Coming Soon? An International Ban on Nuclear Weapons

, former co-director, Global Security | October 28, 2016, 5:23 pm EDT
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In a faceoff at the United Nations yesterday, a large majority of the world’s countries voted to begin negotiations of a legal ban on the possession of nuclear weapons. The United States and the other states with nuclear weapons opposed this effort, but did not have the votes to stop it.

We applaud this vote, and the efforts that led to it.

The story behind the vote

Yesterday’s vote on Resolution L.41 took place in the UN First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security issues, and will move on to a vote by the full General Assembly of 193 countries sometime in the coming weeks. The resolution calls for the UN to convene a conference next year “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

Yesterday’s vote was 123 in favor, 38 opposed, with 16 abstentions. Of the nine countries  in the world with nuclear weapons, North Korea voted yes; China, India, and Pakistan abstained; and the others voted no (Britain, France, Israel, Russia, US).

Since the upcoming vote will be in the UN General Assembly, the US (and others) cannot veto the measure to stop it, as it could if it were a vote in the UN Security Council.

The ban effort hasn’t gotten a lot of press coverage in the US, so let me give some background.


UN General Assembly. (Source: Agência Brasil)

Motivations for a ban

Central to the world’s attempt to stop the spread of nuclear weapons for the past 45 years has been the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty is a legal agreement between the five countries that had nuclear weapons in 1970 (US, Britain, France, China, and Soviet Union (now Russia)) and nearly all the other countries in the world. Under the treaty the non-nuclear weapons states agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept international inspections of any nuclear reactors and other facilities to verify they are not building nuclear weapons. In return the nuclear weapon states committed to work toward elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

In particular, Article VI of the NPT states that each party

“undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Yet there is growing frustration by many countries that the nuclear weapon states are not living up to their part of the NPT bargain.

While the US and Soviet Union/Russia have cut the number of deployed nuclear weapons significantly from their peak during the Cold War, including under the 2010 New START agreement, that process has stalled. There are currently no arms negotiations underway between the nuclear weapon states, and the prospect for such talks currently looks dim.

Moreover, there are other indications that the nuclear weapon states are not committed to elimination, including:

  • The nuclear weapon states are building new generations of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The Obama administration, for example, has proposed a plan to rebuild the entire US nuclear arsenal, at an estimated cost of $1 trillion over the next three decades. Russia and China are also building new nuclear weapons.
  • At the recent NPT review conference in 2015, the nuclear weapon states blocked efforts by the non-nuclear weapon states to call for new arms control measures. Rather than strengthening the NPT regime, the review conference ended in a deadlock with no final agreed statement.

The current effort to ban nuclear weapons grew in part out of a sense that something else was  needed to get the nuclear weapons states to fulfill their NPT obligation.

But the effort also grew out of an increasing focus in recent years on the grave humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. Three major international conferences have highlighted this issue in the last several years: in Oslo in May 2013, in Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014, and in Vienna in December 2014.

A key finding from recent studies has been that even relatively limited nuclear exchanges could have severe global effects. For example, climate models show that a regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could put enough soot into the atmosphere to cause global cooling sufficient to disrupt agriculture for a decade. The resulting food shortages and health effects could lead to the deaths of one to two billion people worldwide.

As a result of all this, non-nuclear states have decided to take steps going beyond the NPT to apply pressure to the nuclear weapon states.

The goal of a ban

At least at this point, the nuclear weapon states are unlikely to sign on to whatever legal regime results from this process—which means they will not be bound by it. That leads some people to argue that this process cannot be effective.

But supporters see negotiating a legal ban as an important, logical first step in working toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Despite the NPT obligation on the five nuclear weapon states to work toward elimination of these weapons, these countries are not currently prohibited from possessing these weapons— nor are the four non-NPT nuclear weapon states (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea). But in the same way the international community has decided that other weapons are not legitimate instruments of war because of their potential effects, the international community can make a similar decision about nuclear weapons.

By negotiating a nuclear weapons ban, the international community would outlaw the possession of nuclear weapons in the same way the Biological Weapons Convention outlaws biological weapons;  the Chemical Weapons Convention outlaws chemical weapons; and the Ottawa Treaty outlaws  landmines.

Supporters of the ban also believe that if the vast majority of the world’s countries make this clear statement that nuclear weapons are illegitimate, it will increase the pressure on those countries with nuclear weapons—whether or not they are party to the NPT—to reduce their nuclear arsenals and move toward elimination.

Given the strong reaction by the US and other weapon states to this proposal, they appear to be right.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that two-thirds of the world’s countries voted yesterday to start a process to make nuclear weapons illegal. This is a clear expression of the will of the majority of the international community. These countries find it unacceptable that a handful of countries continue to have nuclear arsenals and policies that can have devastating long-term, potentially global consequences.

We agree that continued reliance on nuclear weapons for security is a recipe for disaster. We applaud this effort to further de-legitimize nuclear weapons and agree that continued pressure on the nuclear weapons states is essential to making progress in cutting nuclear weapons and eventually eliminating them.

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  • IsraelGolden

    Give up nukes LOL, muslims are killing innocent people around the world, have destroyed countless world heritage sites, left whole governments toppled or teetering, and have created the greatest displacement of populations since WW2, Israel (and many nations) will not count on Obama and Clinton’s climate change strategy that is suppossed to rid the world of bad people!