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In an historic move the United Nations First Committee voted Thursday to convene a conference next March to negotiate a new treaty to ban the possession of nuclear weapons. The vote is a huge step forward in the campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons launched several years ago by nonnuclear weapons states and civil society from across the globe.
Dismayed by the failure of the nuclear weapons states to honor their obligation under Article VI of the Non Proliferation Treaty which requires them to pursue good faith negotiations for the elimination of their nuclear arsenals, and moved by the growing danger of nuclear war, more than 120 nations gathered in Oslo in March of 2013 to review the latest scientific data about the catastrophic consequences that will result from the use of nuclear weapons. The conference shifted the focus of international discussion about nuclear war from abstract consideration of nuclear strategy to an evaluation of the medical data about what will actually happen if these weapons are used. It was boycotted by all of the major nuclear powers, the US, Russia, UK, China and France, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, or P5.
Further meetings in Nayarit, Mexico and Vienna followed in 2014 and culminated in a pledge by the Austrian government to “close the gap” in international law that does not yet specifically outlaw the possession of these weapons. More than 140 countries ultimately associated themselves with the pledge which was fiercely opposed by the United States and the other nuclear weapons states, and in the fall of 2015 the UN General Assembly voted to establish an Open Ended Working Group which met in Geneva earlier this year and recommended the negotiations approved Thursday.
The United States, which led the opposition had hoped to limit the “Yes” vote to less than one hundred, but failed badly. The final vote was 123 For, 38 Against and 16 Abstentions. The “No” votes came from the nuclear weapons states, and US allies in NATO, plus Japan, South Korea and Australia which have treaty ties to the US and consider themselves to be under the protection of the “US nuclear umbrella”.
But four nuclear weapons states broke ranks, with China, India and Pakistan abstaining, and North Korea voting in favor of the treaty negotiations. In addition, the Netherlands defied intense pressure from the rest of NATO and abstained, as did Finland, which is not a member of NATO but has close ties with the alliance.
Japan which voted with the US against the treaty has indicated that it will, nonetheless, participate in the negotiations when they begin in March.
The US and the other nuclear weapons states will probably try to block final approval of the treaty conference by the General Assembly later this fall, but, following Thursday’s vote, it appears overwhelmingly likely that negotiations will begin in March, and that they will involve a significant majority of UN member states, even if the nuclear states continue their boycott.
The successful completion of a new treaty will not of itself eliminate nuclear weapons. But it will put powerful new pressure on the nuclear weapons states who clearly do not want to uphold their obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty even as they insist that the nonnuclear weapons states meet theirs.
We have come perilously close to nuclear war on multiple occasions during the last 70 years, and we have been incredibly lucky. US nuclear policy cannot continue to be the hope that we will remain lucky in the future. We need to join and lead the growing movement to abolish nuclear weapons and work to bring the other nuclear weapons states into a binding agreement that sets out the detailed time line for eliminating these weapons and the detailed verification and enforcement mechanisms to make sure they are eliminated.
This will not be an easy task, but we really have no choice. If we don’t get rid of these weapons, someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, they will be used and they will destroy human civilization. The decision is ours.
Ira Helfand, MD, is past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and is currently co-president of that group’s global federation, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.