U.N. General Assembly Decides to Convene a Nuclear Weapons Ban Conference

I wanted to note what most of you already know, which is that last Thursday, the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly, by a vote of 123 states in favor, 38 against and 16 abstaining,  adopted a resolution in which it decided “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” You can read the text of the adopted resolution here.

This is a very big deal, and kudos are due to those who have worked tirelessly on the humanitarian initiative, and who have patiently and methodically pulled diplomatic levers at the U.N. to get to this point.  I personally am in support of this initiative to conclude a nuclear weapons ban treaty, and I hope for its success.

It will be fascinating to see what happens when the conference convenes in March. I really don’t know what the state of play is with regard to a proposed draft for the treaty to be negotiated, or how the draft will eventually be structured. If anyone in the movement wants my advice on the topic, I’m certainly willing to give it. Please contact me directly.

Politically, this is an embarrassing development for the Obama administration, which has sought to pride itself on its nuclear disarmament track record. Having to come out in the past few weeks against this initiative was more than a little awkward for them. The same goes for Japan and their special role in past decades in pushing for nuclear disarmament. The fact that Japan ultimately voted against the General Assembly resolution to start this process of negotiating a nuclear ban treaty, cannot but undercut the government’s claim to a principled approach to nuclear disarmament.

I was recently talking with an influential member of the humanitarian initiative movement and we were discussing whether the conclusion of a nuclear weapons ban treaty should be accompanied by the collective withdrawal from the NPT of those states that decide to adopt the ban treaty. I argued that it should. This view is in harmony with things I’ve written before about collective withdrawal from the NPT, such as here.  My point in the particular context of the conclusion of a nuclear weapons ban treaty was that, again were such a treaty to be concluded among a sizable proportion of states, the best way to further solidify the norm it would be creating would be for the states parties to the ban treaty to also withdraw collectively from the NPT, thus marking the institution of a new normative standard, unmixed with the baser matter of the NPT.  I argued that if the states parties of the new ban treaty did not do so, the ban treaty would be more easily marginalized by the nuclear weapons states, who would continue to assert the NPT as the multilateral cornerstone treaty on nuclear weapons possession, proliferation and disarmament.

The person with whom I was talking disagreed, arguing that the NPT would still be useful to the disarmament movement even after the ban treaty was adopted, because of its established mechanisms for putting pressure on nuclear weapons states, such as the PrepCom/RevCon process.  I replied that I didn’t see that much in the way of meaningful pressure had been applied to the nuclear weapons states by virtue of the NPT’s implementation mechanisms for the past fifty years, and that making a clean break from the NPT and asserting the new ban treaty as the new and multilaterally supported standard had a better chance of applying real, meaningful diplomatic pressure on the nuclear weapons states, left as they would be to constitute a minority of states outside of the ban treaty.

All of this looks forward considerably in time to the as yet unrealized prospect of the conclusion of a nuclear weapons ban treaty. And there’s still time to discuss the relative merits of these ideas. But I think that the positive effects of a treaty banning nuclear weapons  will be maximized if it is asserted by its members not as an implementation of the NPT, but rather as its replacement.

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5 Comments on “U.N. General Assembly Decides to Convene a Nuclear Weapons Ban Conference”

  1. chasmark says:

    What would happen to the Iran deal?

  2. JP Zanders says:

    How do you see the treaty, Dan? A solid disarmament convention like the CWC, or some hybrid disarmament-humanitarian agreement like the landmines or cluster munition bans?

    • Dan Joyner says:

      An excellent question, Jean Pascal. It all depends on the form and structure of the treaty’s provisions. I think that most in the humanitarian movement are just focused on structuring this treaty with a core of provisions prohibiting the possession and possibly the use of nuclear weapons, and leaving the serious disarmament provisions and implementation mechanisms for a later treaty. So I think the plan is for this first nuclear weapons ban convention to not be a comprehensive disarmament convention, but really just be a norm-setting treaty on prohibiting possession and perhaps use.

      I understand this approach and the rationale for it. It is probably the best approach under the circumstances, as it will create a new norm which can then be further established in customary international law and thereby universalized, even potentially without the participation of the nuclear weapons states.

      I don’t expect this first nuclear weapons ban treaty to address proliferation or peaceful use.

  3. John says:

    I agree that the ban treaty to be negotiated next year should be aimed at a simple ban treaty with a regular review conference of member states to the treaty (perhaps, every five years).
    To negotiate a comprehensive N.W. treaty at this time is unrealistic since most N.W. states are not ready for it. It is interesting to note that North Korea was the only state that voted in favor of the UN resolution to negotiate a ban treaty. India, Parkistan and China abstained on the vote.

    We should follow the past history of BWC & CWC. These conventions were preceded by the 1925 Geneva Protocol which simply banned the use of chemical and biological weapons.

    This new ban treaty should simply prohibit use of N.W. or ban use, possession, development, stockpile, transfer, etc.

    When to exit the NPT can be waited until more than 100 states first join the new ban treaty. I don’t think it is necessary to debate it now. Let’s focus on the elements of the ban trreaty now!


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