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UN Treaty Signing a Significant Step Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

By Shanta Roy

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) -- The international community took its first significant step towards a world free of nuclear weapons when over 50 countries signed a landmark treaty, which was adopted by UN member states on July 7.

The signing ceremony, which began September 20 on the sidelines of the 72nd session of the General Assembly, is expected to continue, as more countries will join the list of signatories to a treaty that was overwhelmingly voted on by 122 countries, with one against (Netherlands) and one abstention (Singapore). [P 21] ARABIC | GERMAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSON  PDF | THAI

The treaty has taken added significance against the backdrop of a possible military confrontation – and triggered by nuclear threats – by two nuclear powers, the United States and North Korea.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, UN Secretary-General António Guterres summed it up when he said: “It is an honour to oversee this historic treaty’s opening for signature – the first multilateral disarmament treaty in more than two decades.”

He said, “the heroic survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the Hibakusha – continue to remind us of the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.”

“The Treaty is an important step towards the universally-held goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. It is my hope that it will reinvigorate global efforts to achieve it,” Guterres added.

"'There remain some fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in existence. We cannot allow these doomsday weapons to endanger our world and our children’s future,' he declared.

The nuclear ban treaty explicitly outlaws the use, threat to use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquiring, possession, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, stationing, installation, and deployment of nuclear weapons. It also bans states from lending assistance, which includes such prohibited acts as financing for their development. 

The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 or more countries have ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to it.

But the world’s nine nuclear powers – the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China, along with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – have neither participated in the negotiations nor have they pledged to sign or ratify the treaty.

Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a Tokyo-based Buddhist lay organization which has relentlessly campaigned for a nuclear-free world, said the Treaty was designed with due consideration for the circumstances of the nuclear-weapon and nuclear-dependent states.

“Thus, complete elimination of a country’s nuclear arsenal is not a prerequisite for accession to the Treaty; states can become parties to the Treaty by taking their nuclear weapons off-alert and submitting a plan for the elimination of their nuclear programs,” he added.

Dr. Ikeda also argued that nuclear weapons can no longer be debated and determined only on the basis of any one country’s security needs. The peace of humankind as a whole and the collective right to life of all the world’s people must be the starting point – the foundation from which we work to eliminate nuclear weapons and develop a new security paradigm for the 21st century.

“The essence of the issue is not the confrontation between states that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not; it is the confrontation between the threat of nuclear weapons and humanity’s right to life,” he declared.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group and a leading expert on nuclear policy, described the signing ceremony as a moment of high drama in disarmament affairs.

“For the UN to mandate negotiations to ban nuclear weapons – a process being led by non-nuclear states – is unprecedented. We believe it is the most significant development in nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War.”

Alice Slater, the New York Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and who serves on the Coordinating Committee of World Beyond War, told IDN that while none of the nine nuclear weapons states attended the negotiations, as well as the NATO states – except for the Netherlands and the Pacific allies of the U.S., Australia, Japan, and South Korea – the promising response to the opening signing ceremony is an indication that the 50 countries needed to ratify the treaty in their legislatures for it to enter into force should be accomplished relatively swiftly, hopefully within the next year. 

Meanwhile, the stigmatization of nuclear weapons, she said, has begun even in the so-called “umbrella” states, which hypocritically support nuclear disarmament but rely on U.S. protective services to wreak catastrophic nuclear annihilation in their defense.

A series of anti-nuclear weapons actions after the ban treaty was signed at Germany’s air base in Buchel, where the U.S. deploys nuclear weapons, prompted a discussion in that NATO state, and Martin Schultz, the leader of the opposition Social Democrat Party, and candidate for Chancellor in the upcoming elections, called for the removal of the U.S. weapons. 

Slater said there have been other demonstrations in many NATO and nuclear states around the world pressuring their governments to sign the ban treaty and people are organizing financial divestment campaigns in nuclear weapons states and nuclear sharing states. [See www.dontbankonthebomb.com]

Responding to President Trump’s threats against North Korea, Kevin Martin, President of Peace Action and the Peace Action Education Fund, said: “North Korea is a country of 25 million people. Its regime is odious, but Trump is putting out the fire with gasoline in threatening to obliterate an entire country. Such a threat contradicts the very mission of the UN. The threat to rip up the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement is also dangerous and irresponsible. Diplomacy, not inflammatory rhetoric, is needed to resolve the Korea nuclear crisis.”

He said 122 countries that voted for the treaty understand the need to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons, rather than threaten a regional war that could turn nuclear.

Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said for decades nuclear weapons have remained the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited despite their immense destructive power and threat to humanity, and nuclear-armed states are still threatening to use them to wipe our cities and hundreds of thousands of civilians.

She said states that sign the treaty will demonstrate their commitment to a world without nuclear weapons by making them illegal.

Asked about the ratification process and the effectiveness of a treaty minus the participation of the world’s nuclear powers, Dr Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IDN ratifications must follow signatures and must take place within a given time period.

Those who miss out, he explained, can accede and, if the treaty permits, approve. It is important to follow the prescriptions of the treaty itself.

Usually, he said, internal procedures of each country specify the manner of ratification. In some, cabinet approval will suffice but not in others where the approval of the legislature may be required, especially if existing laws have to be enacted or amended.

In the U.S., the Senate must approve a treaty before it is ratified. We find that the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention or the CTBT for this reason although both were signed with much fanfare.

There is an international legal obligation, now codified in the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties, requiring ratified treaties to be implemented domestically.

If a party to a treaty breaches its obligations, other parties may take appropriate action, including retaliatory action, as specified in the treaty. By and large, countries comply with their treaty obligations. No country likes to be branded as a country that breaches its treaty obligations, said Dr Kohona, a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations.

Asked about the future of the treaty, he said: “The nuclear treaty's chances are not bright.” For it to be effective, the nuclear powers must become parties. But the treaty sends a clear message to the nuclear powers that the world wants to see a nuclear free world with or without a treaty, said Dr Kohona, an authority on international treaties with a doctorate in international trade law from Cambridge University.

“One day we may realise this aspiration and let’s hope that it will happen before "The Day After", a 1983 U.S. television drama recounting a fictional pre and post nuclear attack between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 September 2017]

Photo: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons opened for signature at United Nations headquarters in New York on 20 September 2017 and will remain open indefinitely. Once 50 nations have ratified or acceded to it, it will enter into force. Credit: ICAN

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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