A victory for disarmament! UN votes to negotiate a nuclear weapons ban treaty
November 11, 2016
In a stunning victory for PSR and our international partners, the United Nations First Committee voted October 27 to begin negotiations in 2017 for a nuclear weapons ban treaty. The vote was 123 for, 38 against, and 16 abstentions on Resolution L.41, titled "Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations." As expected, the United States voted "no." But this historic vote gets past a logjam that has stalled international progress toward nuclear disarmament for decades. It was the culmination of a years-long effort by PSR and our affiliates, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Momentum has been building toward this vote in a process that has changed the international debate over nuclear weapons – shifting attention from the military planning of nuclear-armed states to a focus on the profound humanitarian impact that use of these weapons would have. The vote is both the culmination of a long, complicated campaign, and the beginning of a whole new process.
So what exactly is a "nuclear weapons ban treaty"?
Dr. Ira Helfand, co-chair of PSR’s Security Committee and Co-president of IPPNW, explains: “The ban treaty will stigmatize nuclear weapons and those who possess them. It is designed to put pressure on the nuclear-armed states to commence further negotiations for a detailed agreement setting forth a timeline for actually eliminating the weapons and detailed verification and enforcement mechanisms. Further negotiations including the nuclear-armed states will be needed to follow-through on verifiable elimination of the world's nuclear arsenals.”
Background: Ever since 1970, when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty went into effect, there has been tension between the nuclear-armed and non-nuclear armed countries who are party to the treaty, because the nuclear-armed states have dragged their heels on fulfilling their nuclear disarmament obligations under NPT Article VI. Since around 2010, PSR and our international affiliates have been working--along with the International Red Cross, the Austrian government, and many other allies—to promote the Humanitarian Impact initiative. ICAN promoted a series of three international “Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons” conferences—in Norway, Mexico and Austria--drawing attention to the horrific humanitarian threat that the nuclear-armed states pose to the world population. PSR and IPPNW data on “Nuclear Famine” played a central part in these discussions.
In late 2015, responding to the conferences, the United Nations established an "Open Ended Working Group"(OEWG) to pursue disarmament. All through 2016, ICAN pushed very publicly for a ban treaty and at the same time lobbied national delegations to the OEWG. As part of this effort, IPPNW joined with four other international health federations to deliver a powerful joint statement on behalf of 15 million health professionals worldwide titled The health and humanitarian case for banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. These federations are: IPPNW, the World Medical Association (WMA), the International Council of Nurses (ICN), and the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA). Ira Helfand traveled to Geneva and represented PSR and IPPNW at a press event announcing the alliance and its statement on May 2, and at an all-day official OEWG panel on May 4.
This work led to over 100 nations expressing support for ban treaty negotiations at the OEWG, and a very lopsided 68 to 22 vote August 19 to recommend that the General Assembly convene negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty in 2017.
Next, the struggle moved from Geneva to the UN First Committee in New York City. On September 28, representatives of the four international health federations joined forces to co-author an op-ed in The Guardian titled Banning Nuclear Weapons is Crucial for Global Health. Doctors Ira Helfand and Tilman Ruff both represented IPPNW.
On October 17 and 18, a team of eight PSR representatives traveled to United Nations headquarters to work with ICAN campaigners at the UN First Committee. In this group:, David Drake, D.O., Claire Drake , Ira Helfand, M.D.; Clay Whitehead, M.D., Shannon Gearhart, M.D.; Tammy Murphy, Alfred Meyer, and Martin Fleck. PSR’s team lobbied national delegations from non-nuclear nations, lining up "yes" votes for L.41. To also make our case to the United States government, PSR representatives met with the NGO Liaison for the U.S. Mission to the UN, Peggy Kerry (John Kerry's older sister).
When the long-anticipated UN vote finally arrived, PSR, IPPNW and ICAN all celebrated victory with a vote of 123 for, 38 against, and 16 abstentions. Among the nine nuclear-armed nations, the USA, Russia, UK, France, and Israel voted no. China, India and Pakistan voted "abstain" and ever-unpredictable North Korea voted "yes." At the urging of the United States and UK, the so-called "nuclear umbrella nations," whose defense plans include nuclear weapons, voted "no." This group included Japan, South Korea, and all members of NATO except Netherlands, which abstained under pressure from Dutch citizens and the Dutch Parliament.
Dr. Robert Dodge, PSR Security Committee co-chair and PSR-Los Angeles President, summed up the story thusly: "The non-nuclear nations have decided to take their survival and that of the planet into their own hands, refusing to be held hostage by the nuclear-armed nations. They will no longer be bullied into sitting back and waiting for the nuclear-armed nations to make good on empty promises."
The next step will be a vote in the full UN General Assembly, which is expected in late November or early December, 2016.