UN Meeting Says: Time To Negotiate A Nuclear Ban Treaty

Nuclear Bomb Explosion, Baker Day Test, Bikini, 25th July 1946
Nuclear Bomb Explosion, Baker Day Test, Bikini, 25th July 1946

This weekend is the 71st anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it's a good time to give a few thoughts to nuclear weapons. Most people don't think about them much, and the majority of countries have fully rejected them. In fact, there are only a small handful of countries that like nuclear weapons -- the nine that have them (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and the United States) and another couple dozen that either have bilateral agreements with the U.S. (Australia, Japan, South Korea) for American nuclear bombs to be dropped on their behalf, or the countries that are part of NATO. Almost everyone else thinks they are catastrophic, inhumane weapons and should be illegal for everyone. Now, a series of UN meetings this year is showing that the majority of the world agrees a new treaty is needed to make nuclear weapons illegal. The minority that kept the world thinking nuclear weapons are still needed is just that -- a minority -- and their story is falling apart.

For decades, countries without nuclear weapons have called on countries with nuclear weapons to do things -- from reducing numbers to sharing information. These nuclear free countries have done things themselves -- to verify that they are not trying to build nuclear weapons. There are only a very few exceptions -- Iran, Syria, North Korea -- but otherwise this non-proliferation regime has held up. Excuses have been made for why disarmament isn't happening (or is happening really slowly), but never before has the very legitimacy of the weapons themselves been challenged as it is now.

Last year, this UN working group (Open Ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations) was set up and it has met in Geneva a few times this year. The final meeting will take place over the next few weeks with the goal to adopt a report and recommendations for the UN General Assembly. The first draft of this report and recommendations from the group was released last week and recognizes that "a majority of States supported the convening by the General Assembly of a conference in 2017, open to all States, international organizations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination."

Most countries in the world want to start negotiations in 2017 on a treaty to ban the bomb.

Of course, not all countries want to ban nuclear weapons -- a few of them want to keep using nuclear weapons in their security strategies. They claim to support nuclear disarmament, but at the same time reiterate that they will keep relying on nuclear weapons as long as they exist. Their actions and their polices provide the enabling environment necessary for the nuclear armed to not only keep, but also modernize their nuclear arsenals.

Most UN meeting documents make only two distinctions -- the nuclear have and the nuclear have-nots. The new category -- the nuclear enablers -- are getting more distinct attention as a result of these meetings. The draft report puts this small group of states into their own category. In describing possible actions that countries can take to attain and maintain a nuclear weapons free world, it says these different approaches will "vary in their salience to nuclear-armed States, non nuclear-armed States and other States that continue to maintain a role for nuclear weapons in their security doctrines."

There are five countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons (Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey). Since the 1950s these countries have hosted U.S. nuclear bombs. Military personnel from all but Turkey train to use the bombs, and many NATO countries take part in annual exercises preparing for nuclear war. The recent coup attempt in Turkey (which forced the power to be shut down to the base holding the U.S. bombs -- see here) has brought some attention to the security and safety of the weapons, but they remain. The countries that host the weapons do so as a public secret -- everyone knows where they are, no one officially confirms it. At the same time, these same countries repeatedly call on other nuclear armed countries to be more transparent. To provide more information on locations and types of weapons. This hypocritical behavior did not go unnoticed in Geneva. It was discussed repeatedly, and the draft outcome document recognizes this information gap. It says:

Other States that maintain a role for nuclear weapons in their military and security concepts, doctrines and policies should also provide standardized information at regular intervals on, inter alia, the following: (i) The number, type (strategic or non-strategic) and status (deployed or non deployed, and the alert status) of nuclear warheads within their territories; (ii) The number and the type of delivery vehicles within their territories; (iii) The measures taken to reduce the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies.

The parliaments in many of these countries have been calling for this type of information for decades. Resolutions get passed, and demands for information are met with silence. That silence is part of the problem, part of what enables nuclear armed countries to maintain their arsenals, their policies, their threats of massive nuclear violence.

At the end of the day, only a few countries think nuclear weapons have any use whatsoever. It is only these few that want things to stay the same. Right now, the security of the masses is at stake. Worsening relationships between nuclear armed countries and alliances only highlight the need to move as far as possible away from the most heinous, indiscriminate and catastrophic weapons. Significant change comes at times of crisis. Everything that can be done to reduce and eliminate the risk these weapons pose to the world should be done. It is up to the minority to step up or step aside. The majority have spoken: now is the time to negotiate a nuclear ban.