On July 7, 2017, at a UN Conference mandated by the UN General Assembly to negotiate a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, the only weapons of mass destruction yet to be banned, 122 nations completed the job after three weeks, accompanied by a celebratory outburst of cheers, tears, and applause among hundreds of activists, government delegates, and experts, as well as survivors of the lethal nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and witnesses to the devastating, toxic nuclear-test explosions in the Pacific. The new treaty outlaws any prohibited activities related to nuclear weapons, including use, threat to use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquiring, possession, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, stationing, installation, and deployment of nuclear weapons. It also bans states from lending assistance, which includes such prohibited acts as financing for their development and manufacture, engaging in military preparations and planning, and permitting the transit of nuclear weapons through territorial water or airspace.
We are witnessing a striking shift in the global paradigm of how the world views nuclear weapons, bringing us to this glorious moment. The change has transformed public conversation about nuclear weapons, from the same old, same old talk about national “security” and its reliance on “nuclear deterrence” to the widely publicized evidence of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from their use. A series of compelling presentations of the devastating effects of nuclear catastrophe, organized by enlightened governments and civil society’s International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, was inspired by a stunning statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross addressing the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.
At meetings hosted by Norway, Mexico, and Austria, overwhelming evidence demonstrated the disastrous devastation threatening humanity from nuclear weapons—their mining, milling, production, testing, and use—whether deliberately or by accident or negligence. This new knowledge, exposing the terrifying havoc that would be inflicted on our planet, gave impetus for this moment when governments and civil society fulfilled a negotiating mandate for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.
Perhaps the most significant addition to the treaty, after a draft treaty from an earlier week of talks in March was submitted to the states by the expert and determined president of the conference, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica, was amending the prohibition not to use nuclear weapons by adding the words “or threaten to use,” driving a stake through the heart of the beloved “deterrence” doctrine of the nuclear-weapons states, which are holding the whole world hostage to their perceived “security” needs, threatening the earth with nuclear annihilation in their MAD scheme for “Mutually Assured Destruction.” The ban also creates a path for nuclear states to join the treaty, requiring verifiable, time-bound, transparent elimination of all nuclear-weapons programs or irreversible conversion of all nuclear-weapons related facilities.
The negotiations were boycotted by all nine nuclear-weapons states and US allies under its nuclear “umbrella” in NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The Netherlands was the only NATO member present, its parliament having required its attendance in response to public pressure, and was the only “no” vote against the treaty. Last summer, after a UN Working Group recommended that the General Assembly resolve to establish the ban-treaty negotiations, the United States pressured its NATO allies, arguing that “the effects of a ban could be wide-ranging and degrade enduring security relationships.” Upon the adoption of the ban treaty, the United States, United Kingdom, and France issued a statement that “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it” as it “does not address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary” and will create “even more divisions at a time…of growing threats, including those from the DPRK’s ongoing proliferation efforts.” Ironically, North Korea was the only nuclear power to vote for the ban treaty, last October, when the UN’s First Committee for Disarmament forwarded a resolution for ban-treaty negotiations to the General Assembly.