Nuclear Ban Daily, Vol. 1, No. 6

Courage and collaboration
4 April 2017

Ray Acheson

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Last week was transformative. Not just in terms of banning nuclear weapons, but in terms of international relations and the United Nations more broadly.

The majority of states—more than 130—came together at the UN to start negotiating a treaty that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (aka the P5)—and the other nuclear-armed states—do not want. This alone is transformative. It is extremely rare, if not unheard of, for anything to get done at the UN if the P5 collectively oppose it. We were told it was impossible to get traction on any issue if faced with a united front of opposition from the “powers that be,” yet we not only have traction but momentum.

In addition, throughout the week states, civil society, and international organisations engaged in interactive dialogue together, highlighting the uniquely collaborative nature of these negotiations. Civil society organisations accredited to the conference were able to give interventions on each of topics discussed by states, and on Thursday experts were invited by the President to engage informally with states to discuss some of the most critical issues under consideration.

The courage that brought states to the room to negotiate this treaty and the collaborative spirit of engaging with non-state actors have both been instrumental to the success of this initiative to ban nuclear weapons. Both courage and collaboration will remain essential ingredients to achieving success in July—which the President of the conference, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica, has said is “an achievable goal”.

Based on the debates last week, Ambassador Whyte will prepare a draft text for the treaty, to be circulated to participating states in the latter half of May or early June. Negotiations will resume at the UN for three weeks starting on 15 June, during which time governments will work their way through the draft text with the aim of concluding the treaty by 7 July.

This is an ambitious agenda, but with the good faith participation of states and others, it is certainly possible. There is broad agreement on most of the core prohibitions as well as the principles and objectives of the treaty. Outstanding issues include whether or not the treaty should prohibit threat of use, testing, and financing; how to best address victim and survivor rights and environmental remediation; and how to deal with stockpiling and verification. In the weeks ahead, it will be important for governments and civil society groups to work together to solve these remaining issues.

In the meantime, opposition and pressure will undoubtedly be felt from those governments that have chosen to (or been instructed to) boycott these negotiations. The stigmatisation of nuclear weapons resulting from the process to ban them is already affecting the perceived legitimacy of these states’ positions. A final treaty will present an incredible obstacle to the continued retention of these weapons of mass destruction. But states opposing this treaty and the change it represents cannot block this treaty’s adoption or its entry into force. Courage and collaboration will be key to resisting the pressure to come.

As we have said many times, the treaty to ban nuclear weapons is not an end in itself. It will be a catalyst for change, just as the process to negotiate it has been already. There is much work to be done ahead, and once the treaty is secured, there will be even more work to achieve its entry into force, its implementation, and of course, to achieve the overarching goal of nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapon free world. But we have seen so far should give us great hope that this is possible, and that the process of banning nuclear weapons is bringing broader change to how things can be and will be done in international relations.

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