UNGA First Committee adopts resolutions demanding action on humanitarian and ethical concerns about nuclear weapons

Last week, the UN General Assembly’s First Committee adopted four ground-breaking resolutions on the humanitarian consequences, the ethical aspects of nuclear disarmament, and for commencing discussions of new legal instruments and legal norms that can lead to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. ICAN campaigners worked throughout the First Committee to persuade governments to support these initiatives and to commence negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The strong support and unstoppable momentum of the humanitarian initiative was fully evident at this year’s UN General Assembly’s First Committee,  as the four resolutions were adopted with large majorities. The voting records on all the resolutions followed a familiar pattern, with the vast majority of non-nuclear weapon states voting in favour and nuclear weapon states and umbrella states either voting no or abstaining from the four resolutions. Increasingly agitated and threatened by the prospects of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, nuclear armed states and their allies attempted to threaten, pressure and block the humanitarian initiative from moving forward.

The humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament has now been formally established in the UN context by the adoption of the resolution, Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons with 136 votes in favour and 18 against. 121 countries have sought to take the discussion about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to the next level by committing to work together to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”, through signing the Humanitarian Pledge, which was submitted as a resolution and adopted with 128 votes in favour and 29 against. “The enormous support for the humanitarian pledge has been an exciting development since the Vienna Conference. With a formal endorsement of 121 states plus an additional 20 states voting in favour of this resolution, the pledge group now has an excellent opportunity to start filling the legal gap by developing an instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons” says Beatrice Fihn, ICAN Executive Director.

South Africa tabled a resolution, entitled Ethical imperatives for a nuclear-weapon-free world, declaring that “given their indiscriminate nature and potential to annihilate humanity, nuclear weapons are inherently immoral”. If the humanitarian impact discussions highlights the unacceptability of any use of nuclear weapons, the ethical imperatives tabled by South Africa crushes any arguments for possessing and relying on nuclear weapons. This resolution was adopted by 124 votes in favour and 35 against and sets the stage for commencing negotiations of a new treaty, where it highlights that all states have a responsibility to protect their people from a nuclear detonation and an ethical responsibility to act urgently to pursue legally binding measures to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

“The focus on the ethical dimension at this stage of the process is key,” says Daniela Varano, ICAN Communications Manager, “It forces governments to take a clear stand on nuclear weapons. Are they ready to accept a means of warfare that is indiscriminate and goes against the principles of humanity? If their answer is yes, history will hold them accountable.”

The adoption of the resolution Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations looks to be especially promising for the global movement to ban nuclear weapons. However, the resolution was accompanied by a concerted campaign by nuclear weapon states and their allies to discredit, undermine and even thwart the vote for this resolution. The Ambassador of the United States to the Conference on Disarmament said that Mexico was pursuing an “unacceptable resolution” with the aim to subvert the established disarmament machinery. “It will not succeed” he continued.

Aside from brazen intimidation tactics, bureaucratic hurdles and attempts were also used to delay the vote of this resolution. There were even rumours swirling around the General Assembly that the nuclear weapon states were behind a competing OEWG resolution put forward by Iran. While very similar in many ways, the Iranian version included the right of all states to use a veto over the discussions. While the nuclear weapon states were eager to support this, Israel was not, and Iran decided to drop the resolution at the last minute.

So with 135 votes in favour and only 12 against, the Mexican resolution was adopted. It establishes a body to identify and come to an agreement around the elements of a new legal instrument and new legal norms, inspired by the humanitarian imperative to stigmatise, ban and eliminate nuclear weapons. The “Open-Ended Working Group”, which will begin work in 2016 will be open to the participation of all states and will not be subject to a de facto veto by any one state which seeks to prevent progress being made towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

According to Beatrice Fihn, “The logic behind the humanitarian arguments is very difficult for nuclear armed states and their allies to oppose. No matter what undermining tactics or procedural hurdles they employ, it’s proving very difficult for them to stop this movement. The fact that those countries that want to maintain their nuclear arsenals are becoming more and more hostile about the idea of banning nuclear weapons shows us that we are on the right track”