Global momentum is building for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons! While the world has banned chemical and biological weapons, there is no explicit legal prohibition of nuclear weapons, although the International Court of Justice ruled unanimously that there is an obligation to bring to a conclusion negotiations for their total elimination. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, required the five existing nuclear weapons states, the US, Russia, UK, France and China (P-5) to make “good faith efforts” to eliminate their nuclear weapons, while the rest of the world promised not to acquire them (except for India, Pakistan, Israel, who never signed the NPT). North Korea relied on the NPT Faustian bargain for “peaceful” nuclear power to build its own bomb, and then walked out of the treaty.
More than 600 members of civil society, from every corner of the globe, with more than half of them under the age of 30 attended a fact-filled two day conference in Vienna organized by the International Coalition to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), to learn of the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons from the bomb and from testing as well, and of the frightening risks from possible accidents or sabotage of the nine nuclear arsenals around the world. The meeting was a follow up to two prior meetings in Oslo, Norway and Nayarit, Mexico. ICAN members, working for a treaty to ban the bomb, then joined a meeting hosted by Austria for 158 governments in the historic Hofburg Palace, which has served as the residence of Austrian leaders since before the founding of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
In Vienna, the US delegate, delivered a tone-deaf statement on the heels of heart-wrenching testimony of catastrophic illness and death in her community from Michelle Thomas, a down winder from Utah, and other devastating testimony of the effects of nuclear bomb testing from the Marshall Islands and Australia. The US rejected any need for a ban treaty or a nuclear convention and extolled the step by step approach (to nuclear weapons forever) but changed its tone in the wrap-up and appeared to be more respectful of the process. There were 44 countries who explicitly spoke of their support for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, with the Holy See delegate reading out Pope Francis’ statement also calling for a ban on nuclear weapons and their elimination in which he said, “I am convinced that the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home.” This was a shift in Vatican policy which had never explicitly condemned deterrence policies of the nuclear weapons states although they had called for the elimination of nuclear weapons in prior statements.
Significantly, and to help move the work forward, the Austrian Foreign Minister added to the Chair’s report by announcing a pledge by Austria to work for a nuclear weapons ban, described as “taking effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.” The NGO strategy now as presented at the ICAN debriefing meeting right after the conference closed, is to get as many nations as we can to support the Austrian pledge coming into the CD and the NPT review and then come out of the 70th Anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a concrete plan for negotiations on a ban treaty. One thought about the 70th Anniversary of the bomb, is that not only should we get a huge turnout in Japan, but we should acknowledge all the victims of the bomb, illustrated so agonizingly during the conference by Hibakusha and down winders at test sites. We should also think about the uranium miners, the polluted sites from mining as well as manufacturing and use of the bomb and try to do something all over the world at those sites on August 6th and 9th as we call for negotiations to begin to ban nuclear weapons and eliminate them.
Only a few days after the Vienna conference, there was a meeting of the Nobel Laureates in Rome, who after meeting with Nobel Prize winning IPPNW members Tilman Ruff and Ira Helfand, continued the momentum created in Vienna and issued a statement which not only called for a ban on nuclear weapons, but asked that negotiations be concluded within two years!
We urge all states to commence negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time, and subsequently to conclude the negotiations within two years. This will fulfill existing obligations enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which will be reviewed in May of 2015, and the unanimous ruling of the International Court of Justice. Negotiations should be open to all states and blockable by none. The 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2015 highlights the urgency of ending the threat of these weapons.
One way to slow down this process to negotiate a legal ban on nuclear weapons would be for the NPT nuclear weapons states to promise at this five year NPT review conference to set a reasonable date to bring to a conclusion time-bound negotiations and effective and verifiable measures to implement the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Otherwise the rest of the world will start without them to create an explicit legal prohibition of nuclear weapons which will be a powerful taboo to be used for pressuring the countries cowering under the nuclear umbrella of the nuclear weapons states, in NATO and in the Pacific, to take a stand for Mother Earth, and urge that negotiations begin for the total abolition of nuclear weapons!
Alice Slater is NY Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and serves on the Coordinating Committee of Abolition 2000.