Banning Nuclear Weapons: What’s Next in New York?

Negotiations have begun in earnest this week to consider a draft convention to ban nuclear weapons. From mid-June to early July, more than 100 countries will meet at UN Headquarters in New York City to debate the text. The UN General Assembly (see Resolution L. 41) endorsed the effort in October 2016, and initial talks in the spring of 2017 led to Costa Rican Ambassador Elaine Whyte Gomez to table a draft treaty in May. This follows several years of increased focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. None of the nuclear weapon states or their key allies (such as Japan) are participating.

What does the draft treaty look like?

The slim, seven-page convention contains 21 articles related to the prohibition of nuclear weapons. It also contains a half-page annex on safeguards, which appears to be the drafters’ version of verification for a treaty whose members have already eliminated their nuclear weapons. The draft convention appears more than a symbolic prohibition on the possession and use of nuclear weapons, but it falls far short of what would be required for an effectively verifiable treaty. The next few weeks of negotiations should reveal how serious participating states are about this effort to ban nuclear weapons.

Some advocates hope the treaty will be completed in the next three weeks. To put that in context, negotiations on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which bans the proliferation of nuclear weapons) lasted four years. Even when a consensus text was submitted to the UN General Assembly, countries spent three months debating it. That treaty will be 50 years old in 2020 and key countries still have not joined (India, Pakistan, and Israel) and one (North Korea) has withdrawn from it. The Limited Test Ban Treaty took eight years to negotiate, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty took three years, but still has not entered into force after it was finalized more than 20 years ago.

What are some of the highlights of the current text?

The draft convention prohibits development, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transfer, use, nuclear testing, and assistance with respect to nuclear weapons, as well as stationing of other countries’ nuclear weapons on a party’s territory.

The convention, in its current draft, can enter into force after 40 countries have signed it, which implies there is no expectation that nuclear weapon states will join anytime soon. This can be contrasted with, for example, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required certain countries to join before it could enter into force. In fact, measures for compliance with the ban treaty distinguish between states that have eliminated their nuclear weapons and those that may not have eliminated their weapons when they join. There are several interesting ramifications of this approach. First, after the treaty enters into force, member states would have to prohibit the transit over or through their territory of nuclear weapons or stationing of nuclear weapons. If no NATO members join the treaty, there would be no problem for the United States, except potentially with respect to port calls for its submarines that carry nuclear weapons. Second, this seems to allow states with nuclear weapons to eliminate their nuclear weapons before joining the treaty without verification. While this is certainly easier politically and technically, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have confidence ultimately that all nuclear weapons and materials had been eliminated. Third, using safeguards (presumably international safeguards conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency although they are not defined as such) for monitoring does little to verify the broad sweep of prohibitions in the treaty. This is not the first time that monitoring has not matched obligations in an arms control treaty, but if the idea is to have the ban enter into force quickly to put pressure on nuclear weapon states, then the drafters should consider whether something more than national means to follow transit/deployment are needed.

Other features of the draft text include declarations, review provisions, and a standard withdrawal clause.

What is the likelihood that nuclear weapon states will join the negotiations?

Nuclear weapon states are unlikely to join this set of negotiations, particularly given the current draft text. Unfortunately, it is hard to influence discussions without being in the room. More worrisome is the absence of states such as Australia and Japan that have credibility in disarmament circles and could exert considerable influence if they chose to do so. Some of the key states in the debate to watch are Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, Egypt, Brazil, and Costa Rica.

Without the participation of nuclear weapons-holding states, a nuclear weapons ban can do little to make concrete progress toward nuclear disarmament. Nonetheless, advocates of a ban will attempt to strengthen the international norm against nuclear weapons, hopefully influencing 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.

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).

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