A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons

On 27 October 2016, governments at the United Nations voted overwhelming voted in favor of a resolution to start negotiations on a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, known as “L.41: Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations”.

The adoption of this historic resolution means that a governmental negotiating conference in 2017 to develop a new legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would make using, possessing and developing nuclear weapons illegal under international law.

The negotiations will take place in two sessions, in March and in June/July of 2017 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Why do we need a ban on nuclear weapons?

Any detonation of a nuclear weapon would cause catastrophic humanitarian harm. The blast, the firestorm, the immediate fallout and the long-term impact of radiation would cause unspeakable suffering for civilians. No state or international organisation has the capacity to provide any meaningful humanitarian relief in response to a nuclear detonation.

Indiscriminate, inhumane and unacceptable weapons should be banned. But nuclear weapons is still the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited by an international treaty. By negotiating a treaty banning nuclear weapons, we can both correct this legal anomaly and create a tool to compel nuclear armed states to dismantle and eliminate their existing weapons.

With other weapons of mass destruction, the prohibition of weapons has preceded and paved the way for their elimination. With landmines and chemical and biological weapons, the negotiation of a treaty prohibiting these weapons supported their disuse, dismantlement, and eventual elimination.

Will the nuclear armed states join?

Ideally, all states would, and eventually will, sign onto a nuclear weapons ban, but the lack of participation of nuclear-armed states will not compromise the value of a ban itself. A ban on nuclear weapons will change the way the global community understand and see nuclear weapons, revealing them for the inhumane, unacceptable weapons that they are. A ban will draw the line between states who understand the risk and danger of nuclear weapons and consider them unacceptable, and states who refuse to understand that nuclear weapons don’t provide meaningful security. In order to get nuclear weapon states to see the light and get rid of their stockpiles, we need a ban as a first step.

A ban on nuclear weapons will establish an international norm against the possession of nuclear weapons, which will help to reduce the perceived value of such weapons. It will draw the line between those states that believe nuclear weapons are unacceptable and illegitimate, and those states that believe nuclear weapons are legitimate and able to provide security.

If nuclear weapons continue to be portrayed as a legitimate and a useful means to provide security, non-nuclear weapon states might aim to develop such weapons themselves.

A ban on nuclear weapons would create a global norm against nuclear weapons, which would not only put pressure on both nuclear-armed and non-nuclear weapon states to reject nuclear weapons permanently, but it would also set the stage for future progress in nuclear armed states should its domestic political situation change.

What will a treaty banning nuclear weapons contain?

A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons should require states parties to prohibit the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, or use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance, financing, encouragement, or inducement of these prohibited acts.

The treaty should also include an obligation for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a framework to achieve it. The ban treaty would not need to establish specific provisions for elimination, but states parties to the treaty could agree to relevant measures and timelines as part of the implementation process, through protocols or other appropriate legal instruments.

ICAN believes that the treaty should also include positive obligations for states parties, such as ensuring the rights of victims and survivors of nuclear weapons, requiring actions to address damage to affected environments, and providing for international cooperation and assistance to meet the obligations of the instrument.

Do you have more questions? Check out our frequently asked questions about a ban treaty here.