The Nuclear Weapons Ban is an initiative to prohibit the use, possession, development, testing, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons under international law. Unlike prior efforts at comprehensive nuclear disarmament, notably the proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would not include dismantlement and disarmament verification procedures. As such, its proponents argue, the negotiation of a ban treaty does not require the participation of the nuclear weapons possessors.
Advocates of a ban treaty believe that nuclear weapons are incompatible with international law. First, as a consequence of their destructive power and radioactive fallout, nuclear weapons inherently violate several articles of the Geneva Conventions meant to protect the victims of international conflicts. Second, many non-nuclear weapons states and disarmament advocates believe that states possessing nuclear weapons have been unwilling to pursue good-faith negotiations mandated by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
Proponents see the nuclear weapons ban treaty as a measure to close this perceived “legal gap” in international law, and to encourage an international norm against nuclear weapons. Opponents characterize the initiative as unrealistic political grandstanding, which could weaken the NPT.
The UN General Assembly First Committee voted to adopt Resolution A/C.1/71/L.41, on “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” on 27 October 2016. States will convene a UN conference from 27-31 March and 15 June to 7 July 2017 to commence negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban treaty.
Efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons date to the beginning of the atomic age. However, the current nuclear weapons ban project has its origins in the Humanitarian Initiative, a group of non-nuclear weapons states who have sought to push nuclear disarmament forward by focusing on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The movement recognizes the severe consequences of nuclear weapons explosions and concludes that no government of relief agencies would be able to adequately respond to the immediate and long-term consequences to health, infrastructure, and the environment following a nuclear detonation. As the movement gained support among the international community, backers of the Humanitarian Initiative had high hopes that the 2015 Review Conference on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) would achieve substantial progress toward nuclear disarmament.
Although 160 states endorsed the Humanitarian Initiative at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the conference failed to adopt a consensus final document. Many countries were dissatisfied with this outcome, and sought to shift efforts to advance the disarmament agenda to an open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament within the United Nations General Assembly. For many advocates of nuclear disarmament, the UN General Assembly was a preferable negotiating forum, as it approves resolutions by majority vote of member states rather than consensus of all states.
The possibility of opening negotiations was a primary focus of the three sessions of the OEWG held in Geneva in 2016. Many states, such as Algeria, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa, spoke in favor of opening negotiations for a ban treaty, while the nuclear-reliant states present opposed this approach to disarmament, speaking in favor of a “building-blocks,” or “progressive,” approach. The proponents of a ban were victorious, and at the third session of the OEWG, States voted to adopt the final report recommending the UN General Assembly convene a conference in 2017 to prohibit nuclear weapons. The vote was 68-22, with 13 countries abstaining. All nine states possessing nuclear weapons boycotted the OEWG. Most of the dissenting votes came from states allied to nuclear weapons states. The United States, which did not attend the OEWG sessions, rejected the final report, calling such efforts to ban nuclear weapons “unrealistic.”
On 27 October 2016, the First Committee of the General Assembly adopted resolution A/C.1/71/L.41 to convene negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban in 2017, and the full UN General Assembly approved the resolution on 23 December 2016.
Resolution A/C.1/71/L.41, approved by the UN General Assembly, mandates the convention of a conference to negotiate a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination.” However, it is unlikely that states possessing nuclear weapons would view compliance with any ban to emerge from the conference as obligatory.
A nuclear weapons ban treaty would likely lack a compliance mechanism, which is a main difference between it and the proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention. Under Article 11 of the UN Charter, the UN General Assembly can vote to prohibit nuclear weapons as “general principle of cooperation, peace and security,” however it cannot mandate compliance: such a measure would have to come out of the UN Security Council.
On 22-26 February, the UN hosted the first session of the second Open-Ended Working Group on concrete legal measures towards a nuclear weapons ban in Geneva, Switzerland. This session addressed possible measures to address the risk posed by an accidental, unauthorized, or intentional detonation of nuclear weapons, as well as the humanitarian risk posed by such a nuclear detonation.
On 2-13 May, the UN hosted the second session of the second Open-Ended Working Group on legal measures and norms to take towards a nuclear weapons ban in Geneva, Switzerland. This session addressed possible pathways to a legal ban on nuclear weapons, and therefore disarmament. Furthermore, the session addressed nuclear weapons in the context of the 21st century, the issue of transparency, and the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonation.
On 5-19 August, the UN hosted the third session of the second Open-Ended Working Group to establish a legal ban against nuclear weapons in Geneva, Switzerland. The OEWG published a final report outlining several key factors: the importance of NWS to undertake the actions required as stated in the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the importance of further multilateral negotiations, and the lack of guidance regarding the implementation of Article VI of the NPT. The document further provided different legal mechanisms through which the international community could enforce Article VI of the NPT, including a prohibition of weapons, their use, NWFZs, or a new legal ban on nuclear weapons or their use.
On 13 October, Resolution A/C.1/71/L.41 (L.41) was submitted to the UN General Assembly First Committee. L.41 was originally sponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, but counts fifty-seven States as co-sponsors. It was based on recommendations made in the 2016 OEWG report. L.41 does not establish a nuclear ban treaty, but proposes holding negotiations in 2017 on such an instrument.
On 27 October, the UN General Assembly First Committee voted on L.41. States adopted the resolution to hold negotiations on a nuclear ban treaty in 2017. Despite strong opposition on the part of the nuclear-weapon states and their allies, L.41 was adopted with 123 votes in favor, 38 votes against, and 16 abstentions. The resolution set up a UN conference to negotiate a “Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons” which will take place in March 2017.
On 29 October, the UNGA First Committee voted to hold a second Open-Ended Working Group regarding negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban.
On 7 December, the UNGA adopted Resolution 70/33, establishing a working group to “substantively address concrete effective legal measures, legal
provisions and norms that will need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”
On 13-14 February, the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held in Nuevo Vallarta, Niyarit, Mexico. This conference presented the idea that the elimination of nuclear weapons should be preceded by a legal prohibition.
On 2 April, Ireland submitted a working paper on behalf of NAC at the 2014 Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The paper discussed the implementation of Article VI of the NPT as an “effective measure” to ban nuclear weapons. The paper further mentioned the “need for a clear, legally-binding, multilateral commitment to achieve nuclear disarmament.”
On 8-9 December, Austria hosted the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2014. The Conference looked to strengthen the international nonproliferation and disarmament regime and examined the impacts of intentional or accidental nuclear weapons explosions. Forty three states signed the Austrian Pledge, which recognizes the immediate and long-term consequences of nuclear explosions on health, infrastructure, and the environment and looks to fill the “legal gap” on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. As more states signed on, the Austrian Pledge became the Humanitarian Pledge in May 2015. One hundred and twenty seven states have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge.
On 13-14 February, the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held in Nayarit, Mexico. Participants in the conference reiterated their call for the development of new international standards on nuclear weapons, including a legally binding instrument within a specified timeframe.
On 4-5 March, 127 governments, UN agencies, international organizations and members of civil society met in Oslo, Norway to discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use. The Conference concluded that governments and relief agencies would be unable to adequately respond to the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
On 2-3 March, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) hosted a civil society forum to demonstrate the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and called upon states to outlaw these weapons.
The proposed nuclear weapons ban is an initiative to prohibit the use, possession, development, testing, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons under international law.