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The UN Vote on a Nuclear Weapons Ban: A Moment of Truth?

On 27 October 2016, the First Committee of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution deciding to start the negotiation of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in March 2017. An overwhelming majority of states (123) voted in favour (including North Korea) while 38 voted against and 16 abstained. Unsurprisingly, most of the nuclear-armed states either opposed the resolution (France, Israel, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) or abstained (China, India, Pakistan). All ‘umbrella’ states (except the Netherlands) also voted against, including traditional champions of nuclear disarmament such as Australia or Japan.

This achievement is the result of a long campaign initiated by civil society organisations and initially supported by a handful of governments. It capitalised on the momentum generated by a series of international conferences on the potential catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons (at Oslo in 2013, Nayarit, and Vienna in 2014). It followed the meetings of an Open-Ended Working Group convened by the UN General Assembly in Geneva in 2013 and 2016, where the nuclear weapons ban was discussed among many other measures to take nuclear disarmament forward. The main motivation of the proponents of the prohibition was that, because any nuclear weapon detonation (including accidental or terrorist) would cause mass casualties among civilian populations, it would thus violate international humanitarian law. Such weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should therefore be banned for the same reason biological and chemical weapons as well as some conventional weapons (antipersonnel landmines or cluster munitions) had been banned. This is why a nuclear weapons ban was supported by such legal or moral authorities as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Catholic Pope and many Nobel Prize laureates.

This whole process was boycotted by the nuclear-armed states, which resorted to several arguments: only a ‘step-by-step’ approach within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was realistic, including the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons (FMCT), or further bilateral reductions between the US and Russia. The nuclear weapons ban would be a distraction from that framework, it would destabilise the states and alliances whose security still relied on nuclear deterrence, and it would not result in any measure of verifiable nuclear disarmament.

If such a large number of states eventually rejected such arguments, it is mostly because of their frustration from the paralysis of the so-called ‘step-by-step’ approach: the 1996 CTBT is still not signed or ratified by some of the nuclear-armed states; the FMCT is blocked by others and anyway would have no impact on the current nuclear weapon stockpiles; instead of reducing their arsenals, nuclear-armed states invest huge sums in their long-term modernization. It has become more and more difficult to have confidence in the affirmation by the nuclear-armed states that they are committed “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons” (UN Security Council resolution 1887) or “to negotiate in good faith effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” (article VI, NPT).

Will the resolution have a real effect on the process of nuclear disarmament? Of course, it is premature to prejudge the outcome of the negotiation of a treaty, which should be completed in July 2017. It is unlikely that nuclear-armed states will participate in the talks and sign the treaty at least initially. However, as previous arms control and disarmament treaties have shown, once an international norm is established and widely supported, it can act as a powerful incentive or create a taboo: no state, even not party to the Biological Weapons Convention, today claims possession of that weapon; the world market for antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions has dramatically shrunk —hence a much lower number of victims— thanks to the Ottawa Treaty and the Oslo Convention even if they are not universal.

The main advantage of a nuclear weapons ban will be to delegitimize nuclear weapons, and this is the principal reason why nuclear-armed states are so reluctant to accept it. The states possessing such weapons will no longer be comfortable in continuing to assert at the same time that they seek a world without nuclear weapons, that such weapons are illegal for non-nuclear-weapon states, that testing such weapons or producing fissile material for them should be illegal, but that their own security relies on indefinite possession of such weapons. In other words, the moment of truth is near.

After all, since the nuclear-armed states and those enjoying a nuclear umbrella are so keen on a ‘step-by-step’ approach, a nuclear weapons ban can perfectly fit within that definition. It will not solve all the issues related to nuclear disarmament (such as verification, or the linkages with other issues like anti-ballistic missile defence, space-based assets, or new generation conventional weapons). But it should offer a new paradigm and a framework to boost bilateral and multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Actual elimination of nuclear weapons will take time (“perhaps not in my lifetime” said President Obama in 2009). It was the same for chemical weapons: initially their total destruction was planned for 2007, then postponed to 2012 and now to 2017, some 20 year after the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention. But at least, such weapons are considered illegal, and the taboo of their use remains strong despite recent violations in Syria and Sudan.

Eventually, covering all categories of WMD and some conventional weapons, the humanitarian paradigm will have gained recognition as a powerful drive to protect civilian populations from the scourge of conflict.


Mr Marc Finaud is a GCSP Senior Programme Advisor in the Emerging Security Challenges Programme. The views expressed in this editorial are those of the author, as the GCSP takes no institutional position.