At high-level UN meeting, nations voice support for Humanitarian Pledge ‘to fill the legal gap’

Foreign ministers and other high-ranking government officials met at the United Nations on Wednesday to commemorate the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Many remarked that the Humanitarian Initiative on nuclear disarmament had opened up new possibilities to achieve much-needed progress towards abolishing the worst weapons of mass destruction.

Austria’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, said that, despite the failure of May’s Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to adopt a consensus outcome document, “it had the positive effect of putting the humanitarian consequences firmly into the centre of international discussions”, with 159 nations declaring that the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable under all circumstances.

It is “very encouraging”, he said, that 117 nations have so far endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge issued at the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons last December – “a call to cooperate in efforts to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”. He praised the recent deal struck with Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, describing it as “a crucial contribution to nuclear non-proliferation”. But he said that “it is not sufficient”, as “there are no right hands for the wrong weapons”.

Latin American and Caribbean nations issued a collective statement welcoming the widespread endorsement of the Humanitarian Pledge and reiterating their call for a treaty to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. Mexico commented that these nations have already banned nuclear weapons regionally – through the Treaty of Tlatelolco – and are therefore well positioned “to lead the way to a global ban on these weapons”.

Costa Rican foreign minister Manuel González Sanz called on more nations to endorse the Humanitarian Pledge and “pursue measures that will stigmatize, prohibit and ultimately lead to the elimination of all nuclear weapons”. “We cannot continue to leave the task of nuclear disarmament exclusively in the hands of countries possessing nuclear weapons, since they have shown they are not interested in losing them,” he said.

The international community has already banned chemical and biological weapons, and “the same can be done with nuclear weapons”, he said. “It is time to look for results. You can count on Costa Rica to achieve this goal.” Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, Yerzhan Ashikbayev, also highlighted this anomaly in international law: “It is unacceptable, by all norms of conscience, that while all other weapons of mass destruction have been banned, nuclear weapons – the deadliest of all of them – are not.”


A shift in the paradigm

Brazil noted that the three conferences held in 2013 and 2014 on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons had “brought about a renewed awareness of the long-lasting, devastating and indiscriminate effects of nuclear arms”. “The nuclear status quo may seem comfortable to some, but it is increasingly clear to the majority of the world that, given the risks involved, the price of inaction cannot be afforded,” it said.

Thailand said that, despite the unsuccessful NPT review conference, it remained hopeful and “encouraged by progress made on the Humanitarian Initiative and the momentum of support gathering for it”, particularly since the Vienna conference. In March this year, Thailand hosted a roundtable meeting in its capital, Bangkok, with governments and civil society representatives from across Asia Pacific, “where a number of exciting ideas and ways forward were discussed”.

“The Humanitarian Initiative has contributed significantly to the disarmament discourse. It has shifted paradigms, opened up an opportunity to address existing gaps in the legal regime concerning nuclear weapons and raised voices among a wider audience. All of this, in turn, has re-emphasized that nuclear weapons threaten all of humanity everywhere, and are not just a matter for some to deal with,” Thailand said.

South Africa remarked that the Humanitarian Initiative had reminded the international community of the “need for urgent progress towards nuclear disarmament”, while also raising “serious questions about the effectiveness of policy responses to date”. It noted that the proposals recently put forward by the New Agenda Coalition – a cross-regional grouping of nations supportive of nuclear disarmament – include the negotiation of a near-term nuclear weapons ban treaty.


A ‘moral approach’

Australia voiced its opposition to the “moral approach” of pursuing a treaty banning nuclear weapons on the basis that it ignores “current global security realities” and would be ineffective in disarming North Korea and keeping nuclear materials out of “the hands of terrorists”. However, declassified diplomatic cables obtained by ICAN show that Australia’s true objection to a ban is that it would prevent Australia from continuing to claim the protection of US nuclear weapons as part of its military posture.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, said that “one avenue ahead is the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons agenda”. However, her country has not yet endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge, even though she has publicly declared a personal commitment to endorsing it. She said that “there are still a number of humanitarian aspects of nuclear weapons that merit further study”, and proposed that the UN convene meetings to agree on further recommendations (but not negotiate a treaty).

In opening the session, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had called on states “to join forces, engage constructively and find a way forward”. But he offered no specific suggestions on how they might go about breaking through the decades-long deadlock in nuclear disarmament negotiations. He also omitted to mention the Humanitarian Initiative, which enjoys the support of over 80 per cent of the UN membership, and has become a galvanizing force for change unlike any other recent initiative in this field.


Civil society demands a ban

Speaking on behalf of ICAN, Ray Acheson of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said that opposition to the Humanitarian Initiative “reveals a concern that discussions about the unacceptable consequences of nuclear weapons will inevitably lead to their international prohibition”, as well as a concern that negotiations “can move forward even without the nuclear-armed states”.

She noted the “new sense of empowerment among the peoples and governments of countries that reject nuclear weapons” and the “growing expectation that negotiations are going to begin in the near term on a legally binding instrument for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. Such an instrument would not lead us immediately to a nuclear-weapon-free world, she said, but it “would help reinforce the norms against nuclear weapon use and possession” and complement various other measures.

Tina Stege, a representative of the Marshallese Education Initiative, also speaking on behalf of civil society, said that “the people of the Marshall Islands know what it truly means to live in a world with nuclear weapons”. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests there. “In our families and our communities, we continue to grapple with the pain and despair wrought by nuclear weapons. It is because of this knowledge that we refuse to give up hope for a nuclear-weapon-free world.”

In April 2014, the Marshall Islands filed lawsuits with the International Court of Justice aimed at compelling the nine nuclear-armed nations to fulfil their legal obligation to disarm. “Now is the time for other governments to step up to the plate and initiate negotiations to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” she said. “This would represent a crucial step forward. These negotiations should be open to all – including civil society – and be blockable by none.”