|"Forget the Rest" blog|
Updated: For immediate release December 23, 2016 8:00 pm MST
In Historic Vote, UN General Assembly Mandates
“Most significant nuclear disarmament development
Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 (office), 505-577-8563 (cell)
Trish Williams-Mello, 505-265-1200 (office), 505-577-3366 (cell)
10:00 pm EST Update – UN General Assembly approves historic resolution in evening session
The resolution was carried by a large majority despite the late hour on a Friday evening two days before Christmas, with 113 member states voting in favour, 35 against, and 13 abstaining.
According to a press release this evening from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which has been coordinating NGO support for a nuclear ban treaty, the US attempted to block funding for negotiations earlier this week:
At a UN budget committee meeting earlier this week, the United States attracted the ire of other nations when it objected to a funding request for the planned four weeks of negotiations on the treaty, to be held at UN headquarters in New York. But under intense pressure from supporters of nuclear disarmament, it eventually withdrew its objection, and the committee authorized the request.
Albuquerque, 12/23/16 noon – In a historic vote expected to occur late this afternoon or evening in New York, the UN General Assembly (UNGA), barring unforeseen and unlikely developments, will endorse a 2017 negotiating mandate (Resolution L.41, “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament”), developed and passed in the UN First Committee on October 27 by a wide margin of states (123 yeas, 38 nays, and 16 abstentions).
For background on the vote see: “UN votes to outlaw nuclear weapons in 2017” (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Oct 27, 2016) and “Historic UN vote to mandate negotiation of treaty banning nuclear weapons” (Los Alamos Study Group, Oct 24, 2016). A concise explanation and FAQs about the upcoming negotiations can be found in a December summary by ICAN. Selected further background is here and at ICAN.
The resolution’s operative paragraphs mandate “a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination,” to occur “from 27 to 31 March and from 15 June to 7 July 2017, with the participation and contribution of international organizations and civil society representatives.”
Crucially, treaty negotiations would occur under General Assembly rules – that is, without a consensus requirement or veto option, “unless otherwise agreed by the conference.” Creating a negotiating forum without a de facto veto rule has been a major goal of the resolution’s sponsors.
L.41 requires the spring 2017 negotiating conference to “submit a report on its progress to the General Assembly at its seventy-second session [autumn, 2017], which will assess the progress made in the negotiations and decide the way forward” – by majority rule, again.
The ban treaty envisioned by the resolution would stigmatize and prohibit nuclear weapons, closing the “legal gap” stemming from nuclear weapon state practice and their associated assertion in diplomatic and legal fora that nuclear weapons are completely legitimate weapons – for these states only.
In 2015, the Washington Post called the ban process an “uprising among civil society groups and the coalition of 107 [later, 127] states, which are seeking to reframe the disarmament debate as an urgent matter of safety, morality and humanitarian law.”
This mandate, and the multiyear diplomatic groundswell leading up to it, have been strenuously opposed all along by the United States and, to a lesser extent, by other nuclear weapon states. In an October 2016 letter to NATO members the US warns that the effects of a ban treaty will be “wide-ranging.” “Allies and partners should not underestimate the breadth of potential impacts…or their potential to grow more severe over time.” A ban treaty “could even have an impact prior to its entry into force.”
The US has vowed to boycott the 2017 negotiations and has encouraged its allies to do so also, but there are indications that heavy-handed US pressure has backfired.
Study Group Director Greg Mello: “It is a moment of high drama in disarmament affairs. For the UN to mandate negotiations to ban nuclear weapons – a process being led by non-nuclear states – is unprecedented. We believe it is the most significant development in nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War.
“This resolution rejects nuclear deterrence entirely, on moral and legal grounds. It would immediately lower the political and military credibility of nuclear threats. It would lower the status and legitimacy of nuclear weapons, even within nuclear states. Its efficacy would develop further over time, by means which nuclear states cannot fully control.
“This negotiating mandate is a product of the rising multipolar world. More than the legitimacy and status of nuclear weapons is in play. The nuclear ban process is also about initiative and leadership in world affairs – who can have them and who cannot. The ban process is in part about who can decide whether nuclear weapons are legitimate.
“Despite the shameful efforts of the Obama administration to stop the ban process, it has a lot of momentum now. Will 2017 be the year nuclear weapons are banned? Quite possibly so.
“Diplomats from countries without nuclear weapons and alliances have given us a wonderful holiday present. They are reasserting civilizational values. We look forward to negotiations next year.”
 The permanent members of the UN Security Council (“P-5”), namely China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US, are recognized as nuclear states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT, text) and are vaguely obligated to disarm (see Article VI); these states generally interpret this obligation as a license to possess nuclear weapons indefinitely. The nuclear arsenals of India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan are not subject to even the vaguest of nuclear disarmament treaties, another “legal gap.”