Nuclear buildup and threat of nuclear war became a front-page item this past week, after Kim Jong Un’s declaration of a successful intercontinental ballistic missile test, confirmed on July 4 by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Such headlines — proclaimed on America’s Independence Day — remind the public of the ever-present specter of nuclear destruction. But the public remains largely unaware that a new legally binding treaty prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons was adopted by more than half of United Nations member countries on July 7, days after the North Korea launching.
The treaty was approved in a UN chamber in New York by 122 yes votes; no, from Netherlands; and one abstention, Singapore. At first, the treaty’s adoption was announced by consensus, but the Netherlands, an accredited member of the conference to negotiate the treaty, asked for a formal poll so that it could declare its no vote.
“The world has been waiting for this legal norm for 70 years,” since the use of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 at the end of World War II, said Elayne Whyte Gómez, a Costa Rican diplomat who led the treaty discussions. She called it “the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be concluded in more than 20 years.”
The world’s nine nuclear-weapons possessing countries boycotted negotiations on the treaty, even though the treaty enables them to join at any point.
A July 7 statement from Britain, France and the United States released after the treaty’s adoption clarified their position, saying: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons.”
Whyte, when asked by reporters about the statement, said: “Of course, if we only consider the current international situation whether to act or not to act, you can always choose not to act but then you have to take responsibility for your action and your inaction.”
The Netherlands’ position was explained after the vote, noting among other qualifications, that the country could not sign “any instrument that is incompatible with our NATO obligations, that contains inadequate verification provisions or that undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
The new treaty will be open for signature on Sept. 20 at the UN and will enter into force 90 days after 50 nations have formally ratified or acceded to it.
The disconnect between support of the treaty by 122 countries and lack of support by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — couldn’t have been more jarring in a week of active nuclear threats coming from Asia.
None of the permanent-five members mentioned the new treaty in their remarks to the media on July 5, as they reacted to North Korea’s latest move. Nor did UN Secretary-General António Guterres publicly remark on the relevance of the new nuclear weapons treaty amid the North Korean menace early in the week.
The most Guterres said, through a statement, was “we want to acknowledge the overwhelming support” of the nuclear ban treaty. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs representative, Izumi Nakamitsu, attended talks leading to the treaty’s adoption. (On July 7, Guterres said he “welcomes” the treaty’s approval.)
“The strenuous and repeated objections of nuclear armed states is an admission that this treaty will have a real and lasting impact,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
The UN Conference to Negotiate Ban on Nuclear Weapons began discussions in March and continued on and off through July 7, a total of four weeks of meetings in New York. Without the participation of the nine open nuclear powers in the conference as well as Japan and most NATO member countries, negotiations have been led by non-nuclear countries. Perhaps because of this fact, writing the treaty went smoothly and consensus was achieved in relatively short time.
The core group of nations behind the treaty includes Austria, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Thailand. Most nations of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Southeast Asia were also behind it.
Janet Fenton of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and vice chairwoman of Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, emphasized, “in some ways it’s a good thing that the nine nuclear power states are not participating, it’s allowed for a non-adversarial style of conversation.”
The US led the boycott of 40 countries, which included most NATO members and parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, told the press at the UN in March, “(we) would love to have a ban on nuclear weapons, but in this day and time we can’t honestly say we can protect our people by allowing bad actors to have them and those of us that are good trying to keep peace and safety not to have them.”
Haley, flanked by ambassadors from France and Britain, went on to say that North Korea would be enjoying a last laugh if the rest of the world got rid of their nuclear weapons first.
The new treaty is a paradigm shift that emphasizes humanitarian concerns, with a strong focus on gender and indigenous rights. It also focuses on human rights, through such examples as victims’ assistance provisions. The treaty interacts with, and specifically mentions, the NPT, which entered into force in 1970 but has been decidedly ineffective in reducing nuclear stockpiles; and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which remains in limbo because it has not been ratified by the nine recognized nuclear powers.
Indeed, new categories of nuclear weapons is the latest alarming trend, say advocates of the nuclear ban treaty, and Russia and the US are both modernizing cold war arsenals as they reduce the number of their weapons overall, some experts note.
Among the nuclear-armed nations, Pakistan and India have never signed the NPT or CTBT, so they are not obliged to meet those treaties’ rules and inspections, which is also the case for Israel and North Korea. (The US signed and ratified the NPT and signed but never ratified the CTBT.)
