New UN working group to discuss elements for a treaty banning nuclear weapons

The United Nations General Assembly voted on Monday to set up a working group that will develop “legal measures, legal provisions and norms” for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. This new UN body – which has the backing of 138 nations – is widely expected to focus its efforts on devising the elements for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons outright.

The working group will meet in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2016 for up to 15 days (dates have not yet been set). All UN member states are encouraged to participate. In the interests of achieving real progress, the working group will not be bound by strict consensus rules. It will submit a report to the General Assembly next October on its substantive work and agreed recommendations.

International organizations and civil society organizations, including ICAN, are also invited to participate. “It is time to begin the serious practical work of developing the elements for a treaty banning nuclear weapons,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN. “The overwhelming majority of nations support this course of action.”

In its preambular paragraphs, the Mexican-sponsored resolution that set up the working group acknowledged “the absence of concrete outcomes of multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations within the UN framework for almost two decades”. It stated that the “current international climate” – of increased tensions among nuclear-armed nations – made the elimination of nuclear weapons “all the more urgent”.

Open to all nations

Five of the nine nuclear-armed nations – China, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and France – issued a joint statement last month explaining why they opposed the creation of the working group. “An instrument such as a ban” would “undermine the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] regime”, they argued, but did not explain how.

They said that they could have supported an “appropriately mandated” working group bound by strict consensus rules. However, such an arrangement would have allowed them, collectively or individually, to block all proposed actions and decisions, including the appointment of a chair and adoption of an agenda. The Mexican approach of giving greater control to nuclear-free nations is “divisive”, they complained.

Germany, which hosts US nuclear weapons on its territory, abstained from voting on the resolution, asserting that the working group is not “inclusive”, even though it is open to the participation of all nations. Japan and Australia, which believe it is acceptable to use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances, also abstained, offering vague explanations.

Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan argued that the working group would threaten the Conference on Disarmament – a Geneva-based forum that has been stagnant for close to two decades and excludes two-thirds of the world’s nations from its deliberations (mostly developing nations). They, too, abstained from voting on the resolution.

Time for action

The General Assembly this week adopted a number of other important resolutions, with 139 nations pledging “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”, 144 declaring it in the interests of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again “under any circumstances”, and 132 describing nuclear weapons as “inherently immoral”.

Following the success of the three major conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in 2013 and 2014, there is a growing expectation among governments and civil society that negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons should now begin. The failure of the NPT review conference this May further underscored the need for real action.

“We cannot delay indefinitely the prohibition of a weapon that is patently unacceptable on humanitarian grounds,” said Ms Fihn. “We expect that certain nations will continue to oppose this course of action. But that must not prevent us from moving forward. We have outlawed other indiscriminate, inhumane weapons. Now we must outlaw the very worst weapons of all.”