by Ray Acheson, Beatrice Fihn, and Katherine Harrison*
originally posted on Reaching Critical Will
Momentum for a ban
“Nayarit is a point of no return,” concluded the Chair of the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, held from 13–14 February in Nayarit, Mexico. In his summary of the meeting, he called for the development of new international standards on nuclear weapons, including a legally-binding instrument. The time has come, he argued, for a diplomatic process to reach this goal, within a specified timeframe. He called for this process to conclude by the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This summary, coupled with the announcement by the Austrian government before the conference that it will host the next meeting in the humanitarian initiative, marks a turning point in the process to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons. During the conference itself, the vast majority of the 146 governments present demanded concrete political and legal action against nuclear weapons, with more than ever before calling specifically for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
As with Oslo before it, the conference in Nayarit exposed nuclear weapons as dangerous and destructive. The evidence presented by UN agencies, academics, former military officials, and civil society organizations clearly revealed that the continued possession and deployment of nuclear weapons is a reckless and unsanctionable gamble with the future of humanity and the planet.
The expert panelists presented information and analysis on the likely impact of a nuclear weapons detonation on economic and social infrastructure, public health, the climate, agriculture, and more. They also assessed the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, either by accident or design. The conclusion of these panels was overwhelmingly clear: the immediate and long-term effects of even a single nuclear weapon detonation, let alone a nuclear exchange, would be catastrophic.
The evidence presented also demonstrated that the mere existence of nuclear weapons generates great risk. Some of the studies presented at the conference explored numerous instances where the incidence of an accidental nuclear detonation has hung on a razor’s edge. Such accidents are only made possible, however, because the military doctrines of the nuclear-armed states and some of their allies require preparations for the deliberate use of nuclear weapons—in many cases within minutes of an order being given.
Yet some of these countries continue to believe that nuclear weapons bring them security and stability. Despite the evidence about the horror, instability, and injustice generated by nuclear weapons, a handful of nuclear-dependent states such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, and Turkey spoke with trepidation about any new initiatives to confront the challenges posed by nuclear weapons. Signaling once again their inclination to stand outside the growing norm in favor of taking concrete action even without the nuclear-armed states, they argued that “simply banning” nuclear weapons will not guarantee their elimination. They also argued that such initiatives were more likely to “antagonize” the nuclear-armed states than to bring them into a multilateral process.
Yet the path they prefer—pressing for implementation of the NPT action plan, continuing to promote the “step by step” approach to nuclear disarmament, and insisting on the participation of nuclear-armed states—also does not guarantee the elimination of nuclear weapons. In fact it has failed to achieve this goal. Incremental steps that have been agreed to over the past twenty years have not been implemented and the actions of some nuclear-armed states have actually resulted in steps backwards. Under prevailing domestic and international political circumstances, the nuclear-armed states are unlikely to support any serious efforts towards the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.
This is why more governments than ever have expressed interest in trying something new. Rather than repeating the same approach to try to force a grand, comprehensive step-by-step solution, nuclear weapon-free states are calling for a new approach. The call for a ban on nuclear weapons overcomes the dilemma posed by placing the onus on the nuclear-armed states to lead a process for nuclear disarmament. Emboldened by the discourse on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which not only allows but even demands the participation of all countries in the world, these countries are indicating a growing willingness to take action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
“It seems clear to us that inevitable and unavoidable policy implications arise from what we now know about the extent of the risks involved,” argued the Irish delegation. In this vein, most governments taking the floor during the conference argued that it now time to examine ways forward that, as New Zealand’s representative said, do not simply rely on implementation of the NPT or a hope of compliance with international humanitarian law.
For at least 20 governments participating in the conference, the way forward is a ban on nuclear weapons. And despite the concerns of some of the nuclear-dependent governments, a treaty banning nuclear weapons should not be seen as antagonistic towards nuclear-armed states. It would constitute a coherent approach to setting the conditions and framework for nuclear disarmament and overcoming some of the inertia undermining the elimination of nuclear weapons.
History shows that legal prohibitions of weapon systems—their possession as well as their use—facilitate their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed increasingly become seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and, along with it, the money and resources for their production and modernization. Banning nuclear weapons also addresses the anomaly that nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not subject to an explicit legal prohibition.
The Thai representative described the Mexico conference as a call to action to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. From civil society’s perspective, the conferences in Oslo and Mexico have created our best opportunity to start the process to achieve this world. States must embrace this opportunity when they meet in Vienna later this year.
We face a daily risk that a nuclear weapon will be detonated, either by accident, miscalculation, or design. Thus the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is an imperative that should be approached with the utmost urgency. The momentum created this week by the Austrian government’s announcement and the Mexican government’s conference summary must be carried forward with conviction and courage.
Summary of discussions
At least 20 delegations, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Morocco, Jordan, Zambia, Palestine, Mongolia, Tanzania, Malawi, Slovakia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, the Holy See, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Nigeria, and Malaysia, supported by the ICRC, explicitly called for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Mexico’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, led the charge, stating that nuclear weapons must be banned and the world’s safety cannot rely on weapons of mass destruction. Costa Rica called for the negotiation of an instrument to ban nuclear weapons, emphasizing that the humanitarian focus on the impact of nuclear weapons was the right approach to spearhead our efforts. Morocco stated that Nayarit presented an important phase through which to launch a concrete political message and that the next phase of political action to obtain “the noble goal of banning nuclear weapons” is now needed.
