Disarmament Diplomacy and the Nuclear Ban Treaty

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by William C. Potter

The following is an excerpt of an article published in the August/September 2017 issue of Survival.

The inclusion of a little-noticed phrase in the final document agreed by a review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010 can be seen, in retrospect, to have laid the foundation for what, some seven years later, has become a surprisingly successful effort to achieve a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons – or, as it is commonly known, a nuclear ban treaty. At the time of writing, a ban treaty was being negotiated at the United Nations, and was likely to be concluded in early July 2017. The ban treaty is, at least in some respects, an outgrowth of what can be termed the ‘humanitarian-impact movement’ (HIM). This movement, pursued by both states and civil-society groups, has sought to refocus attention on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and especially the potential impacts of their use.

The politics surrounding the movement and its relationship to the campaign for a ban treaty are complex, with many storylines, characters and subplots, and – much like Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon – the heroes and villains look very different depending on one’s vantage point, be it that of a nuclear-weapons possessor, ally of the United States, other non-nuclear-weapons state (NNWS), advocate of nuclear-weapons abolition or proponent of nuclear deterrence. This essay seeks to trace the evolution of the HIM in order to answer three questions: What gave rise to the HIM within the context of the NPT review process? How did the HIM morph into the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on disarmament, and the attendant UN General Assembly resolution to commence negotiations on a multilateral treaty to ban the possession of nuclear weapons? What are likely to be the short-term consequences of ban-treaty negotiations in the lead-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference? […]

The answers to these questions are informed by the author’s observations as a participant in the NPT review process over the course of 27 years, attendance at two of the three international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, participation in three sessions during spring 2016 of the OEWG, attendance at the UN First Committee during its historic vote on opening ban-treaty negotiations in October 2016, attendance at the first round of ban-treaty negotiations in March 2017, and separate consultations with many diplomats from different regional and political groupings who were intimately involved in the HIM or, in some instances, opposed to it. That said, this essay only begins to explore a subject that has been the focus of surprisingly little scholarship, and much more research is called for, especially with respect to elucidating more clearly the interactions between key players representing national governments and civil society.

Read the full article in Survival.

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