The United Nations General Assembly will convene negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons during sessions scheduled for March 27‑31 and June 15‑July 7, 2017. Following those sessions, the General Assembly will review progress and decide on a path forward.
Although the UN General Assembly last October voted by a three-to-one margin in favour of convening negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban, four of the five nuclear-weapon states (NWS) that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France—with support from a number of U.S. allies, voted against the negotiations and indicated they will not participate. The fifth NWS, China, abstained–though in a speech to the UN in Geneva on January 18, President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s long-standing support for nuclear disarmament, so there is reason for hope that China will participate in the negotiations and lead the way for the other NWS to join.
The NWS that oppose the negotiations maintain that the pace of nuclear disarmament cannot be forced. They argue that the negotiations are unrealistic and a distraction from the sustained practical steps needed for effective disarmament. Ultimately, they say, the negotiations could damage the NPT. Against these objections, however, it must be pointed out that the NPT requires all parties to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures to achieve nuclear disarmament. Although the meaning of “pursue negotiations in good faith” is open to interpretation, a boycott of negotiations called for by the great majority of parties cannot be considered consistent with this obligation. It is the refusal to join the negotiations, rather than the convening of them, that risks damaging the NPT.
Of course, it also is essential to avoid unrealistic expectations. Most countries well understand that nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated overnight. Disarmament must be a stepwise process. Some steps are possible in the near term; others will take many years. But no progress can be made if the parties will not talk to one another.
A ban treaty would be an important step, further stigmatising nuclear weapons, reinforcing the goal of elimination, and preparing the ground for subsequent steps. The exact terms of a ban—including whether it would prohibit possession or in the first instance only use—are yet to be negotiated. The great majority of countries that want to see a ban have every right to know whether the NWS have any alternative and what they propose for achieving the NPT’s disarmament objectives. This requires the NWS to engage with the non-NWS.
For the future, it is essential to expand the scope of nuclear arms reductions. These have primarily involved the U.S. and Russia. There is a need to expand such negotiations to include the other NWS (UK, France and China) as well as the nuclear-armed countries outside the NPT (India, Israel and Pakistan—leaving aside North Korea which will probably need to be addressed as a specific case). The ban negotiations will be a good start for bringing these other countries into the nuclear disarmament process.
For further discussion on the ban negotiations and the common interests shared by NWS and NNWS, see my paper recently published by the Asia Pacific Leadership Network, A Nuclear Weapons Ban – Finding Common Ground.
Based in Australia, John Carlson advises NTI leadership on international nuclear security, safeguards and verification, and management of the nuclear fuel cycle. He supports NTI’s efforts in the Asia-Pacific region on nuclear security and arms reduction, and is a member of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network. Carlson is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute, a member of the Advisory Council of the International Luxembourg Forum, an Associate of the Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center, Harvard University and a member of VERTIC’s International Verification Consultants Network. Carlson was an official in the Australian government for more than four decades.
Carlson’s views do not necessarily reflect those of NTI or the NTI Board of Directors or the institutions with which they are associated.
This was originally written for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Image: Tatsuya Tomizawa/International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Tim Wright.