UN to be asked to start talks in 2017 on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons

On 22 September 2016, a draft text for a UN General Assembly resolution to start talks in 2017 on a nuclear weapons ban treaty was circulated by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. A vote in the General Assembly First Committee, which is responsible for disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community, is expected in late October, with a full UN General Assembly vote expected in early December.

The draft resolution is the culmination of the three Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Oslo, 2013, Nayarit, 2014 and Vienna, 2014 and the December 2015 General Assembly Resolution endorsing the Humanitarian pledge. The resolution, supported by 139 countries, affirmed "that it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances," and called on states "to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons."

The draft resolution builds upon the August 2016 report of the Open-ended Working Group taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations that supported the call to begin talks in 2017 and outlines what many countries consider as possible elements of a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons:

A majority of States expressed support for the commencement of negotiations in the General Assembly in 2017, open to all States, international organizations and civil society, on a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, which would establish general prohibitions and obligations as well as political commitment to achieve and maintain a nuclear-weapon-free world. Representatives of civil society supported this view.

A legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons would be an interim or partial step toward nuclear disarmament as it would not include measures for elimination and would instead leave measures for the irreversible, verifiable and transparent destruction of nuclear weapons as a matter for future negotiations.

Possible elements of such an instrument could include, inter alia, the following: (a) prohibitions on the acquisition, possession, stockpiling, development, testing and production of nuclear weapons; (b) prohibitions on participating in any use of nuclear weapons, including through participating in nuclear war planning, participating in the targeting of nuclear weapons and training personnel to take control of nuclear weapons; (c) prohibitions on permitting nuclear weapons in national territory, including on permitting vessels with nuclear weapons in ports and territorial seas, permitting aircraft with nuclear weapons from entering national airspace, permitting nuclear weapons from being transited through national territory, permitting nuclear weapons from being stationed or deployed on national territory; (d) prohibitions on financing nuclear weapon activities or on providing special fissionable material to any states that do not apply IAEA comprehensive safeguards; (e) prohibitions on assisting, encouraging or inducing, directly or indirectly, any activity prohibited by the treaty; and (f) recognition of the rights of victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and a commitment to provide assist to victims and to environmental remediation.

It was noted that the elements and provisions to be included in such an instrument would be subject to its negotiation.

It is worth noting that the first proposal to prohibit nuclear weapons through a treaty was made in 1946 with the "Draft International Convention to Prohibit the Production and Employment of Weapons Based on the Use of Atomic Energy for the Purpose of Mass Destruction," presented in an address by the Soviet Representative (Andrei Gromyko) to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. In this address Gromyko explained that:

As one of the primary measures for the fulfilment of the resolution of the General Assembly of 24 January 1946, the Soviet delegation proposes that consideration be given to the question of concluding an international convention prohibiting the production and employment of weapons based on the use of atomic energy for the purpose of mass destruction.

The object of such a convention should be the prohibition of the production and employment of atomic weapons, the destruction of existing stocks of atomic weapons and the condemnation of all activities undertaken in violation of this convention.

The elaboration and conclusion of a convention of this kind would be, in the opinion of the Soviet delegation, only one of the primary measures to be taken to prevent the use of atomic energy to the detriment of mankind.

This act should be followed by other measures aiming at the establishment of methods to ensure the strict observance of the terms and obligations contained in the above-mentioned convention, the establishment of a system of control over the observance of the convention and the taking of decisions regarding the sanctions to be applied against the unlawful use of atomic energy.

For a discussion of this and other disarmament proposals, see Charting a path toward eliminating nuclear weapons. IPFM's Global Fissile Material Report 2009: A Path to Nuclear Disarmament discussed the challenges of verifiably achieving and sustaining a world free of nuclear weapons.