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At the UN: a stunning success for disarmament

Posted by Martin Fleck on July 14, 2017

The emotional electricity in the room was palpable. Everyone could feel that history was being made in Conference Room 1 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. And when the vote tally came in, it was followed with a roar of approval in the room. Bucking intimidation from the nuclear-armed superpowers, 122 nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons with one vote "no" and one abstention. It's official: nuclear weapons are illegal!

This was a victory for humanity, but also a victory for all PSR supporters. For years, PSR has been a part of the civil society coalition promoting the ban treaty at international conferences and a UN "Open-Ended Working Group" in Geneva, often featuring presentations by Dr. Ira Helfand. PSR Security Committee members have published countless op-eds and letters to the editor promoting the treaty in American news outlets. PSR/National and chapters cosponsored several "side events" at the UN and PSR Executive Director Jeff Carter moderated one of them.

In the actual ban treaty negotiations this year, PSR is proud to have delivered some of the "yes" votes. PSR fielded two representatives to the first week of negotiations in March, and then a team of seven for a full week in June. Our citizen-lobbyists worked with ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) to lobby national delegations. Given a list of nations to round up, the PSR team called, emailed, and visited these nations' UN missions in person in order to make contact with the country's representative. The team ensured that the nation would vote in favor of the ban treaty on July 7 and had completed the credential process to be qualified to cast their vote. In this way, PSR had a hand in 21 of the 122 nations who cast "yes" votes.

All 193 member nations of the UN were invited and encouraged to attend the negotiations. But the nuclear-armed states boycotted the treaty talks and the only "nuclear dependent" country to attend was Netherlands, who cast the single vote against. Singapore abstained. The treaty will open for signatures on September 20. It will enter into force once 50 nations have signed and ratified it, a process that could take a year or more. "Nuclear dependent" countries are those—such as Australia, Japan, and the NATO countries—who do not possess nuclear weapons, but include them in their defense planning.

Does the treaty actually change anything? Five of the nuclear-armed countries—parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—are already obligated to pursue nuclear disarmament. But the NPT does not prohibit possession of the weapons, and that is a "legal gap"—a loophole countries like the United States and Russia have taken liberties with. Now, a large majority of UN nations have closed the legal gap by declaring not only the use, but the possession of nuclear weapons to be immoral and illegal. "This treaty is a clear indication that the majority of the world no longer accepts nuclear weapons and does not consider them legitimate tools of war," said ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn.

Importantly, only nations who ratify the treaty are obligated to comply. On July 7, the United States, UK and France issued a joint statement hours after the UN vote, expressing their disdain for the treaty. No matter what your viewpoint, this treaty increases the existing stigma against nuclear weapons. This stigma is more than symbolic: just think about the world reaction to Syria's recent use of chemical weapons. The path from here to total elimination of nuclear weapons is still a long one. But in the history books, the UN vote on July 7, 2017 will mark the beginning of the end of the nuclear weapons era.

PSR's team of citizen-lobbyists gather at the Isaiah Wall outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. Pictured are Gwen DuBois, John Reuwer, Elana Simon, Kristin Jensen-Storey, Robert Dodge, and Jeff Carter.

Ira Helfand, MD, co-chair of PSR's Security Committee, has presented many times since 2012 on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons—here at a "side event" at the UN, June 27.  Dr. Helfand is also Co-President of IPPNW.

PSR Communications Manager Elana Simon served as team leader for PSR's team of 7 citizen-lobbyists at the UN, June 19-23

After the July 7 vote, PSR Security Program Director Martin Fleck congratulated ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn for the successful ban campaign.
Working with allied organizations, PSR will continue to bring the disarmament message home to American decision-makers.

Setsuko Thurlow—who survived the Hiroshima bombing at age 13—addressed the conference after the vote: "Each person who died has a name. Each person was loved by someone. I have been waiting for this day for seven decades and I am overjoyed that it has finally arrived. This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons."

The Treaty is a comprehensive ban, which prohibits use, threat to use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquiring, possession, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, stationing, installation, deployment or permitting the transit of nuclear weapons through territorial water or airspace.

This summer, if you attend a commemoration event on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing (August 6) or Nagasaki bombing (August 9) please spread the word about the new ban treaty. Would you like even more information about the ban treaty and PSR's next steps? Please contact PSR Security Program Director Martin Fleck.

The treaty text includes provisions so that even nations that are currently nuclear-armed or "include nuclear weapons in their defense doctrines" (such as Japan and NATO countries) can come into compliance and sign on.

Read PSR's press statement here.

For links to relevant news stories and op-eds on the Treaty—including many by PSR authors—see Security News and Views in this issue.


William Schmidt said ..

It's about time there's some action on the nuclear threat. I would hope that the nations opposing nuclear weapons will begin sanctions against those who have them - much like the sanctions against Iran. Only when possession of nukes starts COSTING the offenders will they begin to reconsider their positions and attitudes.

July 19, 2017
K. Lipps said ..

Thank you!!! Long time anti-nuclear activist and supporter of UCS, PSR, Peace Action & SANE/Freeze... this is a wonderful step forward. We will keep pressuring the "Nuclear Players" as it is important for future generations! I was arrested at the NTS in 1987 & 88, and continue my activism as I can. Blessings on all of you for your strong conscience & minds! Much love & prayers as we forge ahead!!!

July 18, 2017
Leo said ..


July 18, 2017
Alex Cox said ..

How do nuclear-armed states come into compliance with the Treaty? By disarming?

July 18, 2017
Margaret said ..

Amen!!!! So many blessings on all your work to make this finally happen.

July 18, 2017
Andre Sheldon said ..

The U.S. and other countries with nukes are the obstacle. Now with the treaty, it is time for the PEOPLE everywhere to be visible. A plan is ready to enlist and "UNITE" the people everywhere using Gandhi and King tactics. There are "twists" to be able to "Reach into Every Household." Steps are underway to begin a Global Movement of Nonviolence, For the Children (GMofNV). A GMofNV is designed to unite the people AND all the movements, religions, mayors and community leaders in every community so that everyone, while promoting their own cause, will also promote the umbrella movement. The anti-nuclear movement must be one of the main supporters of a GMofNV! They need each other. Without a GMofNV, we lose. Without uniting to promote a GMofNV, the environment movement loses, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy movement, etc, ALL LOSE. We are 2 minutes to midnight. A GMofNV is designed to "defuse" conflicts and give the people political clout! The strategy is outside of the box, but with tentacles to every part of society. The strategy is not to run right up the middle where the strongest obstacles are. It is designed to go around, over, under, and "meld" right into the powers that be so that there is no choice but to change! Physicians for Social Responsibility has done an incredible job and now I humbly suggest that it is time to promote nonviolence as the strategy to accomplish the highest goals. Please see Peace and Love, Andre

July 18, 2017

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