The tipping point? 125 states at UNGA First Committee demand bold action

October 29, 2013

Ambassador Dell Higgie of New Zealand would have been forgiven for taking a pause to catch her breath after reading out the long list of names of the 125 states in support of the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons on 21 October 2013. She was afforded that opportunity by the eruption of applause in the room as civil society expressed its approval for states having made it clear that the most urgent concerns about these weapons – their humanitarian effects – should be at the centre of any discussion about nuclear disarmament.

The success of the statement, and the traction that the humanitarian approach has achieved over the last few years, can be traced to the significant efforts of civil society campaigners around the world who have informed, advised and pressured governments to be proactive in their support of the humanitarian initiative. The growing unity of civil society working on weapons-related issues was reflected in the Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Forum on 19-20 October, which was hosted by ICAN partners Article 36 and IKV Pax Christi and featured participation from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munitions Coalition (ICBL-CMC), the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Control Arms, Oxfam International, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others. The meeting allowed organisations from across the disarmament spectrum to share strategies and skills and discuss increased cooperation, recognising shared principles and the advantages of solidarity.

Inspired by previous successful disarmament processes, and recognising the powerful norms which have been established by treaties prohibiting other weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons, civil society is now coalescing around the need to ban nuclear weapons, and its efforts have yielded impressive results. At last year’s session of the First Committee, 34 states signed on to the joint statement delivered by Switzerland on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons. One year later there has been a 91-state increase in support for the humanitarian approach, with even a group of NATO member states recognising this growing concern in a separate statement, delivered by Australia. There are those who would seek to minimise the importance of the humanitarian initiative, claiming that it is little more than an acknowledgment by states that nuclear weapons are dangerous, which we have already known for years. Others even call it “a distraction”. However, ask any keen observer around the world, or indeed anyone in the room at the United Nations who felt the buzz when the statement was delivered, and they would tell you that the new momentum in the nuclear disarmament debate represents much more than that.

Recognising the humanitarian approach is an acknowledgment of the fact that the manner in which nuclear disarmament has proceeded over the last 40+ years since the NPT was established is no longer acceptable. It is clear that the efforts of the nuclear-armed states in fulfilling the disarmament pillar of the treaty are inadequate, and further, their insistence that the so-called “step-by-step” approach (to be led exclusively by nuclear weapons possessors) is the only way to make progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons is inaccurate at best and disingenuous at worst. Something new is happening and that is undeniable. Many parties are putting forward new ideas as to how we can really break the status quo. The Open-Ended Working Group which took place in 2013 has provided space for discussions of these different options among civil society, states and experts from academia and international relief organisations such as the Red Cross and UN agencies such as UNDP and OCHA.

As the humanitarian initiative has grown in stature and resonance, so has the concept of a ban treaty as a plausible and achievable means of breaking through the mire of the stagnant status quo. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) argues that a legal instrument prohibiting all aspects of nuclear weapons would not only correct the anomaly in international law that at present allows for the most destructive of all weapons of mass destruction to not have been expressly made illegal, but would also be a decisive next step towards the global elimination of nuclear weapons. As President Heinz Fischer laid out at the High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament in New York just a month ago, the path forward has been laid out: we have to “stigmatize, ban and eliminate” nuclear weapons.

Right around the corner is the meeting of states, civil society and academia that Mexico will host on 13-14 February 2014. This conference will be a critical next step in a process to acknowledge, understand and then respond to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. States are aware of the significance of this moment, and, propelled by civil society, they are starting to make the logical connection between the truth about nuclear weapons and what can and must be done now to bring about their complete elimination. Some will still cling to a wait-and-see approach and place their hopes on a breakthrough in the deadlocked disarmament machinery. Others will have recognised that we cannot afford to wait and see any longer. The NPT is a critical and indispensable component of the machinery of nuclear disarmament, but it needs to be strengthened. A treaty banning nuclear weapons would do just that – it would increase the force and speed behind the imperative to disarm, effectively complementing the existing obligations in the treaty. The overwhelming majority of states denounce the utter lack of progress made in nuclear disarmament. They criticise the nuclear-armed state parties to the NPT for not fulfilling up their end of the “bargain” that allowed them to hold onto their nuclear weapons in exchange for a general agreement of non-proliferation.

The work that civil society has undertaken over the last year has dramatically altered the discourse around nuclear weapons and has created the momentum for a change. Now, at the First Committee, 125 non-nuclear weapon states have declared that we cannot forget what these weapons actually mean – unacceptable humanitarian consequences for which no state or international organisation could provide an adequate response  – and the next step towards a world free of nuclear weapons must be a bold one. It is imperative that we continue and build upon these efforts to achieve the turning point in the path towards elimination – a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

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