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Issue #1772      April 5, 2017

Australia sides with nuclear annihilation

The case for a nuclear weapons ban treaty

Australia has made clear it is committed to nuclear first-strike power by the world’s nuclear bully, the USA, with its boycott of negotiations for a global treaty on nuclear weapons. An agreement was reached on negotiations in the UN General Assembly last December. Richard Tanter, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, noted: “This is the first chance we’ve had in more than 50 years for any legal prohibition.”

In one of its final acts of 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted with overwhelming support a landmark resolution to begin negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. This historic decision heralds an end to two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.

Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited in a comprehensive and universal manner, despite their well-documented impacts. Biological weapons, chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions have all been explicitly and completely banned under international law.

The vast majority of UN member states believe that weapons intended to inflict catastrophic humanitarian harm should, as a matter of principle, be prohibited under international law. They have concluded that nuclear weapons must now be placed on the same legal footing as other weapons of mass destruction.

The new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons will strengthen the global norms against using and possessing these weapons. And it will spur long-overdue progress towards disarmament. Experience shows that the prohibition of a particular type of weapon provides a solid legal and political foundation for advancing its progressive elimination.

Eliminating the nuclear threat has been high on the UN agenda since the organisation’s formation in 1945. But international efforts to advance this goal have stalled in recent years, with nuclear-armed nations investing heavily in the build-up and modernisation of their nuclear arsenals.

Weapons that are outlawed are increasingly seen as illegitimate, losing their political status and, along with it, the resources for their production, modernisation and retention. Arms companies find it more difficult to acquire resources for work on illegal weapons, and such work carries a great reputational risk.

The treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons will complement existing bans on other indiscriminate and inhumane weapons, and reinforce existing legal instruments on nuclear weapons, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, and the treaty banning nuclear test explosions.

Underpinning the decision by governments and civil society to pursue a ban treaty is our belief that changing the rules regarding nuclear weapons will have a major impact beyond those nations that may formally adopt the treaty at the outset. This belief stems from experience with treaties banning other weapons, which have established powerful norms.

The new treaty will aim not only to advance nuclear disarmament, but also to help prevent further proliferation. It will enhance the security of people everywhere, not least of all those in nations currently armed with nuclear weapons who are more likely than others to be the victims of a nuclear attack.

The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014 shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law. Governments are now taking action.

Principles of a treaty

The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons has provided stark and irrefutable evidence that nuclear weapons cause death and displacement on a catastrophic scale, with profound and potentially irreversible damage to health and the environment, to socioeconomic development, and to the social order. No state or international body could adequately address the immediate humanitarian emergency or long term consequences caused by nuclear weapon detonations.

Nuclear testing in several parts of the world has left a legacy of serious and persisting health and environmental impacts that cannot be undone and have yet to be adequately addressed. Regular activities around the command and control of nuclear weapons, such as transport of warheads and materials, military exercises, maintenance and upgrades pose a continued risk of accidents, miscalculations or errors.

The risks of nuclear weapon use are real and increasing.

In this context, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) believes that a treaty banning nuclear weapons is the best step that can now be taken to prevent their use and progress their elimination.

The renewed attention to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons since 2010 has reinvigorated global determination to prohibit and eliminate these weapons once and for all.

In 2016, the UN General Assembly decided by overwhelming majority to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, with negotiations commencing in March 2017.

A legally binding international instrument that comprehensively and explicitly prohibits nuclear weapons based on their unacceptable consequences would put nuclear weapons on the same footing as the other weapons of mass destruction, which are subject to prohibition through specific treaties. This treaty has the transformative potential to codify the illegality of nuclear weapons, stigmatise their possession, and facilitate nuclear disarmament.

A treaty banning nuclear weapons would build on existing norms and reinforce existing legal instruments, notably obligations under Article VI of the NPT. It would also strengthen the existing nuclear weapons regime and clearly codify the illegitimacy of possession. In line with other international legal instruments addressing unacceptable weapons, it should also reaffirm the rights of people who have been victimised by nuclear weapons.

A treaty banning nuclear weapons should establish a non-discriminatory international legal instrument that would prohibit its parties, their nationals, and any other individual subject to its jurisdiction from engaging in activities such as development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment and use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The treaty should also prohibit its parties from assisting, financing, encouraging, and inducing prohibited acts. Provide 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 that are parties to the treaty could agree to relevant measures and timelines as part of the implementation process: through protocols or other appropriate legal instruments; include positive obligations for states parties, such as ensuring the rights of victims and survivors of nuclear weapons activities; requiring actions to address damage to affected environments; and providing for international cooperation and assistance to meet the obligations of the instrument.

The process for banning nuclear weapons should be open to all states and inclusive of civil society and international organisations; be initiated, conducted, concluded, and adopted by governments who share the objective of banning and eliminating nuclear weapons, even, if necessary, without the participation of the nuclear-armed states; and not rely on rules of consensus and thus be blockable by none.

Source: ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)

Next article – Iraq: 14 years after invasion

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