty banning nuclear weapons testing (the CTBT) and negotiation of a treaty ending production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons (the FMCT). That’s not to say there has not been progress—for instance, the United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear arms through a series of bilateral arms control agreements over the past few decades, most recently with New START, though the future of that agreement is uncertain in light of increased U.S.-Russia tensions. But many countries, non-governmental organizations, and experts have simply run out of patience with the slow pace of progress toward the “grand bargain” of the NPT, especially as the prospect of further arms control efforts has dimmed.

Following the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and further spurred on by a 2015 NPT Review Conference that was considered an abject failure, a core group pushed for a new approach known as the humanitarian initiative, which reframes the nuclear weapons debate to focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. A series of conferences and the tasking by the UN General Assembly of an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) to review ways to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons (see the OEWG’s final report here) led last year to the adoption of a resolution at the First Committee of the General Assembly, and a resolution by the UN General Assembly on taking forward multilateral negotiations of a nuclear weapons ban treaty, to be convened from March 27-31 and June 15-July 7, 2017. The vote at the General Assembly was 113 in favor of negotiations, 35 against, and 13 abstaining. Four of the five NPT nuclear-weapons states voted no and China abstained. Among other nuclear-armed states, Israel voted no, and Pakistan and India abstained. North Korea had previously voted in favor of negotiations, though was absent from the December General Assembly vote. Most U.S. allies (e.g., members of NATO or U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific—so-called “umbrella states”) also voted no, though the Dutch abstained. For some more background see here and here.


Undeterred (no pun intended) by the absence of those that actually possess nuclear weapons or otherwise rely on them for their own security (with the exception of the Dutch government which will be chairing the 2017 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in May), countries began negotiations on the treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

A few observations from my time in the gallery:

Countries disagree on what should be prohibited by the treaty. The key question to be resolved is what should the treaty actually prohibit? The longer the list of activities, the more potential for disagreement and the more likely the treaty will capture activities in which a significant number of countries already participate, meaning the set of countries that can sign the treaty becomes smaller. Some countries want a comprehensive treaty that captures more than a core set of prohibited activities on which most participating states already agree (e.g., possession, use, acquisition, development, deployment, transfer of control, stockpiling) and want to include almost every activity that could conceivably be linked to nuclear weapons, as well as procedures and verification measures for the elimination of nuclear weapons. (This latter issue basically boils down to whether the treaty should be a prohibition treaty or an elimination treaty.) 

The expanded list of activities that some states would like to prohibit includes: the threat of use; stationing of nuclear weapons on a country’s territory (this would apply to NATO countries that station U.S. nuclear weapons); nuclear weapons testing, including computer testing and subcritical testing; transit/transshipment of nuclear weapons; financing of prohibited activities; and participating in military exercises or planning that include a nuclear component (think joint U.S./Japan/South Korea exercises), among others. A handful of countries—Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela—basically have a “kitchen sink” approach, while other countries’ wish lists vary in length.

In the end, a core group of countries (the original co-sponsors of the First Committee resolution) likely will advocate limiting the list to minimize disagreements, avoid activities that are difficult to verify, and ensure there is no conflict with other treaties like the CTBT. They will want to make the treaty as inclusive as possible so that nuclear umbrella states could potentially sign. It was also clear as the week went by that many countries with longer wish lists will eventually default to whatever list of activities is most likely to lead to consensus.

Countries will kick the verification can down the road. Countries debated whether the treaty should contain verification provisions, including verification for eventual elimination of nuclear weapons by nuclear-armed states, or should leave verification for future agreements or protocols. There seemed to be a sense that avoiding overly complex or technical issues would be wise in favor of getting to an agreed treaty text by July. Countries will therefore likely kick this particular can down the road. An excellent NGO panel addressed the verification issue during the conference, and there was a spirited Q&A between country delegates and the panel. (By the way, it was great to see this level of substantive engagement between NGOs, experts, and government officials.) An interesting issue is whether and how the treaty could include an on-ramp for nuclear-armed states to eventually sign the treaty, perhaps with a provision requiring a nuclear-armed state to submit a schedule for elimination of its stockpiles with proposed verification measures. (Kudos to Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova of CNS, whose suggestions on verification approaches during the panel session were excellent.)

Irony was alive and well at the conference. Iran made a lengthy intervention to express concern about the need for strong verification measures to prevent countries from “cheating.” I don’t think I was the only one in the room whose reaction to this rant was #ironyisnotdead. But who knows? Maybe Iran would actually be the best-placed country to make that argument, given its own experience. Wouldn’t it be an interesting show of leadership if Iran was proposing a new norm for more robust verification measures based on the JCPOA that would apply universally? I suspect that was not Iran’s intention, however.

The conference was surprisingly collegial. Most country statements were short and to the point and did not contain lengthy expositions about unrelated issues or trail off into unnecessary tangents. I also didn’t hear any significant bashing of the United States (well, except from Iran, which argued that U.S. non-participation amounted to a violation of the NPT). During a side event, one ambassador remarked on the surprising, but welcome, absence of “broglio.” Another told me separately that he was not surprised about the collegial nature of the discussions because this was a meeting of the “choir.” Indeed, this was a gathering of countries who genuinely (for the most part) want to conclude a nuclear weapons ban treaty and understand that there may be only a small window of opportunity to do so between now and July. I predict that the desire to conclude the treaty will prompt most countries to set aside substantive disagreements in favor of a short, simple, and inclusive treaty, leaving aside more difficult technical issues for a later time. This likely accounts for the collegial atmosphere.


States will reconvene for an additional three weeks of negotiations beginning June 15. Between now and then, we will get to see the first draft of the treaty text. I hope to be back at the UN to observe at least some of the remaining negotiations, to see if my predictions are accurate, and to witness nuclear weapons history being made.

If you’re interested in following along remotely, in addition to following me on Twitter, I highly recommend following Gaukhar and Andrea Berger from CNS (h/t to Andrea for her excellent insights on the daily development last week), Reaching Critical Will, and ICAN for updates, observations, and commentary during the negotiations.



April 6, 2017
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Senior Program Officer & Director, Global Nuclear Policy Program

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