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Bulletin 222: UN debate on banning nuclear weapons begins; 127 or more countries in favor so far

October 5, 2016

Dear friends –

This past Monday, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) began consideration of a draft resolution introduced by Austria, Mexico, South Africa, Ireland, Brazil and Nigeria that mandates negotiation, in 2017, of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Some 127 countries have pledged to support such negotiations (or 139, counting the countries which voted for the same pledge in the form of an UNGA resolution last fall). Obviously, this is a large majority of the world’s states.

Friends, this is a very big deal. As it has proceeded so far, progress toward a ban treaty is the biggest good news in nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War and the stockpile drawdowns and de-alertings of the first Bush presidency.

In the UNGA, which follows a majority rule, passage of a negotiating mandate cannot be blocked by the 9 nuclear weapon states – or these 9 plus the U.S.’s nuclear-dependent allies (the 27 non-nuclear NATO countries plus Australia, South Korea, and Japan), plus some NATO wannabes and a few others.

States promoting the legitimacy of nuclear weapons will therefore try to delay, dilute, or otherwise hamper passage of such a negotiating mandate as best they can – and similarly, they will try to interfere with treaty negotiations next year, should such a mandate pass.

You can follow the UNGA debate via live updates from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN).

At an event in Washington this past August, I (Greg) spoke with Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman about this process. Since accession to any ban treaty would be voluntary, I suggested that the U.S. (and his Bureau in particular) had every reason to get behind such a treaty (or at least halt opposition to it). Mr. Countryman disagreed, of course. The progress to date toward a ban treaty clearly upset him.

The nub of the problem, as he saw it, was that a ban treaty would be used by disarmament-oriented NGOs to put tremendous “pressure” on the U.S. and its nuclear allies much more effectively than any “pressure” which could be brought to bear on Russia or China.

So once again, as we see so often, it’s all about U.S. power vis-à-vis our “adversaries,” especially Russia.[1]

For further background please see “UN Disarmament Working Group Calls for 2017 Negotiations to Ban Nuclear Weapons” (Aug 19, 2016), Bulletin 218: UN Working Group builds momentum among large majority of world's countries toward treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, (May 15, 2016), “Would a Ban Treaty be an Effective Disarmament measure? How?” (May 13, 2016), and relevant posts at Forget the Rest. Superb analyses and updates can be found (among other places) at Reaching Critical Will, Wildfire, and of course ICAN.

The time is fast approaching when U.S. journalists, NGOs, and academics will need to think hard about whether to support (either actively or with silence), the U.S. government’s efforts to block other states from negotiating a treaty that would declare the possession and use of nuclear weapons illegal.

Many nuclear weapons experts in the U.S. can hardly imagine a disarmament process which does not begin with, center on, and require acceptance by the United States at every step. The idea of an international humanitarian norm that creates terrific “pressure,” to use Countryman’s word, on the U.S., is as unthinkable as it is a career-killer for U.S.-based and U.S.-funded nuclear experts. Please, friends, think again. New doors are opening.

More soon,

Greg, for the Study Group

PS: Greg and Trish will return from the First Committee in time for an important Study Group update and action planning meeting on Wednesday, 10/19, at 7:00 pm, Santa Fe, at The Commons, 2300 West Alameda St. (map).


[1] As a reminder, only the U.S. has promised to use nuclear weapons in response to attacks on its allies. Threatened nuclear use is part of the “glue” that holds the U.S. empire together, Mr. Countryman implied. This includes first nuclear use, lately at the explicit insistence of Japan.

To make these nuclear threats more credible, the U.S. (and only the U.S.) stations nuclear weapons on the territories of other countries (currently, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey). Only the U.S. has arrangements to transfer nuclear weapons custody to other countries’ militaries in the event of war in these same countries, except Turkey. These nuclear basing and sharing arrangements appear to violate provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).


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