Banning Nuclear Weapons
March 27, 2017
This week, members of the United Nations will meet to begin negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The effort was endorsed by the UN General Assembly (see Resolution L. 41) in October 2016, following several years of increased focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. After the initial week-long meeting at the UN headquarters in New York, the negotiators are expected to meet again in New York early this summer to draft a treaty that some hope will outlaw nuclear weapons. It is not clear how simple or complex the treaty will be, but it is likely to take place without the assistance, participation, or approval of the states that actually possess nuclear weapons.
Q1: Why ban nuclear weapons now?
A1: Nuclear weapons abolition efforts are as old as the weapons themselves. The devastation of the 1945 bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted civil society organizations (including some founded by nuclear weapons scientists) to advocate their abolition. States were able to bring into force treaties to abolish other weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons and biological weapons—but nuclear weapons have largely eluded restrictions. There are nuclear-weapons-free zones but no restrictions applied to those countries that have nuclear weapons to use or possess them. Today, the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel have nuclear weapons. The global stockpile is about 15,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy the planet, but many fewer than the 70,000 weapons that existed at the height of the Cold War.
The United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France—the so-called P-5 because they are permanent five members of the UN Security Council—have an obligation under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue nuclear disarmament negotiations in exchange for other states foreswearing nuclear weapons. Dissatisfaction with the pace of those negotiations (never undertaken) by more than 120 countries has led to this juncture.
Q2: What would a treaty to ban nuclear weapons look like?
A2: It’s not clear whether negotiators will seek a simple ban on the use of nuclear weapons, or whether they will seek wider obligations also against the possession, maintenance, and/or modernization of such weapons. It is also not clear whether negotiators will attempt to draft a workable (that is, with real obligations and verification) or a symbolic treaty.
Q3: What are the positions of the nuclear weapons-possessing states?
A3: None of the P-5 members of the UN Security Council will participate in the negotiations. China abstained from the vote late last year authorizing the negotiations, but the other P-5 voted against L-41. The United States has opposed the negotiations, arguing that it distracts from other potential avenues through which to make real progress toward disarmament. Most, though not all, members of NATO will also be absent.
North Korea was the only nuclear weapons holder to vote in favor of the negotiations, but it is not clear whether it will send a delegation to the talks.
Q4: What is the relationship between the potential nuclear weapons ban and other arms control treaties?
A4: Though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty mandates that states undertake “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to…disarmament and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” the upcoming prohibition treaty negotiations will be conducted entirely outside the NPT and the NPT Review process. A treaty that emerges from this process could include some reference to the NPT—potentially reaffirming its role in disarmament and nonproliferation—but the ban treaty is likely to be fundamentally separate from the NPT. This has the advantage of potentially including states like India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, which are not now parties to the NPT (North Korea was a member and withdrew in 2003).
Those states opposing the ban have pointed to the potential negative impact of the ban on the NPT. They worry that the ban could emerge as an alternative to the NPT, with predictably bad outcomes. In explaining its decision not to participate in the negotiations, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared that “relevant process must be advanced within the existing international disarmament and non-proliferation regime.” The United States has also expressed concern that the negotiations distract from other, more productive steps that contribute to nuclear disarmament—for example, multilateral efforts to improve verification capabilities through the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification.
Q5: If a ban is not signed by nuclear weapon states, isn’t it useless?
A5: Without the participation of nuclear weapons-holding states, there is little a prohibition treaty can do to make concrete progress toward disarmament. However, advocates of a ban seek to strengthen the international norm against nuclear weapons and perhaps influence countries’ doctrine, policies, and reliance upon nuclear weapons.
Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Amelia Armitage is a research assistant with the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images