Last week (March 27-31) the UN General Assembly held the opening session of a ground-breaking conference “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination” just as the world has already done to ban biological and chemical weapons as well as landmines and cluster bombs.
The historic conference began with a bizarre Trumpian boycott on its first day, when Nikki Haley, Trump’s newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the UN , flanked by the ambassadors from the UK and France stationed in front of the closed doors to the UN General Assembly, where 132 nations were about to start negotiations, staged a press event, with no questions permitted.
She announced that “as a mother” who couldn’t want more for her family “than a world without nuclear weapons” she had to “be realistic” and would boycott the meeting and oppose efforts to ban the bomb.
Some 20 other nations’ representatives milled around in the hall behind her, primarily members of NATO in alliance with the US for its nuclear “protection” services. The Netherlands, which actually hosts U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil under NATO’s nuclear sharing policy, was the only member of the U.S. nuclear alliance in attendance.
When it did take the floor however, it noted that despite its support for nuclear disarmament, it couldn’t support a treaty that would prohibit nuclear weapons because that would violate NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy in which the U.S. promises to visit deadly nuclear annihilation upon any nation which dares to threaten them with a nuclear attack.
And most shockingly, Japan, the only country in the world to have actually suffered the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war with over 210,000 people killed in the terror of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, came to the conference on the first day to announce that a ban treaty would undermine the existing disarmament machinery and deepen “the schism” between the nuclear have and nuclear have-not states and thus it would not participate!
Significantly, at the historic UN vote last fall, which established the current negotiating mandate to ban nuclear weapons as a result of three conferences between 2013 and 2014 in Norway, Mexico, and Austria to address the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, all the nuclear powers were in attendance. And while the western nuclear weapon states, including the U.S., Russia, UK, France, and Israel voted against the ban treaty negotiations, the Asian nations – China, India, and Pakistan actually abstained on the vote while North Korea voted for the ban treaty! The Netherlands was the only U.S. nuclear NATO ally to abstain.
The other allies in NATO as well as Australia, Japan, and South Korea voted not to negotiate. It was hoped there might be emerging Asian leadership for nuclear disarmament based on their votes – an Asian pivot to ban the bomb. But it would seem that the current instability brought on by the disheartening U.S. election of Trump, with his outrageous foreign policy and nuclear speculations tweeted out regularly to the dismay of the world, has probably given pause to any initiatives for new Asian leadership for nuclear disarmament at these opening negotiations which they all failed to attend.
Nevertheless, the talks by the rest of the world this week (March 27-31) have been moving forward at an astonishing pace, aimed at producing a treaty which would close the legal gap to eliminate nuclear weapons created by the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty which provides only that the five nuclear weapons states recognized in the treaty would make “good faith efforts” to eliminate their nuclear weapons.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice ruled that while the NPT required the nations to bring to a conclusion negotiations for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, it was unable to decide whether nuclear weapons were illegal in the “circumstances of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake“, thus failing to hold that the doctrine of nuclear deterrence was illegal.
Nuclear weapons are predominantly viewed to date through this lens of the security needs of the nuclear weapons states and the doctrine of nuclear deterrence which holds the whole world hostage to devastating destruction, which could actually end all life on earth should catastrophic nuclear war occur, by design, or even more likely, by accident, in light of the many close calls that have been endured over the years.
This conversation is changing as the lethal weapons are increasingly viewed and discussed as an issue of urgent humanitarian concern, in no small part due to the humanitarian initiative launched by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2010 that has gathered enormous momentum in the past seven years.
Indeed Pope Francis once again restated his plea to the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Catastrophic Humanitarian Effects of Nuclear War when he called for the elimination of nuclear weapons and an end to the theory of deterrence, a position which the church had supported up to that time. And we heard heart-wrenching testimony from survivors of Hiroshima and of the Australian nuclear tests performed by the UK on aboriginal land.
Under the able Presidency of Ambassador Elayne Whyte of Costa Rica, the interaction between civil society’s activists and academics with governments, assisted by the vibrant leadership of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, is setting a new model of genuine collaboration and mutual education.
There is a genuine give and take between the governments and the people as they explore the elements of the treaty which may well have a profound effect on the future environment at UN disarmament negotiations where citizens are often shut out of meetings while governments discuss critical issues behind closed doors.
There was general agreement in many of the discussions, organized in three parts after the initial high-level statements by governments presenting their views on what the ban treaty should provide, followed by discussions on principles and objectives and preambular elements, prohibitions and positive obligations, and institutional arrangements.
The ban treaty was viewed by all as the first step in a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons by first establishing a norm that these weapons of unimaginable devastating lethality are illegal and should be prohibited. Ambassador Whyte will prepare a draft treaty based on the five days of discussions and the parties will meet again from June 26 to July 7, to produce a treaty to finally ban the bomb.