Zambia made a strong appeal for a ban on the use, production, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, saying that a comprehensive ban had “gained grip” in the international system over the past couple of years. A ban is the preferred first step towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, it said. Palestine gave its support for the adoption of a blueprint in Nayarit with the objective of banning nuclear weapons and eliminating them within a concrete timeframe. Jordan said it joined the call for an early start of negotiations on a legally binding instrument for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Mongolia noted a growing trend to ban nuclear weapons was underway and expressed its hope that the upcoming conference in Austria would lead to concrete talks on a ban. Tanzania and Nigeria expressed concern that there is no international treaty banning these weapons of mass destruction and stressed the absolute necessity to abolish them from earth. Malawi stated that the conferences in Nayarit and Oslo have cemented the conviction among states that nuclear weapons must be banned once and for all and that it is the duty of states to start the negotiations of a legally-binding ban.Slovakia pledged its full support for a legally-binding instrument on the elimination of nuclear weapons and called for the substantive engagement of nuclear-armed states to translate a ban into the elimination of nuclear arsenals.
Kiribati on behalf of six pacific island states, Samoa, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea, stated that a treaty banning nuclear weapons is long overdue. The island states appealed to all non-nuclear weapons states not to sit back and wait for the nuclear-armed states to lead the way but instead to set the agenda for concrete steps towards the negotiation of a legally-binding treaty.
The Holy See said it is high time to take the next steps and use the momentum of the Nayarit conference to launch a plan of action towards the development of an international norm and legal ban on nuclear weapons for the benefit of humanity.
Iran called for the development of a roadmap and action plan with objective of banning nuclear weapons, which are an existential threat that cannot be tolerated. Cuba laid out five concrete steps in a process towards an international ban and the total eradication of nuclear weapons. Chile likewise said nuclear weapons should be banned in a legally-binding instrument and urged all countries to share this vision.
Over 50 states from every region of the world made statements unequivocally calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons and the achievement of a nuclear weapons free world, including the Philippines, Belarus, Colombia, Guatemala, Jordan, Cuba, Peru, Austria, Ukraine, Ireland, Holy See, Japan, Malawi, Slovakia, Iraq, Indonesia, Laos, the Czech Republic, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Iran, Nicaragua, Morocco, El Salvador, Thailand, Vietnam, Palestine, India, Netherlands, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Nepal, Myanmar, New Zealand, Tanzania, Nigeria, Comoros, Kiribati and the pacific island states, Malaysia, Jamaica, and Hungary. Others were equally clear in their calls for a convention on the elimination of nuclear weapons or a new legally binding instrument, including Egypt, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Mongolia, New Zealand, Lebanon, Switzerland, Nigeria, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Iran, Chile, Jordan, and Slovakia.
There was overwhelming support for Austria’s announcement to hold the next meeting of what is now clearly established as an international diplomatic process on nuclear weapons. Over 40 delegations, including Ireland, Guatemala, Algeria, Brazil, Ecuador, Holy See, Mozambique, Iran, Trinidad and Tobago, Morocco, Finland, Lebanon, Jordan, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Zambia, Palestine, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Mongolia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Tanzania, Nigeria, Macedonia, Egypt, the Netherlands, India, Laos, Bhutan, Iraq, Malawi, Congo, Malaysia, and Hungary, as well as the ICRC and ICAN, expressed their appreciation of Austria’s offer and their support for the continuation of the process.
The sense of momentum established in Nayarit was palpable for all present. Many delegations, including Morocco, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil, Iran, Palestine, Ethiopia, Peru, Kiribati on behalf of the Pacific island states, New Zealand, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Bhutan, Jamaica, and Comoros emphasized that Nayarit was a milestone on a clear path towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. Many referred to Nayarit and the coming meeting in Vienna as a road map, plan of action, blueprint, and concrete steps in a process forward. Bhutan even called the conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons an “Oslo Process.” The feeling of progress was tangible.
There were however a few detractors, mainly states relying on nuclear weapons in their military doctrines’ conception of security, against the overwhelming tide of support for action to rid the world of these weapons. Clearly on the defensive, Pakistan, Finland, Australia, Spain, Turkey, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, India, the Czech Republic, and Hungary expressed skepticism about the possibility of a ban on nuclear weapons. The delegations of Australia, Canada, and Germany argued that “simply banning nuclear weapons” will not guarantee the elimination of nuclear weapons, setting the bar for any initiative on nuclear weapons rather high.
Despite the fact that neither the 2010 NPT Action Plan nor the Group of Governmental Experts on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty guarantee the elimination of nuclear weapons, these were considered the only appropriate ways forward by nuclear reliant states like Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic.
In stark contrast to the evidence presented throughout the conference, a few delegations such as Canada, Pakistan, India, Netherlands, and Germany chose to highlight the security implications of nuclear weapons. Germany pointed out the central role that nuclear weapons have in the international community and argued that nuclear weapons had greatly contributed to keeping peace during the Cold War. Together with Australia, Germany also expressed worry about “antagonizing” those with nuclear weapons.
Those kinds of arguments seemed particularly hollow against the testimonies of countries that have experienced the disastrous humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, such as the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, Belarus, New Zealand, Ukraine, and Algeria. These states presented harrowing statistics on the extent of the impacts of nuclear testing on and near their territories, causing severe ecological, economic, and public health impacts, and untold suffering to civilians. The most poignant testimonies however came from five Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who told their stories of the nightmarish devastation inflicted on those cities and their inhabitants. Their presence was a powerful reminder of the urgency and overwhelming importance of the need to ensure that these weapons are never used again.
*This report was written by Ray Acheson and Beatrice Fihn of Reaching Critical Will/WILPF and Katherine Harrison of Norwegian People’s Aid. Both organisations are partners of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Reaching Critical Will thanks NPA for their assistance with notetaking and preparation of this report.
Resources from the conference
Civil society and the humanitarian impact, presentation of Beatrice Fihn
ICAN statement, delivered by Ray Acheson