It is not often that the international community takes an historic step forward, but it does happen. In the ‘modern’ era, we tend to focus on the UN Charter as the foundation of international relations. Other milestones have been the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Law of the Sea Convention (1982), the Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) plus the Paris Agreement, and the Rome Statute (1998) creating the International Criminal Court. That’s about it.
With nuclear disarmament, people have been trying to find common ground since the first General Assembly resolution in 1946. The disarmament effort has been undermined by strategic rivalry and stalemates, despite the obvious threat that the continued existence of nuclear weapons poses to all of us.
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which is the major milestone on nuclear disarmament to date, is not actually a disarmament treaty. It acknowledges that five major powers possess nuclear weapons and ineffectually calls for negotiations for nuclear disarmament ‘in good faith’.
The most recent effort to make nuclear disarmament meaningful, the case by Marshall Islands alleging a breach of obligation of the NPT’s Article VI, has just been prevented by the International Court of Justice on grounds that court is not competent to answer the case.
All this has suited the five ‘established’ nuclear weapons states perfectly; a case of the felons holding the keys to change, just as they do with the Security Council veto.
A minority of UN member states have held out defiantly against a majority and refused to start negotiations for nuclear disarmament, despite the rhetoric from Kennedy through Gorbachev to Obama. So, stalemate, into the indefinite future.
In 2016, this changed, at least in the potential. On 27 October the UN General Assembly’s 1st Committee resolved by an overwhelming majority to start negotiations in 2017 towards a complete nuclear weapons ban. If the Assembly adopts the resolution in December, negotiations will begin.
The point here is that they will start negotiations whether or not the nuclear weapon states participate. In wrenching the initiative out of the hands of the major powers, and negotiating a total ban on nuclear weapons, the international community is asserting the most central principle of all – that might does not impose legal right, even if it usually has a mortgage on de facto reality. A nuclear weapons ban can be brought into force by any number of any states, whether or not they themselves have them. And of course, the aim is that, as the decades go by, the nuclear powers will be isolated and some will disarm. They may not, but with the passage of time, it is likely that some will.
With nuclear weapons, the resolution follows Norway, Mexico and Austria’s initiatives with their conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. Austria and Ireland led the drafting of the Committee’s resolution (L.41), along with Brazil and Mexico, and Nigeria and South Africa.
In fact, two other small states, Malaysia and Costa Rica, had over the past decade led the initiative, with draft elements for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Debate continues whether a legal instrument should take the form of a simple and short ban, or a more complex document with water-tight provisions on timing, definitions and verification. This will be no doubt be explored in the negotiations.
Not all nuclear powers opposed. China, India and Pakistan abstained and North Korea supported. The US led the opposition, petitioning its defence allies to oppose the resolution and not participate in any negotiations. All obeyed including Japan, except The Netherlands which abstained. Of the other Western states, only Austria, Ireland and, to its credit, New Zealand, voted for. In fact, New Zealand co-sponsored.
The vignette to the resolution was the argument advanced by the US: “How can a state that relies on nuclear weapons for its security possibly join a negotiation meant to stigmatise them?” The ambassador, of course, knew the answer to his question: you cannot, in logic. Equally in logic, you must eliminate that very reliance because the strategic policy of nuclear deterrence makes any state, nuclear power or nuclear ally, less safe. It also happens to threaten the planet.
A comprehensive nuclear weapons convention, negotiated by non-nuclear weapon states – exactly what the resolution calls for, has been Green Party policy since the Global Affairs policy was adopted in 2007. This development at the UN is, without doubt, an historic step. On 1 November, I put a Notice of Motion through the Parliament, adopted unanimously, welcoming the resolution and calling on all nuclear weapon states to participate constructively in the negotiations.
We must do everything we can to make sure they do.