Why the new UN nuclear weapons ban is important, including for social, health & environmental policy

An historic move for peace and disarmament took place earlier this month – to little fanfare, particularly in Australia which boycotted the process.

In the article below, Associate Professor Tilman Ruff, the founding chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), outlines what the treaty is and how it came about. A followup article will discuss how it can best be used.

The treaty and how it was delivered intersects with global social, health and environmental policy and advocacy, beyond seeking to address the acute existential threat of nuclear weapons to humanity.

For the first time in such an agreement, it recognises the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on women and girls, and on Indigenous peoples. And it calls on states to assist those affected by nuclear weapons use or testing, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as providing for their social and economic inclusion.

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Tilman Ruff writes:

What treaty?

You could be forgiven for not having heard much about it, but a big and important thing happened in New York on 7 July. In Conference Room 1 at the United Nations, at 10:47 am, representatives of 122 governments voted to adopt the text of a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

There was only one state which voted against the treaty, the Netherlands, hosting US nuclear weapons on its soil and member of NATO, unreformed and unrepentant, but there because of the weight of public and parliamentary pressure. There was only one abstention, by Singapore, unexpected and apparently as a result of last-minute instructions from the capital, most likely as a result of US pressure. Regrettably, this was the first time that regional solidarity among the 10 states of ASEAN was broken during these negotiations and the lead-up to them. 

A number of other states, particularly smaller and poorer countries more vulnerable to political and economic pressure from nuclear-armed bullies, simply stayed away or did not vote. This pressure, particularly from the US, France and Russia, escalated dramatically during the last week of the conference when it became clear that the adoption of a treaty was in sight.

The forthright ambassador of South Africa was the only one to publicly call out the “incredible pressure” brought to bear on African states in an attempt to discourage them from supporting the treaty.

A global shift

Nevertheless, the outcome could hardly have been more decisive, and the world is changed. Indeed as delegates began filling the conference room earlier and in larger numbers than at any other time during the negotiations, it was clear that the nuclear bullies had failed to derail this historic effort and that the treaty text would be agreed.

And just as well, because the General Assembly mandate for these negotiations ended on 7 July, so if agreement had not been possible to reach, it would have been an even longer and harder road to ban nuclear weapons than the current 71 year one since the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly, on 24 Jan 1946, called for the “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons”. There was in fact an extraordinary degree of determination and goodwill in the room to get the job done, and a willingness to put aside national differences that is unprecedented in my 35 year experience of following these issues closely.

Finally, nuclear weapons are prohibited, filling a gaping wound in international law, which has seen the last and worst weapon of mass destruction, the only ones posing an acute existential threat to all humanity and to the biosphere that is our only home, as the only major class of indiscriminate and inhumane weapon not specifically prohibited by an international treaty. States that continue to possess nuclear weapons and claim some special right to wield these global suicide bombs are now pariahs: international outlaws.

One reason you may not have heard much about this landmark treaty to date is that the treaty negotiations were boycotted by the nine nuclear armed states, and the other states who fuel nuclear proliferation and obstruct nuclear disarmament by claiming that there are some circumstances in which they would want US nuclear weapons to be launched on their behalf. These are the 28 member states of NATO, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

How did the treaty come about?

 The negotiating conference was convened “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” All UN member states were able to and encouraged to participate. There were three main sets of factors that led to this mandate.

The first is the longest unfinished business of the UN to eliminate nuclear weapons being unacceptably delayed by all the nine nuclear-armed states failing over decades to fulfil their legally binding obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Worse, all of them are doing the opposite – massively investing for the indefinite future in extensive refurbishment and renewal of their nuclear arsenals. The rest of the world, who almost without exception understand the gravity of the threat to all humanity posed by the nuclear sword of Damocles wielded by a few, have grown increasingly frustrated and impatient with discussions about nuclear weapons being dictated by the states wielding the weapons and with waiting for what meagre crumbs might fall from the nuclear disarmament table.

Secondly, in contrast to the paralysis in nuclear disarmament, there has been substantial progress in the prohibition and progressive elimination of the other major kinds of indiscriminate and inhumane weapons – biological and toxin weapons, chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions.

In each case, the experience has been consistent. The first crucial step has been codifying in law that the relevant weapon has intrinsically unacceptable effects, should never be used under any circumstances and must be eliminated – as former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “There are no right hands for the wrong weapons”. These prohibitions have provided the basis and motivation for elimination regimes.

Thirdly, the last seven years have seen a growing humanitarian initiative regarding nuclear weapons. Renewed political space was created by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn in 2007; and then by President Barack Obama, for the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Just prior to the 2010 Review Conference of the non-proliferation treaty, Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, articulated with renewed vigour and priority that, for the world's largest humanitarian organisation, prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons is an urgent humanitarian imperative. This resulted in the recognition by the RevCon of the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons”.

