How did we get to a Nuclear Ban Treaty?

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21 January 2017

The security council of UN comprises the nuclear weapons armed states who are signatories to the Non Proliferation Treaty which was initiated in 1968 by Ireland, a neutral country that does not possess or host these weapons.

The first resolution that UN agreed was to eliminate use of atomic weapons. That was in 1945, shortly after the US Government, with the complete formal assent of the UK Government, had authorised and implemented the incineration and radiation of two cities in Japan that were full of civilians, at the point when Japan’s surrender at the end of WWll was in negotiation.

In 1967, the UN’s First Resolution was not happening and the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was introduced. One of the main initiators was Ireland, a neutral state during WWll who did not have any nuclear programme. The NPT deal allowed signatories access to atomic (nuclear) technologies for civilian application proved they didn’t develop it militarily, and the nuclear armed states were to have a bit of time to work out how to safely dismantle and eliminate their nukes. The phrase used for the way they would sort out how they would completely disarm was ‘in good faith’. The global community would understand that it might not happen next week, because radioactive stuff was dangerous.

Then there was the cold war, with Nuclear Proliferation meaning more states getting weapons and the states that had them increasing the size of their arsenals several times beyond the point where each ‘nuclear weapon state, as they were now called, could annihilate every species on the planet and render it uninhabitable in perpetuity. Testing had a devastating effect on military personnel, civilians, indigenous people, and the environment, The peace movement and resistance grew accordingly but the idea that the states that had the weapons had to lead the ban effort also somehow became entrenched although the addiction and the closing down of other possible approaches to ‘superpower defense’ was by now pretty obvious.

The NPT was reviewed fairly regularly in a United Nations forum where the states who had nuclear weapons could veto any decision made by each other or by the states that didn’t have the weapons. There were reduction in the stock piles and agreements that reduced the testing. Several new countries acquired nuclear weapons but they didn’t sign up to the treaty. Some countries who had nuclear weapons programmes gave them up, but they hadn’t signed up to the treaty anyway.

By 2010, a staggering 4 decades later, The NPT had not achieved non proliferation and there was no sign that the states who held the weapons were ready to disarm. UN general secretary told the NPT that it needed to sort it out, and get the weapons banned.

Then the International Red Cross and Red Crescent made a statement that, because the event of a nuclear exchange the humanitarian consequences would be so catastrophic that they would be unable to respond, and the only protection was a complete ban.

The next review of the NPT collapsed in chaos as the nuclear armed states would not even agree a minute of what had happened.

Conferences were hosted by states that did not hold nuclear weapons to look at those consequences, and a pledge (the Humanitarian Pledge) was initiated by the Austrian government to start work on a ban treaty. Ireland, who had been so committed to disarmament at the start of the NPT, was one of the states which was very committed to the process of supporting and highlighting the Humanitarian Pledge. Ireland also understood and sympathised with Scotland, which still hosts all of the UK’s weapons while opposing UK nuclear weapon policy.

The International Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (ICAN) had come into being in 2007 and has focussed on the effect and impact of the 9 nuclear armed states on the hundreds of other states. Like Ban Ki Moon, the UN general Secretary ICAN supports the NPT provided that the vital third pillar, complete nuclear disarmament (by states who hold nuclear weapons) in good faith proceeds.

The UN established an open-ended working group (OEWG) to look at how to “fill the gap that could lead to elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons”. All States were encouraged to send delegates, and Civil Society Organisations could take part as well. The organisations like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Red Cross who have consultative status with United Nations, could sponsor representatives from others.

Taking part was a big commitment not only for civil society but also for many of the states that are too wee or poor to have a permanent mission (ie an office with diplomats in it) at the UN in New York or Geneva. All of the Nuclear Armed states, including the UK Government with Theresa May poised to press the button, decided to boycott the OEWG process, on two grounds:

1) that it would involve proposals for a ban treaty which would undermine the NPT; their understanding of that being that they were ‘allowed’ to keep their nukes for as long as they want and that disarmament should be done step-by-step, however long that might take.
2) the meeting would not be done by consensus, so they could not block decisions and if voting was utilised they might lose the vote .

Scotland was not allowed a ‘state’ voice and the UK refused to represent us. Bill Kidd MSP representing Parliamentarians for Non-proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament, and Janet Fenton attended on behalf of the Scottish branch of WILPF and they both received a lot of support from our international colleagues. Our First Minister has expressed support for the Humanitarian Pledge.

Some of the states who do not have their own nuclear weapons but are in NATO or have some other dependence on nuclear armed states view were under pressure from them. They are sometimes called ‘nuclear umbrella states’ as though they were protected rather than endangered and they are also sometimes called ‘weasel states’ though not usually to the delegates’ faces.

The OEWG finished its meetings in August 2016 and recommended to the United Nations First Committee with the backing of a large majority, that there should be a conference in 2017 to negotiate a nuclear ban treaty open to all states and stoppable by none.

In Oct 2016 the First Committee of the United Nations debated a resolution to have a conference in 2017 that will negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, which like the Land Mine and Cluster Munition Ban Treaties will start the process of prohibiting and eliminating these most devastating of weapons of mass destruction.

The nuclear weapons states used all their influence to attempt to persuade and dissuade other states from supporting the resolution in the sessions of the committee meeting that were allocated to discussion of the resolution. At the First Committee meeting, there were several days after the ban treaty discussions and the vote on the resolutions at the end of the session, when other business was on the agenda. During this period, a letter was sent from the US to NATO states aimed at discouraging them from voting positively for the resolution. This confirmed the view that the US considered that the ban treaty would have considerable impact on US Nuclear activity. They know the ban will be effective.

The vote result was that 123 nations voted in favour of the resolution, with 38 against and 16 abstaining, marking a fundamental shift in the way that the world tackles this paramount threat.
The resolution is to set up a UN conference beginning in March next year, open to all member states, to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. The negotiations will continue in June and July.It is significant that North Korea voyed for the resolution, and China abstained from the vote. Chinese premier Xi Jinping has since called for a world without nuclear weapons in his address at the World Economic Forum. The
He said that “Nuclear weapons should be completely prohibited and destroyed over time to make the world free of them” India and Pakistan have also abstained and are expected to participate
in the negotiations.

At the end of December, a budget was agreed for the conference, presenting a last, failed, opportunity for the US, the UK and others to sabotage the negotiations for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons which will strengthen the global norm against the use and possession of these
weapons, and close major loopholes in the existing international legal regime.

Three NATO states have now announced that they ‘made a mistake’ in their votes but since this announcement was made by all together – Italy, Estonia and Albania in January, well outside of the window of opportunity to change the UN record, it may have been influenced by the
impact of political changes in the US.

The negotiations will take place at UN headquarters in New York from 27 to 31 March and from 15 June to 7 July 2017, with the participation of governments, international organizations and civil society representatives.

The UN is also holding a one-day organisational session also in New York, on 16 February. All states should attend – even if they remain undecided on whether to join the negotiations. ICAN encourage campaigners to participate however they can in their own countries as well as through
representation, and to urge all governments to work in good faith to achieve the strongest possible treaty.

The week of 10 to 17 February 2017 is designated as a global week of action to raise public awareness of the upcoming nuclear ban treaty negotiations and to pressure governments to commit to participating and to work towards a strong and effective treaty.