A UN General Assembly committee had voted to launch negotiations last year on a new treaty banning nuclear weapons despite fierce opposition from the world’s nuclear powers last year. A resolution presented by Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil was adopted by a vote of 123 to 38, with 16 abstentions, following weeks of lobbying by the nuclear powers for ‘no’ votes.
And, in the last week of March, at the United Nations in New York, history was made as diplomats from about 130 countries started formal talks on the international treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
What is the treaty about?
- The negotiations aim to create “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” citing deep concern over the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”
- The goal is to declare it illegal for any country to produce, possess, stockpile, deploy, and threaten to use, or use nuclear weapons.
What are the reasons for taking up of the resolution now?
- Nuclear weapons — unlike chemical weapons, biological weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions — have not yet been prohibited in a comprehensive and universal manner.
- The nuclear weapons ban talks are the fulfilment of a long-standing demand that all countries deserve equal security. The very first resolution at the UN, passed in 1946, called for a plan “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”
- The driving force for the demand for a nuclear weapon-free world is a simple humanitarian impulse, the love and compassion for other human being.
- Nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass destruction and history has shown their use brings immeasurable death and suffering.
- The NPT of 1968 contains only partial prohibitions, and nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties prohibit nuclear weapons only within certain geographical regions.
- Non-nuclear states have expressed increasing frustration with the current nuclear regime and the ineffective movement towards disarmament.
- With nuclear weapons states modernising and in some cases increasing their arsenals, instead of discarding them, more states are becoming disillusioned with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and lending their support for an outright ban.
- As of 2016, it is estimated that more than 15,000 nuclear warheads remain in global stockpiles.
Background leading up to the talks
- The very first resolution at the UN, passed in 1946, called for a plan “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.”
- Proposals for a nuclear-weapon-ban treaty first emerged following a review conference of the NPT in 2010, at which Disarmament advocates proposed the ban treaty as an alternative pathway forward.
- In 2014 a group of non-nuclear-armed nations known as the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) presented the idea of a nuclear-weapon-ban treaty to NPT states parties as a possible “effective measure” to implement Article VI of the NPT, which requires all states parties to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament. The NAC argued that a ban treaty would operate “alongside” and “in support of” the NPT.
- In 2015, the UN General Assembly established a working group with a mandate to address “concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms” for attaining and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world.
- In August 2016, it adopted a report recommending negotiations in 2017 on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.
- In October 2016, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly acted upon this recommendation by adopting a resolution that establishes a mandate for nuclear-weapon-ban treaty negotiations in 2017 (with 123 states voting in favour and 38 against, and 16 abstaining). A second, confirmatory vote took place in a plenary session of the General Assembly in December 2016.
Other Attempts to prevent increase of Nuclear Weapons
1. Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) 1963: Prohibited all testing of nuclear weapons except underground.
2. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — signed 1968, came into force 1970: An international treaty (currently with 189 member states) to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty has three main pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology.
3. Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) 1972: The United States and Soviet Union could deploy ABM interceptors at two sites, each with up to 100 ground-based launchers for ABM interceptor missiles. In a 1974 Protocol, the US and Soviet Union agreed to only deploy an ABM system to one site.
4. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — signed 1996, not yet in force: The CTBT is an international treaty (currently with 181 state signatures and 148 state ratifications) that bans all nuclear explosions in all environments. While the treaty is not in force, Russia has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1990 and the United States has not since 1992.
5. Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), 1974: A group of nuclear supplier countries that seek to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials, equipment and technology that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.
6. Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), 1987: A multilateral export control regime. It is an informal and voluntary partnership among 35 countries to prevent the proliferation of missile and unmanned aerial vehicle technology capable of carrying above 500 kg payload for more than 300 km. India officially became a member on 27 June 2016 with the consensus of the 34 member nations.
7. International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, also known as the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), 2002: an arrangement to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles. The HCOC does not ban ballistic missiles, but it does call for restraint in their production, testing, and export. India joined the Hague Code on 1 June 2016.
Criticism of Non Proliferation Treaty
- The Non Proliferation Treaty, signed in 1968, recognised five nuclear states – the US, the UK, the USSR (now Russia), China and France – and agreed to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the gradual decommissioning of atomic weapons.
- But India and Pakistan are also believed to have nuclear weapons and both countries refused to sign NPT. The treaty essentially states that only the five winning powers of World War II have the right to have nuclear weapons. India refuses to sign this “discriminatory” treaty. India’s traditional position has always been either those five too denuclearize or every country has the same rights to have nuclear weapons.
- Israel, another non-signatory, remains deliberately opaque about its nuclear status and has never carried out a public test, but is believed to have at least some weapons of mass destruction.
- North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and has been carrying out nuclear tests with increasing frequency over the past few years.
Why are nuclear powers not supporting it?
- The four of the UN Security Council nuclear powers — Britain, France, Russia and the United States — voted against the resolution while China abstained, as did India and Pakistan.
- The nine known nuclear states all oppose a ban treaty. They say an outright ban would not work and they should stick with the “gradual approach”.
- They reason that the “Bad actors” cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons at the cost of those trying to maintain peace and safety”
- In the current perilous context, considering in particular the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, several countries continue to rely on nuclear deterrence for security and stability.
- Many of the non-nuclear-armed members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), along with Australia and Japan, are also resistant to a ban treaty, as they believe that US nuclear weapons enhance their security.
- Against this backdrop, the proposed treaty offers a significant opportunity, at the very least, to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence and subsequently to move towards a nuclear-free world order.
- To be clear, the treaty will not eliminate existing nuclear weapons in the first instance; it is more likely to establish an international norm that prohibits the development, acquisition, manufacture, possession, transportation, transfer or use of nuclear weapons.
- As envisaged in these negotiations, the treaty is likely to allow for the future membership of nuclear armed states with the objective of eliminating their nuclear arsenals, but only in cooperation with them.
- Thus, by participating in the negotiations, nuclear-armed states could underscore their commitment to a nuclear-weapon free world and also contribute to the contours of the treaty. By staying out, they gain nothing and lose goodwill.