At the end of 2016, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted by a large majority (Resolution 71/258 of 23 December 2016) to convene in 2017 a UN conference to negotiate a ‘legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination’. The result of the vote was 113 in favour, 35 against and 13 abstentions. Four of the five nuclear weapon states—France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—voted against, along with the majority of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states plus Australia, Israel, Japan and South Korea, all of which rely on US nuclear guarantees. Interestingly, North Korea voted in favour. Those abstaining included China (the only nuclear weapon state that did not vote against), India, the Netherlands, Pakistan and Switzerland.
An organizational meeting was held at the UN in New York on 16 February 2017, attended by more than 100 states, to plan for this conference. Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica was selected as the president of the conference, which will be convened on 27–31 March and 15 June–7 July in accordance with Resolution 71/258. The meeting also agreed on the conference agenda and rules of procedure. The rules will be those of the UN General Assembly, which require a two-thirds majority for matters of substance and a simple majority for procedural matters, hence no state(s) will be able to block decisions on outlawing nuclear weapons.
This push to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons by a large majority of non-nuclear weapon states has opened up stark differences not only with states possessing nuclear weapons, but also within the ranks of the non-nuclear weapon states. States in nuclear-armed alliances such as NATO and the USA’s Pacific allies, plus Russia, vehemently oppose any negotiations on a multilateral treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, while declaring support for achieving a world without nuclear weapons through an undefined ‘step-by-step’ or ‘phased’ approach with no defined timeline.
Three previous international conferences (Oslo 2013, Nayarit 2014 and Vienna 2015) drew global attention to the deep concern over the pervasive threat to humanity posed by the existence of nuclear weapons and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any detonation of a nuclear explosive. Given these risks, the majority of non-nuclear weapon states stressed the need for urgent action by all states towards achieving a world without nuclear weapons and noted that progress to date towards nuclear disarmament had been very slow. These states also highlighted that the 1968 Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) had obligated nuclear weapon states to disarm, but nearly 50 years after the NPT entered into force, this obligation has not been met and there are no signs of it being met.
The majority of non-nuclear weapon states also noted that there was a legal gap regarding the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, as there was no nuclear disarmament treaty along the lines of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that respectively prohibited biological and chemical weapons and mandated their total elimination. Accordingly, these states proposed four distinct approaches for the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons: (a) a comprehensive nuclear weapon convention; (b) a nuclear weapon ban treaty; (c) a framework agreement; and (d) a progressive approach based upon ‘building blocks’ of legal and non-legal measures as well as confidence-building measures.
Some NATO states responded that there was no such legal gap and that the NPT provided an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. They stressed that the international security environment, current geopolitical situation and role of nuclear weapons in existing security doctrines should be taken into account in the pursuit of any effective measures for nuclear disarmament, and as such, a nuclear weapon ban treaty was not in their national security interests. These states also maintained that a nuclear weapon ban treaty would create confusion regarding the implementation of the NPT and complicate fulfilment of the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations.
In fact, a nuclear weapon ban treaty would not affect the NPT. Those states that are parties to the NPT would still be bound by it and obligated to its full implementation. A nuclear ban treaty could go beyond the NPT and prohibit possession of nuclear weapons and deployment of nuclear weapons (including in foreign states, as for example in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey which host US nuclear weapons under NATO auspices). Just as the 1963 Partial Test-Ban Treaty banning nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, outer space and under water does not conflict with the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty banning all nuclear test explosions, a nuclear weapon ban treaty would not be in conflict with the NPT.
All the signs are that the negotiations in March and June–July will be fraught with deeply held differences among the participating non-nuclear weapon states. There are fears that those NATO and allied non-nuclear weapon states which might participate will run interference and complicate the discussions on behalf of the nuclear weapon states. Another fault line could be between those non-nuclear weapon states that want a quick, short norm establishing a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and those that might prefer a more detailed treaty with provisions on verification.
Civil society participation at the UN conference in March and June–July could be a prominent feature for the first time in multilateral negotiations on a nuclear weapon treaty. However, some states have already raised concerns at the organizational meeting in February regarding the participation of civil society and may attempt to curtail its influence or involvement.
Whether 2017 will be the year that finally sees nuclear weapons being banned or whether the effort to achieve this objective is stymied remains to be seen.