UN nuclear weapons treaty takes most significant step since Cold War
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While U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley condemned the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile test this week at the U.N. Security Council meeting and threatened military action, a very different conversation was happening elsewhere in the building.

The majority of the world’s countries were negotiating a new treaty banning nuclear weapons, which was adopted today by a vote of 122 in favor and only one vote against and one abstention. It is the most significant development in nuclear politics since the end of the Cold War, placing nuclear weapons in the same category of international law as other weapons of mass destruction or that cause unacceptable harm: chemical and biological weapons, landmines, and cluster munitions.

But the United States was not in the room. In fact, Ambassador Haley staged a bizarre protest in the hallway outside the talks back in March that backfired by raising the profile of the negotiations in the news media.


The legally-binding agreement stigmatizes nuclear weapons, prohibiting not only their use, possession, testing, development, stockpiling and transfer, but also any assistance to banned activities. This will make it increasingly difficult to finance, produce and move nuclear weapons throughout the world.

As a result, even though the treaty negotiations have been boycotted by nuclear-armed states — the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel — and those countries in nuclear alliances, it will likely still have an impact on them. The treaty’s preamble condemns nuclear weapons as “abhorrent,” pointing to their “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” and risks “to the security of all humanity.”

This moral and ethical opprobrium — backed most of the world’s nations — will make it more difficult to justify their persistence in the arsenals of the U.S. and other nuclear-armed powers. Indeed, a leaked U.S. government memo expresses hand-wringing that “the effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging” and “delegitimize the concept of nuclear deterrence.”

The states that have the most nuclear weapons agreed in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to disarm in return for the rest of the world agreeing to never acquire or development them. However, there are still almost 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. The nuclear weapons ban preamble decries the “slow pace of nuclear disarmament” and “continued reliance on nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies.”

The new treaty was negotiated remarkably quickly — just four weeks of meetings over the first six months of 2017. This shows that the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament by the U.S. and other nuclear-armed states is not the result of technical or legal complications but rather a lack of desire to follow through on their promises.

By continuing to suggest that nuclear weapons are integral to their security — despite the terrifying history of close calls and accidents — the U.S. and other nuclear-armed states engage in double-talk to explain why other governments shouldn’t develop their own arsenals. Their confidence in nuclear weapons incites proliferation.

In contrast, the new ban treaty reframes the conversation by establishing a categorical prohibition: there are no safe hands for nuclear weapons. In line with the growing international scientific, humanitarian, legal and diplomatic consensus, the preamble casts nuclear weapons as a humanitarian threat, a violation of human rights, devastating to the environment and efforts to pursue sustainable development. The preamble also identifies the overlooked and particular damage nuclear weapons activities have had on indigenous peoples and on women and girls.

Prioritizing the people and environments most affected by nuclear weapons — rather than those that wield the missiles — is the result of a much more inclusive process than traditional nuclear arms control diplomacy, which has been dominated by military and security officials of dominant military powers.

By negotiating the treaty in a U.N. General Assembly-mandated conference, small states and those from the global south have equal representation with bigger militaries. Moreover, it has allowed vigorous participation of the survivors of nuclear violence, humanitarian agencies, activists, faith leaders, academia, and a global civil society coalition, known as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The human-centered nature of the treaty is demonstrated by its provisions requiring the treaty’s members to provide assistance to victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and remediate contaminated environments.

As Americans consider how to respond to times of increasing nuclear tensions, the nuclear weapons ban prompts us to ask different questions than our politicians and generals have traditionally focused on. Rather than asking only whether other countries’ nuclear arsenals pose a national security threat or whether missile defense systems work, the ban treaty focuses our attention on the humanitarian, human rights, and environmental dimensions of nuclear weapons.

Matthew Bolton, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science at Pace University and director of its International Disarmament Institute. He has served as an advisor to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the global civil society campaign to ban nuclear weapons.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.