United Nations Bans the Bomb

At nearly the eleventh hour – 10:47:53 A.M. – on Friday 7 July,  122 states, two thirds of the UN General Assembly, voted to adopt a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a dramatic step which may prove instrumental in determining the fate of the planet.

The Netherlands, the sole NATO state to participate, was the only ‘No,’ while Singapore, with close ties to the US and UK, abstained. None of the ‘nuclear nine’ – the US, UK, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan or North Korea – took part, a boycott backed by America’s ‘nuclear umbrella’ allies in NATO and elsewhere (South Korea, Australia and Japan).

Vote record, draft treaty on prohibition of nuclear weapons. (Source: United Nations)

Source: United Nations


Great Divide

The Treaty thus graphically illustrates the divide between a non-nuclear-armed majority, viewing the issue as one of overriding human concern – a question of moral integrity and global survival – and a nuclear-armed or -allied minority, including self-proclaimed champions of multilateralism like Canada, clinging to the claims of national security and state sovereignty.

For over 70 years, the UN has been urging the steadily growing ‘nuclear club’ to Ban the Bomb: the goal, as the Treaty’s Preamble notes, of the very first UN resolution in January 1946. For nearly 50 years, it has been waiting for its most privileged, powerful and militarized members – the five permanent members (P-5) of the Security Council – to honor their commitment under the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate “in good faith” not just the reduction but the elimination of their arsenals. But in recent years, at the prompting of global civil society and humanitarian organizations led by the International Committee of the Red Cross, its patience has finally run out.


‘A good one’

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, spoke at the April 27 conference at Capitol Visitor Center, Toward a Fundamental Change in Nuclear Weapons Policy, cosponsored by PSR Photo by: Chuck Gomez

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will. (Photo by: Chuck Gomez)

Before we consider which side (and vision of the future) will prevail, the basic provisions of the Treaty deserve close attention. The chances of the Ban achieving ever-wider support depend, in large part, on how credibly it meets the formidable challenges of codifying, guiding, verifying and sustaining a process of radical disarmament leading one day to ‘Global Zero.’ And the good news, to quote Ray Acheson, the brilliant young Canadian woman at the forefront of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), is that the Treaty agreed last week is “a good one,” a “progressive, sound, legally-binding prohibition of these genocidal, suicidal weapons of mass destruction”.

It’s certainly comprehensive, banning the development, testing, manufacture, possession, transfer, receipt, use or threat of use of any nuclear weapon “or other nuclear explosive devices” (such as a radiological ‘dirty bomb’). Member states are also prohibited from hosting nuclear weapons on their territory (as Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey currently do) or from assisting “in any way, anyone to engage in any [prohibited] activity,” a sweeping injunction precluding membership of either informal ‘umbrella’ arrangements or NATO, the world’s only formal nuclear-armed alliance, whose members routinely meet to plan and review ‘flexible’ nuclear war-fighting options.

The Treaty offers nuclear-armed states two paths to membership: ‘destroy and join,’ triggering accession once complete disarmament (carefully defined to include dismantlement of production facilities and related infrastructure) has been dependably verified; and ‘join and destroy,’ when accession triggers, within two years, a process of similarly rigorous, irreversible disarmament. At one point in the talks, the ‘join and destroy’ language was sufficiently vague to allow a nuclear-armed state to ‘join and delay’ – to present a plan without targets and timelines – but that loophole seems now to be closed.

Other provisions reflect the humanitarian basis of, and impulse behind, the Treaty. Article 6 deals with ‘victim assistance and environmental remediation,’ obliging states to provide “age- and gender-sensitive assistance, without discrimination,” to “individuals under its jurisdiction…affected by the use and testing of nuclear weapons.” Article 7,  ‘international cooperation and assistance,’ obliges wealthier states to provide financial and other assistance to those, often poorer, states affected the most by such nuclear violence.


Unlimited duration

Ambasssador Elayne Whyte Gómez, Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG) and President of the Conference, addresses the first meeting of the 2nd session. (Source: United Nations)

Ambasssador Elayne Whyte Gómez, Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG) and President of the Conference. (Source: United Nations)

The Treaty will be opened for signature at the UN on 20 September 2017, and enter into force 90 days after the 50th ratification (confidently expected within two years). It “shall be of unlimited duration,” with withdrawal only permissible 12 months after a state declares “extraordinary events” have jeopardized” its “supreme interests.” This last clause was controversial. Some states worried it implied the acceptability, in extremis, of using or threatening to use nuclear weapons in national self-defense, a claim refuted by the spirit and substance of the rest if the treaty; others argued a right to withdraw is both legally customary and necessary to reassure nuclear-armed states and their allies they could respond to any ‘break-out’ or cheating.

These impressive ‘operative clauses’ stand on the solid foundation of a Preamble stressing the need to think in a human-, not state-centric, way about the nuclear threat: “the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons,” reads preambular paragraph 4, “cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders” and “pose grave implications for human survival, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations,” with a “disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation.” The gender dimension of the issue was further stressed in a paragraph “recognizing that the equal, full and effective participation of both women and men is an essential factor for the promotion and attainment of sustainable peace and security.”

Reflecting this emphasis, the talks were ably chaired by Ambassador Elaine Whyte Gomez of Costa Rica (a nation without armed forces since 1948). Female diplomats from every region played an unprecedentedly prominent role in the process, which also broke ground in its systematic inclusion of the survivors of both the atomic bombing of Japan (the ‘hibakusha’) and the (often indigenous) victims of testing and production.


Source: United Nations


Fostering peace

The Treaty further requires members to actively encourage anti-Ban countries to join; to work to promote the Treaty at home and abroad; and to foster and fund peace and disarmament education, “raising awareness of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons for current and future generations.”

Just how difficult the task of persuasion will be was made clear by the US, UK and France in a brutally blunt statement on July 7 noting “we do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become a party” to the treaty. As such a ban is the stated objective of both numerous UN resolutions and the NPT, the vow to never join is extraordinary. Indeed, the statement goes on to claim, correctly, that accession would be “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence” and that it “disrespects the realities of the international security environment,” which suggests that if those realities were to change, a time might come when accession would be both feasible and desirable.

The question at the heart of the Treaty, though, is what and whose realities matter most?  As Ray Acheson wrote on the morning of its adoption, for many years such questions have “been drained of their stark vibrancy, black and white muddled to grey. This was deliberate. Concepts like nuclear deterrence replaced the horrors of burning flesh, flattened buildings, and generations of cancers.”

And Acheson deserves the last word: “The ban treaty brings everything back into focus. What kind of world do we want to live in?”


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.





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