Ray Acheson, Beatrice Fihn, and Katherine Harrison*

“Nayarit is a point of no return,” concluded the Chair of the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held from 13–14 February in Nayarit, Mexico. In his summary of the meeting, he called for the development of new international standards on nuclear weapons, including a legally-binding instrument. The time has come, he argued, for a diplomatic process to reach this goal, within a specified timeframe. He called for this process to conclude by the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This summary, coupled with the announcement by the Austrian government before the conference that it will host the next meeting in the humanitarian initiative, marks a turning point in the process to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons. During the conference itself, the vast majority of the 146 governments present demanded concrete political and legal action against nuclear weapons, with more than ever before calling specifically for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

As with Oslo before it, the conference in Nayarit exposed nuclear weapons as dangerous and destructive. The evidence presented by UN agencies, academics, former military officials, and civil society organizations clearly revealed that the continued possession and deployment of nuclear weapons is a reckless and unsanctionable gamble with the future of humanity and the planet.

The expert panelists presented information and analysis on the likely impact of a nuclear weapons detonation on economic and social infrastructure, public health, the climate, agriculture, and more. They also assessed the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, either by accident or design. The conclusion of these panels was overwhelmingly clear: the immediate and long-term effects of even a single nuclear weapon detonation, let alone a nuclear exchange, would be catastrophic.

The evidence presented also demonstrated that the mere existence of nuclear weapons generates great risk. Some of the studies presented at the conference explored numerous instances where the incidence of an accidental nuclear detonation has hung on a razor’s edge. Such accidents are only made possible, however, because the military doctrines of the nuclear-armed states and some of their allies require preparations for the deliberate use of nuclear weapons—in many cases within minutes of an order being given.

Yet some of these countries continue to believe that nuclear weapons bring them security and stability. Despite the evidence about the horror, instability, and injustice generated by nuclear weapons, a handful of nuclear-dependent states such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, and Turkey spoke with trepidation about any new initiatives to confront the challenges posed by nuclear weapons. Signaling once again their inclination to stand outside the growing norm in favor of taking concrete action even without the nuclear-armed states, they argued that “simply banning” nuclear weapons will not guarantee their elimination. They also argued that such initiatives were more likely to “antagonize” the nuclear-armed states than to bring them into a multilateral process.

Yet the path they prefer—pressing for implementation of the NPT action plan, continuing to promote the “step by step” approach to nuclear disarmament, and insisting on the participation of nuclear-armed states—also does not guarantee the elimination of nuclear weapons. In fact it has failed to achieve this goal. Incremental steps that have been agreed to over the past twenty years have not been implemented and the actions of some nuclear-armed states have actually resulted in steps backwards. Under prevailing domestic and international political circumstances, the nuclear-armed states are unlikely to support any serious efforts towards the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

This is why more governments than ever have expressed interest in trying something new. Rather than repeating the same approach to try to force a grand, comprehensive step-by-step solution, nuclear weapon-free states are calling for a new approach. The call for a ban on nuclear weapons overcomes the dilemma posed by placing the onus on the nuclear-armed states to lead a process for nuclear disarmament. Emboldened by the discourse on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which not only allows but even demands the participation of all countries in the world, these countries are indicating a growing willingness to take action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

“It seems clear to us that inevitable and unavoidable policy implications arise from what we now know about the extent of the risks involved,” argued the Irish delegation. In this vein, most governments taking the floor during the conference argued that it now time to examine ways forward that, as New Zealand’s representative said, do not simply rely on implementation of the NPT or a hope of compliance with international humanitarian law.

For at least 20 governments participating in the conference, the way forward is a ban on nuclear weapons. And despite the concerns of some of the nuclear-dependent governments, a treaty banning nuclear weapons should not be seen as antagonistic towards nuclear-armed states. It would constitute a coherent approach to setting the conditions and framework for nuclear disarmament and overcoming some of the inertia undermining the elimination of nuclear weapons.

History shows that legal prohibitions of weapon systems—their possession as well as their use—facilitate their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and, along with it, the money and resources for their production and modernization. Banning nuclear weapons also addresses the anomaly that nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not subject to an explicit legal prohibition.

The Thai representative described the Mexico conference as a call to action to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. From civil society’s perspective, the conferences in Oslo and Mexico have created our best opportunity to start the process to achieve this world. States must embrace this opportunity when they meet in Vienna later this year.

We face a daily risk that a nuclear weapon will be detonated, either by accident, miscalculation, or design. Thus the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is an imperative that should be approached with the utmost urgency. The momentum created this week by the Austrian government’s announcement and the Mexican government’s conference summary must be carried forward with conviction and courage.

*This report was written by Ray Acheson and Beatrice Fihn of Reaching Critical Will/WILPF and Katherine Harrison of Norwegian People’s Aid. Both organisations are partners of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Reaching Critical Will thanks NPA for their assistance with notetaking and preparation of this report.