Synopsis: The Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) is a proposed treaty which, if adopted, would outlaw the use, possession, development, testing, deployment, and transfer of nuclear weapons, as well as mandate internationally verifiable dismantlement of nuclear arsenals. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon (NPT) obliges its states parties to pursue good-faith negotiations toward nuclear disarmament. However, many non-nuclear weapons states and disarmament activists have been disappointed by the perceived unwillingness of the nuclear-weapons states to work toward nuclear disarmament.
Recently, civil society advocacy and diplomatic efforts toward nuclear disarmament have focused on the negotiation of a nuclear weapons ban, rather than the proposed NWC. Unlike a comprehensive convention, a treaty banning nuclear weapons would not include dismantlement and disarmament verification provisions, concentrating only on legal prohibitions, including the use, possession, development, deployment, and transfer of nuclear weapons. As such, its proponents argue, the negotiation of a ban treaty does not require the participation of nuclear weapons possessors.
Proponents of the nuclear weapons ban argue that a legally-binding prohibition on nuclear weapons is an obligation under the NPT and will establish an international norm against nuclear weapons, while opponents characterize the initiative as unrealistic political grandstanding.
Status: 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.
Background: During the Cold War, a number of initiatives sought to eliminate all nuclear weapons, some of the prominent ones being the Baruch Plan (1946), the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Reykjavik (1986), and Rajiv Gandhi’s action plan presented to the UN General Assembly in 1988. At the time of their inception, none of these proposals bore fruit.
However, after the end of Cold War, the United Nations began to evaluate more seriously the feasibility of a Nuclear Weapons Convention. On 15 December 1994, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 49/45K that requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to render its opinion on the question: “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” On 8 July 1996, the ICJ declared unanimously “there exists a legal obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its respects.” (A/51/218) On 10 December of the same year, the UNGA adopted Resolution A/RES/51/45M “Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”
In April 1997, a group of lawyers, scientists, physicians, former-diplomats and disarmament specialists and activists, drafted a model Nuclear Weapons Convention. This draft was submitted by Costa Rica to the United Nations as a discussion document. (A/C.1/52/7)
The updated 2007 draft Nuclear Weapon Convention (NWC), submitted by Costa Rica and Malaysia, is modeled on the conventions concerning chemical and biological weapons as well as anti-personnel landmines. The Convention would supplement existing treaties such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Many States claim they are ready to begin negotiations on a NWC and governments and non-governmental organizations alike have expressed strong support.
Obligations: Under the 2007 model NWC, all States would be prohibited from pursuing or participating in the “development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.” Those States that possess nuclear weapons would be obligated to destroy their nuclear arsenals in a series of phases. These five phases would progress as follows: taking nuclear weapons off alert, removing weapons from deployment, removing nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles, disabling the warheads, removing and disfiguring the “pits” and placing the fissile material under international control. Under the model convention, delivery vehicles would also have to be destroyed or converted to a non-nuclear capability. In addition, the NWC would prohibit the production of weapons-usable fissile material. The States Parties would also establish an Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that would be tasked with verification, ensuring compliance, decision-making, and providing a forum for consultation and cooperation among all State Parties. The Agency would be comprised of a Conference of State Parties, an Executive Council and a Technical Secretariat. Declarations would be required from all States Parties regarding all nuclear weapons, material, facilities, and delivery vehicles in their possession or control along with their locations.
Compliance: Under the 2007 model NWC, States Parties would be required to adopt legislative measures to provide for the prosecution of persons committing crimes and protection for persons reporting violations of the Convention. States would also be required to establish a national authority responsible for national tasks in implementation. The Convention would apply rights and obligations not only to the States Parties but also to individuals and legal entities. Legal disputes over the Convention could be referred to the ICJ with mutual consent of States Parties. The Agency would also have the ability to request an advisory opinion from the ICJ over a legal dispute. The Convention would also provide for a series of graduated responses to evidence of non-compliance beginning with consultation, clarification, and negotiation. If necessary, cases could be referred to the UN General Assembly and Security Council.
2016: On 22 - 26 February, the first session of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament was held in Geneva. The possibility of opening negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons was a significant point of discussion. States such as Algeria, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa, among many others, spoke in favor of opening negotiations for a ban treaty. Nuclear-reliant states present did not support this approach to disarmament, speaking in favor of a “building-blocks,” or “progressive,” approach.
On 2 - 13 May, the second session of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament was held in Geneva. A proposal for a global ban on nuclear weapons once again took center stage. The idea of a “legal gap,” as well as the specific elements to be included in a ban treaty, were major points of discussion and were addressed in a number of working papers. Notably nine states, including Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico, jointly submitted a working paper calling for a conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.
On 2 May, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) hosted a side event to the OEWG at the United Nations in Geneva to highlight the global support for a ban on nuclear weapons. Speakers focused on the likely effects of a ban, while selected panelists discussed some of the challenges they faced in campaigning for a ban treaty in their respective regions.
