UN Adopts Nuclear Weapons Ban; U.S., Other Nuclear Powers Boycott

Delegates give a standing ovation after a vote by the conference to adopt a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, Friday, July 7, 2017 at United Nations headquarters. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Delegates give a standing ovation after a vote by the conference to adopt a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination, Friday at United Nations headquarters. (MARY ALTAFFER/AP)

The United Nations on Friday took a historic step in the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons, adopting for the first time a treaty that would prohibit their use.

The 10-page Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was finalized this week after months of talks undertaken by negotiators from 129 member nations. On Friday, 122 of those countries voted in favor of adopting the treaty; one, the Netherlands, voted against and Singapore abstained.

“The world has been waiting for this legal norm for 70 years,” Elayne Whyte Gómez, the chairwoman of the negotiating conference and Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said at the conclusion of the vote, as representatives burst into applause.

Beginning Sept. 20, any of the U.N.’s 192-member General Assembly may sign onto the treaty; it will go into force 90 days after it has been ratified by the 50th country. If it does, it will be the first legally binding global agreement that would ban nuclear weapons since their invention, and a significant milestone in the 70-year effort to rid the world of the threat of nuclear war.

Ratifying countries commit themselves “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It also bans participating nations from transferring and using – or threatening to use – nuclear weapons.

However, none of the world’s nuclear-armed nations, including the United States, participated in the talks. Nor did any NATO members other than the Netherlands, which is one of five nations storing U.S.-owned nuclear weapons.

Their pointed boycott cast a shadow on the celebration. In a joint statement, the U.S., the United Kingdom and France denounced the passage of the treaty as shortsighted, especially in the face of North Korea’s latest advancement in its efforts develop its nuclear capabilities.

“This initiative clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment. Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years,” the joint statement said.

“A purported ban on nuclear weapons that does not address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary cannot result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon and will not enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and security. It will do the exact opposite by creating even more divisions at a time when the world needs to remain united in the face of growing threats, including those from the DPRK’s ongoing proliferation efforts,” the statement went on. “This treaty offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, nor does it address other security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary.”

“We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it,” they wrote. .

They instead favor strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commits the five original nuclear power nations – the U.S., the UK, France, Russia and China – to work towards disarmament, and all other countries to agree not to pursue nuclear weapons technology, in exchange for allowing the development of peaceful nuclear power technology.

In addition to the five original nuclear powers, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea also have nuclear weapons.

Non-proliferations groups nonetheless hailed the treaty’s step as a victory, even without the participation of the world’s major nuclear powers.

“While the treaty itself will not immediately eliminate any nuclear weapons, the treaty can, over time, further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement. “Steps aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic nuclear weapons use are necessary and should be welcomed.”

Joe Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear nonprofit Ploughshares Fund, cheered the vote as “a stunning rebuke to the nuclear-armed states.”

“The majority of nations in the world – who do not have nuclear weapons but would suffer immensely from their use – have now condemned the very possession of the most destructive weapons ever invented.”

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