 On the back of this recognition, Norway, Mexico and Austria in 2013-4 organised the first ever intergovernmental conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The conclusions of these evidence-based conferences drove a growing movement of the vast majority of states through NPT and UN forums, and the Humanitarian Pledge initiated by Austria, for a humanitarian imperative to fill the existing legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

A UN Working Group on nuclear disarmament recommended to the 2016 UN General Assembly (UNGA) that a treaty prohibiting and providing for the elimination of nuclear weapons was the next best step that the world could now take. This led to the mandate for the ban treaty negotiations being supported by over 120 states at the UNGA in late 2016. Throughout these processes, and a new broad civil society campaign coalition, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) became the principal civil society partner for governments serious about disarmament. ICAN was founded by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and launched in Melbourne in 2007 by IPPNW’s Australian affiliate, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War.

What’s in the treaty?

Drawing on other disarmament treaties, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a categorical and comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons and any activities supporting their possession, deployment and possible use. Its preamble articulates deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences from any use of nuclear weapons, the consequent need to eliminate them completely, and that they should never be used again under any circumstances.

It notes that the risks posed by nuclear weapons threaten the security of all humanity and that therefore all states share the responsibility to prevent any use. It recognises that the consequences of nuclear weapons use cannot be adequately addressed, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socio-economic development, food security and the health of current and future generations.

For the first time in a nuclear disarmament instrument, tribute is paid to hibakusha (nuclear survivors), and it recognises the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on women and girls, and on Indigenous peoples, including of course the Aboriginal people subjected to British nuclear tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in the 1950s.

The treaty commits each State party never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise aquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons. It also prohibits the transfer, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons; and to assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any prohibited activity.

The treaty is carefully crafted to enable states that own nuclear weapons, owned them previously, or have them stationed on their territory, to accede to the treaty. It requires that nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons programs and facilities be eliminated under verifiable, irreversible and time-bound plans to be agreed with states parties.

The details of these elimination regimes clearly require the participation of the states that possess the weapons, but the treaty provides a clear framework and non-discriminatory principles for these regimes. It provides for the possibility of additional protocols to the treaty being developed.  The treaty also provides for safeguards standards consistent with obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and that these may change – hopefully strengthen - in the future.

No state can reasonably argue that this treaty in any way undermines or contradicts the NPT, or that it could not join this treaty. Indeed these provisions to allow for the future joining of the treaty by states not in the negotiating room and with no current desire to do so was the most difficult part of the negotiations, reflecting the seriousness of the desire to craft not only a prohibition instrument, but one that provides for the elimination of nuclear weapons, as required by the conference’s negotiating mandate.

Humanitarian and human rights norms

One important aspect of the treaty is that it builds on the humanitarian and human rights based norms powerfully developed in the landmine and cluster munitions treaties, providing for needs-based assistance to victims and feasible clean-up of contaminated environments as core obligations for states joining the treaty.

This is the first treaty related to nuclear weapons which addresses these matters. It calls on states to provide assistance to people affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, without discrimination, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as providing for their social and economic inclusion.

The treaty also enshrines an obligation for states to take necessary and appropriate measures towards environmental remediation of areas contaminated by nuclear weapon use or testing. Clearly much of the harm caused by nuclear weapons cannot be undone in the way traumatic injuries may be able to be treated, and that discrete munitions can be removed, but these provisions should help ensure that the ongoing needs of survivors and for environmental monitoring and where possible clean-up are not forgotten.

States in a position to assist in these tasks are obliged to do so; and the responsibility of states that have used or tested nuclear weapons draws specific mention.

States parties will meet at least every two years to review and promote the implementation of the treaty. It will be possible for a two thirds majority of states parties to agree on amendments to the treaty. The treaty will be of unlimited duration, and its provisions must be accepted in toto by states joining; reservations by which states may specify particular provisions of the treaty they do not accept, will not be possible.

What happens next?

The treaty will open for signature on 20 September 2017, during the opening week of this year's UN General Assembly session. It will enter into force 90 days after 50 governments have ratified it.

Given that the mandate for the negotiating conference and the conference’s adoption of the treaty text were both supported by over 120 states, it can be expected that more than 100 states will sign the treaty before the end of this year, and that it will enter into force by the middle of next year.

The next article will consider how this historic treaty can be best utilised by governments, parliamentarians and civil society in Australia and elsewhere to advance the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Associate Professor Tilman Ruff AM is a co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and founding international and Australian chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).