At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), nuclear disarmament resolutions passed this week by large majorities in the First Committee show continued and growing support for disarmament measures “in a new key.”

These measures have arisen under the banner of what is being called the “Humanitarian Initiative,” a movement of states and NGOs which fundamentally re-frames nuclear debates in terms of the laws of war and the moral considerations that give rise to them, as exemplified in the Humanitarian Pledge unveiled by Austria in December at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and (so far) formally endorsed by 121 foreign ministries.

This same pledge, submitted as a resolution this week in the UNGA First Committee by 43 states, garnered 128 votes out of 157 votes cast (77%).

These new disarmament efforts are being led by non-nuclear weapon states, not nuclear weapon states. This is causing considerable consternation in the latter – and, on the record at least, to some of their allies (as Australian documents obtained under public records laws show).

The flavor of this new movement can be found, for example, in a South Africa-led resolution sponsored by 18 states, which passed this week by a vote of 124 to 35, with 15 abstentions. It states that “given the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it is inconceivable that any use of nuclear weapons, irrespective of the cause, would be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law or international law, or the laws of morality, or the dictates of public conscience.”[1] (emphasis added)

The resolution further states that “given their indiscriminate nature and potential to annihilate humanity, nuclear weapons are inherently immoral,” and “[s]tresses that all States share an ethical responsibility to act with urgency and determination, with the support of all relevant stakeholders, to take the effective measures, including legally binding measures, necessary to eliminate and prohibit all nuclear weapons, given their catastrophic humanitarian consequences and associated risks.” (emphasis added)

This language and intent are much the same as the Humanitarian Pledge’s promise to “stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate” nuclear weapons. It is not the language of arms control and deterrence.

One of the most contested measures this past week was introduced by Mexico and supported by a total of 23 sponsors, to establish an “open-ended working group” (OEWG) for up to 3 weeks in Geneva next year, to “substantively address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms that will be need to be concluded to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”  This OEWG would report to the UNGA and would operate according to its rules, i.e. without the consensus requirements that have paralyzed, for decades, the review conferences of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Conference on Disarmament (CD), and the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC). (For more on this see “Who’s afraid of an open-ended working group?” by Ray Acheson of RCW and this organization, and Thomas Nash of Article 36).

A competing measure introduced by Iran (and supported by the U.S.), would have created a brand-new three-year OEWG — but sterilized at the outset with a consensus requirement.  It would thus create a multi-year “black hole” for nuclear disarmament diplomacy. In the end, this proposal failed to garner support and was finally withdrawn, presumably to avoid further embarrassment.

Despite heavy lobbying from the nuclear weapon states, the far more promising Mexican proposal passed by a vote of 135 to 12, with 33 abstentions.

Meanwhile Australia, speaking on behalf of 26 countries involved in nuclear alliances (either as part of NATO, or with the U.S), plus one NATO “wannabe” (Georgia), offered this negative statement prior to the voting on these proposals.[2]

This Committee is about to take action on a group of draft resolutions addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons….we would like to register our collective regret that the draft resolutions now before the Committee … are contributing to increasing international divisions with regard to nuclear disarmament, including by seeking to marginalise and de-legitimise certain policy perspectives and positions….we believe that these resolutions, both in their content and how they were managed, do not bring us closer to [disarmament] goals.

When the voting was done Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN, summarized all the outcomes in an email to ICAN’s 424 partner organizations in 95 countries:

The humanitarian initiative, the humanitarian pledge and the movement to ban nuclear weapons is continuing to move forwards strongly, no matter what the nuclear armed states come up with. The support for starting negotiations of a ban on nuclear weapons is stronger than ever and that’s much thanks to the hard work done by ICAN’s partner organisations all over the world.

The Study Group’s Greg Mello: “The manifest, long-running failure of nuclear weapon states to fulfill their disarmament promises has created a leadership gap, which non-nuclear weapon states have begun to fill. The results from these UN deliberations show that this new ferment is very much continuing, despite heavy opposition from nuclear weapon states and their allies.

“The contrast between the ‘national security’ and ‘nuclear deterrence’ narrative promoted by Washington (and repeated without question by U.S. news media and politicians), versus the ‘humanitarian law’ and ‘basic morality’ frame of reference now embraced by a majority of countries, could not be starker. But will the new disarmament leaders actually produce any kind of draft treaty stigmatizing and prohibiting the development, possession, transfer, and use of nuclear weapons any time soon? That is the trillion-dollar question. We very much hope so.

“Such a treaty would be voluntary and non-coercive, yet ever more normative as more countries joined.  It would grow in importance only in the most democratic manner, with the accession of additional states.  It would affect nuclear arsenals in an entirely indirect and therefore flexible manner, and only according to the evolving and unique security circumstances of each state. It would not conflict with any existing disarmament or nonproliferation agreement, or with any future disarmament treaty, but rather would support them all. The case for such a simple, totally flexible, and yet powerful treaty is to our eyes unassailable.

“If, as some states say, a nuclear weapons ban treaty would be ineffective, why then do nuclear weapons states and their allies oppose this process so vehemently? Why not welcome it? Or if, as their behavior seems to suggest, a ban treaty really would be an effective disarmament measure — legally required under the NPT — what are we waiting for?”