At an international conference this week on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna, Austria issued a pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”
“Anyone in Vienna can tell that something new is happening on nuclear weapons. We have had three conferences examining their humanitarian impact, and now with the Austrian pledge we have everything we need for a diplomatic process to start”, said Thomas Nash of UK NGO Article 36.
Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to a global ban. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commits states to “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.” The lack of progress toward that goal has become increasingly frustrating to the non-nuclear states that make up the majority of the world’s countries. Next year — the 70th anniversary of the A-bomb attacks on Japan — there will be a major conference in New York reviewing the implementation of the NPT. Many states are looking for a way to get out of the nuclear gridlock.
Over the last few years a potential way forward has emerged from the humanitarian and human rights community, working with a range of small and middle powers. At conferences in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna, states have begun talking about the potential humanitarian and environmental risks and impacts of nuclear weapons and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has catalyzed civil society momentum. Rather than waiting for the nuclear powers to disarm themselves, this has shifted the impetus for action to non-nuclear states and civil society. There is a growing realization that, like the processes on landmines and cluster munitions, they can move forward with stigmatizing nuclear weapons without the buy-in of those states that own them. We don’t usually wait from those who are the problem to ban their own behavior, so why would we wait for nuclear armed states to do so.
The emerging proposal is a prohibition on the use, stockpiling, development and transfer of nuclear weapons, as outlined in a recent report by Article 36 and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Reaching Critical Will project. At the Vienna conference, 44 states called for such a prohibition and the “Austria Pledge” essentially called for the establishment of a negotiating process.
Nuclear weapons represent an existential threat to the globe. They are a threat to fundamental right to life. They distort our social systems, taking much-needed fiscal resources from health, education and other life-giving priorities. They entrench an international system that unjustly favors the great powers. They are an anomaly — the only WMD that is still not prohibited. They are impossible to use without violating humanitarian law. It’s time to ban nuclear weapons.
To learn how you can get involved in this effort to make the world a safer, more just and peaceful place, visit the website of ICAN.