On 19 August, the third session of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on nuclear disarmament was held in Geneva. Discussions focused on the proposal to begin negotiations on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.” By a vote of 68-22, with 13 countries abstaining, the group voted to adopt the final report recommending the UN General Assembly convene a conference in 2017 to prohibit nuclear weapons.
All nine states possessing nuclear weapons boycotted the OEWG. Most of the dissenting votes came from states allied to nuclear weapons states.
On 29 August, the U.S. Department of State rejected the final report of the open-ended working group (OEWG), calling such efforts to ban nuclear weapons “unrealistic.”
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.
2015: During the 2015 NPT Review Conference (27 April–22 May 2015), Foreign Minister of Austria delivered a joint statement on the human consequences of nuclear weapons on behalf of 159 Non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Faith Communities Concerned about the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons gave a statement calling for “effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.” Also, three working papers regarding the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons were submitted: NPT/CONF.2015/WP.27, NPT/CONF.2015/WP.29, and NPT/CONF.2015/WP.30.
On 22 September, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s made an address for the International day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, stating that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only absolute guarantee against their use.
2014: On 13-14 February, Mexico hosted the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. The Conference discussed the transnational and socioeconomic impacts of nuclear weapons, highlighted the danger of nuclear accidents or abuse, and declared Austria as the host of the Third Conference taking place next year. In addition, about 20 delegations, as well as the Chair Summary, expressed their support for the elimination of nuclear weapons through an official ban, diverging from the nuclear weapons states’ (NWS) policy of “step-by-step” disarmament.
On 20 March, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which represents 164 parliaments, approved a resolution supporting a “nuclear weapons convention or package of agreements” and urging countries to initiate negotiations as soon as possible.
On 28 April-9 May, non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) took an aggressive stance on nuclear weapons in their statements at the 2014 Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Chile, Ireland, Cuba, and the Holy See were part of the group of delegations calling for a global ban of nuclear weapons, as opposed to a step-by-step disarmament method.
On 7 November, the United States announced that it will attend the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which is scheduled to be held in Vienna, Austria, in December. This marks the first time that one of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states has declared its intention to participate in a discussion of the humanitarian issue; the five states made a collective decision not to participate in the first conference in Oslo in 2013, and none of them attended the follow-up meeting in Nayarit, Mexico, in February 2014.
On 8 and 9 December 2014 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the government of Austria hosted the third international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. While the French government declined to attend, the representatives from the United States and the United Kingdom participated for the first time. India and Pakistan had already attended the prior meetings, while China sent a high-ranking diplomat, but only in observer capacity.
2013: On 4 and 5 March Norway hosted an international Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. The Conference established three main points: 1) "It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected"; 2) Despite changes in the political world, the destructive potential of nuclear weapons remains; 3) A detonated nuclear weapon will not be constrained by national borders and will be an international issue. Mexico announced it will hold a follow-up conference.
On 18 April U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced HR-1650, the "Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act," which calls on the U.S. government to dismantle and eliminate all nuclear weapons, in every country, by 2020 through a multilateral treaty.
On 24 April during the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Ambassador Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa read out the names of 74 States that signed a statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and comprise the newly formed Humanitarian Initiative. The joint statement builds upon that given by 35 States in New York on 22 October 2012. The declaration notes nuclear weapons should not be used under "any circumstances" and is building upon the 2010 NPT Review Conference where the phrase "deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian of any use of nuclear weapons" was first used.
The Chairman’s Summary at the 2013 NPT PrepCom reiterated States parties’ call for the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention.
On 21 October, Ambassador Dell Higgie spoke at the sixty-eight session of the UN General Assembly on behalf of 125 States on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The statement called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
On 19 November, ICAN announced that the Red Cross and Red Crescent reconfirmed its commitment to a nuclear ban. The movement’s highest governing body met in Sydney, Australia and adopted a four-year action plan towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.
2012: On 12 January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock, an indicator showing how capable mankind is of destroying itself, a minute closer to midnight. The group cited disarming the world of nuclear weapons as one of the contributing factors.
On 16 January, ICAN released a study entitled “Towards a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons.” The document states that 146 nations have declared willingness to negotiate a new global disarmament pact. Four nuclear weapons states - China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – were included in the group of 146.
On 26 January, many prominent Australians signed a statement calling on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to play a prominent role in an effort to abolish nuclear weapons.
The Chairman’s Summary at the 2012 NPT PrepCom reiterated States parties’ call for the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention.
On 2 June, people worldwide gathered in the streets on Nuclear Abolition Day to demand the immediate start of negotiations to ban nuclear weapons.
2011: On 24 January-1 August, the first session of the Conference on Disarmament discussed a NWC in the context of greater nuclear disarmament. Though many states expressed support for a NWC, debate on the issues was limited.
On 22 October, 34 States provided a joint statement to the United Nations First Committee in New York on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons. The statement highlighted the growing dialogue on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and pointed to previous statements outlining their devastating effects. On behalf of the 34 states, Switzerland noted the ICRC's conclusion that international organizations would be unable to provide the necessary emergency relief if a nuclear attack were to occur and that universal effects of radiation would affect agriculture and the environment.
