Negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Ban?

On October 27, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution L.41, which calls for negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban to begin in spring 2017 at the United Nations. Such a ban would legally prohibit the production, possession, and use of nuclear weapons.

Q1: What is the UN resolution to ban nuclear weapons?

A1: UN Resolution L.41, “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” emerged from the work of the Open-ended Working Group on Disarmament, which met for three sessions in 2015. The final report released in August enumerated steps for progress toward nuclear disarmament, which included such things as entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, restrictions on fissile material production, and the de-alerting of nuclear weapons. The main result of the group’s meetings this year, however, was the determination of at least 107 states to support negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban treaty. None of the nine nuclear-armed states participated in the Open-ended Working Group that preceded L.41.

UN Resolution L.41 passed by a vote of 123 in favor, 38 against, and 16 abstentions. The United States and most of its NATO allies rejected the resolution, which calls for a conference to meet in New York next spring. L.41 is not a ban in and of itself, but the vote to commence negotiations illustrates the polarity between (largely) those under the umbrella of a nuclear deterrent and those that are not. Of the nuclear-armed states, only North Korea voted in favor of the resolution; China, India, and Pakistan abstained. The UN General Assembly, unlike the Conference on Disarmament, which is the negotiating body for arms control treaties, does not require consensus to move forward.

Q2: What is the United States’ position on negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty?

A2: The United States had promised for months to vote against L.41, and most of its NATO allies also voted against it (the Netherlands abstained). Japan and South Korea also voted against the resolution, two countries that benefit from U.S. extended nuclear deterrence. The United States clarified before the vote that it would not participate in negotiations if the UN General Assembly succeeded in adopting L.41. State Department and White House officials have condemned the nuclear weapons ban as an “unrealistic” approach to disarmament and insist that an incremental process that includes all states is the only viable pathway to verifiable disarmament. At a First Committee meeting, Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, argued that “the current challenge to nuclear disarmament is not a lack of legal instruments. The challenges to disarmament are a result of the political and security realities we presently face.” In remarks delivered last month at CSIS, Jon Wolfsthal, special assistant to the president and senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council, declared that “it adds no value to negotiate a treaty that cannot be verified” and that the effort to secure a nuclear weapons ban is fundamentally detrimental to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Other permanent members of the UN Security Council (or P-5) expressed similar views. China declared that prohibition of nuclear weapons “cannot be done overnight” and must be pursued in a “step by step manner” taking into account security concerns—echoing the views of the states advocating a “progressive approach” in the working group. Russia called the conclusions of the working group “ambiguous,” noting that many did not endorse the group’s final report. Russia also insisted that L.41 undermines existing institutions, including the NPT, and that the resolution is at odds with the consensus-based approach endorsed by states at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

The United States called upon other states to reject the negotiations, and many of its allies did. Speaking on behalf of many of these states, the representative of Poland expressed his conviction that negotiations without the nuclear-armed states would be premature and not productive. He also noted concern that L.41 and disarmament negotiations would prevent the adoption of a consensus document at the next NPT Review Conference in 2020.

Q3: Will anything come of these efforts without the support of states possessing nuclear weapons?

A3: A key question is whether this is a step forward or backward. Nuclear disarmament is impossible without the cooperation of the states that have nuclear weapons. Will they be further alienated by a weapons ban negotiated without them, or will they be prompted to show tangible evidence of progress toward nuclear disarmament? Even if countries were persuaded that showing tangible evidence of progress on nuclear risk reduction would appease some of the ban proponents, current political tensions could make collaborative efforts difficult. For example, Russia’s recent dismissal of many U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation projects could make it more difficult for the next U.S. administration to justify even unilateral measures to enhance transparency and reduce risks. It will be absolutely essential to sustain programs like the International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) to keep a dialogue going, despite political tensions.

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).

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Sharon Squassoni

Amelia Armitage