The new treaty is designed to provide stronger legal basis for acceptance and enforcement of those treaties, as well as to generally expand the potential for a nuclear weapons free world in the public mind.
Whyte, the lead negotiator, said that the mandate of the resolution was “to achieve, as soon as possible, a legally binding instrument, which would serve to strengthen the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” The treaty text itself articulates that “the right of parties to an armed conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited.”
It is meant to have immediate effect on the activities and abilities of nuclear power states, specifically on their ability to move weapons systems around the world and to obtain uranium. Concern about impact of the treaty caused the US to circulate a letter to its NATO allies in October 2016, two months before the UN General Assembly authorized the treaty negotiations.
The letter encouraged US allies to “vote ‘no’ on any vote at the UN First Committee” — part of the General Assembly — “on starting negotiations for a nuclear ban treaty.”
The letter argued that nuclear deterrence is a critical component of NATO’s defense strategy, and that “(t)he effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging and degrade enduring security relationships,” and complains that a ban would “stigmatize” nuclear weapons — doing exactly what the new treaty intends, its advocates emphasized.
The letter confirms the treaty’s intent to limit “nuclear-related transit through territorial airspace or seas.” Also at stake was the ability to threaten other countries with the possibility of nuclear attack.
Boycotting of the treaty by certain countries is a “classic sign of someone who has lost the argument,” said Rob Green, an ex-Royal British Navy commander, at a press briefing. Green added that nuclear deterrence “has nothing to do with security” and is “unprovable that it has prevented war.”
In paragraphs of the treaty detailing the “catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons,” a strong emphasis was put on “disproportionate impact” on women and girls, as well as on indigenous people. Fenton of WILPF explained that the effect on females extends to development of nuclear weapons, with early studies on harms of nuclear radiation using healthy young men as test subjects. Later studies have shown these tests do not adequately reflect the health risks for women, young children and reproductive systems.
Indigenous Statement to the treaty negotiations signed by numerous organizations outlines the stance of the world’s native people: “Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of these deadly experiments (test explosions). Our land, our sea, our communities, and our physical bodies carry this legacy with us now, and for unknown generations to come.”
Given the massive push to adopt the treaty by July 7, compromises were reached that some supporters found unacceptable but did not prevent their endorsement. Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of WILPF, detailed dissatisfactions in a bulletin recently.
Of particular concern was the continuation of the “inalienable right” of states parties to “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy, given that prevention of environmental catastrophe is a core element of international law relied on in the treaty.
“Nuclear weapons, whether through production, use, or testing, have a far greater potential to harm the environment than other forms of banned weapons,” said Ray Acheson, the director of Reaching Critical Will. “Unfortunately, the paragraph reaffirming the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s ‘inalienable right’ to nuclear energy for ‘peaceful purposes’ is still there. It’s an unnecessary, legally unsound, and frankly offensive paragraph, but at least it does not detract from the categorical banning of nuclear weapons that this treaty provides.”
In Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Acheson expounded on the relationship between nuclear energy and proliferation opportunities.
“All nine nuclear-armed states have used nuclear reactors to create plutonium for their nuclear weapons,” Acheson wrote, listing overlap explored by Britain, France, North Korea and Iran. “The new ban treaty is borne from the urgent need to prevent the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that would result from a nuclear detonation. It must not, then, reflect a ‘right’ to a technology that can also have devastating radioactive impacts.”
Yet eliminating this provision was difficult, as the NPT entices non-nuclear powers away from nuclear armament by offering development of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Nuclear weapon free zones also explicitly allow for “the use of nuclear science and technology for peaceful purposes.”
The new treaty, invariably compared to the NPT, bans use of nuclear weapons, whereas the NPT does not. And the new treaty bans assisting and encouraging others countries to use them, unlike the NPT. Advocates of the new treaty repeatedly noted the failure of the NPT to lead to full global denuclearization as the impetus to creating a new treaty.
Challenges implementing the new ban include a willingness for legislatures to ratify the treaty and for the public to pressure leaders, said Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute.
But citizens around the world are pressuring their governments to engage in negotiations for a total nuclear ban, marking a line ever more clearly between governments who believe in nuclear strategy and a public that doesn’t.
As Fenton of WILPF said, “If you look at the world in terms of democratic decision-making, we’re on the right side.”
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Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at www.veradonnafilms.com.