On 3 November, at The Peoples Forum in Mali, the participants issued the Niono Appeal. The statement calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons and is against nuclear power in Africa.
On 3 December, at the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Heads of State expressed their strong commitment to working towards an international convention on the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
2010: On 28 May, the state parties to NPT adopted the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The document takes note of the proposal of the U.N. Secretary General to consider starting negotiations on an NWC. This was the first time an NPT Review Conference outcome document referred to a nuclear weapons convention.
In June, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) released a report reviewing the progress made towards a NWC at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Called “Towards Nuclear Abolition,” the document provides a detailed account of the deliberations on a NWC during the conference and lays out how the convention could work.
On 6 August, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon addressed the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony and reiterated his desire to move towards a world without nuclear weapons.
On 24 September, a high-level meeting on “Revitalizing the Conference on Disarmament and Taking Forward Multilateral Disarmament Negotiations” was held at the United Nations in New York. A number of participants urged the CD to commence negotiations on an NWC.
In November, ICAN released a report entitled “The Case against Nuclear Weapons.” The document provides an update on the campaign’s initiatives towards, and continued rationale for, an NWC.
In December, the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) of the UN General Assembly adopted resolutions entitled “Nuclear Disarmament” (A/RES/65/56) and “Towards a nuclear-weapon-free world: Accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments” (A/RES/65/59). Both resolutions advocated the global and complete abolition of nuclear weapons and supported the negotiation of an NWC.
2009: On 5 April, President Barack Obama outlined a vision of “a world without nuclear weapons” in a speech delivered in Prague, Czech Republic. He also declared that the United States, as the only State to have used nuclear weapons, has a “moral responsibility” to lead the way.
At the NPT PrepCom, the first set of draft recommendations released on 7 May included examining “ways and means to commence negotiations, in accordance with article VI, on a convention or framework of agreements to achieve global nuclear disarmament.” This proposal gained little traction with the NWS and was absent from subsequent drafts.
On 29 May, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) adopted a program of work for the first time in a decade. The program of work establishes a working group entitled “Cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament” that is tasked with exchanging “views and information on practical steps for progressive and systematic efforts to reduce nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal of their elimination, including on approaches toward potential future work of multilateral character.”
On 24 September, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1887. This Resolution, drafted by the United States, calls on all States Parties belonging to the NPT to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear arms reduction and disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The Resolution also welcomes the nuclear arms reduction and disarmament efforts undertaken by the nuclear-weapon States, but underlines the “need to pursue further efforts in the sphere of nuclear disarmament.”
In October, the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) of the U.N. General Assembly adopted resolutions entitled “Nuclear Disarmament” (A/RES/ 64/53) and “Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Accelerating the Implementation of Nuclear Disarmament Commitments” (A/RES/64/57) Both resolutions advocated the global and complete abolition of nuclear weapons and supported the negotiation of an NWC.
2008: On 24 October, UN secretary-general Ban Ki- moon addressed the East-West Institute at UN Headquarters in New York with a speech entitled “The United Nations and security in a nuclear-weapon-free world.” In this speech the Secretary-General proposed a five-point plan for nuclear disarmament and urged “the nuclear-weapon States, to fulfill their obligation under the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation] Treaty to undertake negotiations on effective measures leading to nuclear disarmament…They could pursue this goal by…negotiating a nuclear-weapons convention, backed by a strong system of verification, as has long been proposed at the United Nations.”
Also on 24 October, the East-West Institute co-sponsored a workshop on “Seizing the Moment: A One-Day Consultation on Breakthrough Measures to Build a New East West Consensus on Weapons of Mass Destruction and Disarmament” with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the British-American Security Information Council, the Global Security Institute and the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security. This strategy session focused on stimulating negotiations on a NWC, primarily addressing the questions of whether to adopt a “Big Bang” or an incremental approach to the negotiation of a NWC, as well as where and how this negotiation should occur.
2007: An updated model Nuclear Weapons Convention was created by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In May, Costa Rica submitted the model Convention to the NPT PrepCom in Vienna (NPT/CONF.2010/PC.I/WP.17).
In early December, the governments of Costa Rica and Malaysia submitted the model NWC to the UN General Assembly, which was then circulated as an official document (UN Doc A/62/650) on 18 January 2008. On 5 December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the "Follow-up on the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of nuclear Weapons."
The 2007 model NWC takes into account relevant changes that have occurred since the drafting of the 1997 NWC. These include the proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries such as India, Pakistan and North Korea, technological developments in verification, new Nuclear Weapon Free Zones in Mongolia and Central Asia, and the criminal controls established through UNSC Resolution 1540.
2006: During the meeting of the UN General Assembly in December, 125 State Parties, including China, India, and Pakistan, called for “commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination.”
2005: On 11 October, during the thematic debate in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) India submitted a draft resolution calling for the CD to begin negotiations on a convention banning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. The preambular language suggested that this would be an important step towards achieving “an international convention prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, leading to their ultimate destruction.”
The proposed NWC, modeled on the CWC and BTWC, is intended to prohibit the development, testing, production, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by all parties.