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.
SO WHAT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK LAST WEEK?
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.)