The Trump administration is continuing a boycott, started by its predecessors in the Obama administration, against United Nations talks aimed at banning nuclear weapons
At the United Nations headquarters in New York City, negotiations began this week [March 27 to 30] on a treaty banning the possession, development and use of nuclear weapons. The agreement to negotiate such a ban was adopted by a wide margin in October 2016 at the UN committee charged with nuclear disarmament in the most significant development in nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War.
But just as the most recent negotiations were getting underway, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, supported by Britain and France, staged a protest outside the General Assembly, along with representatives of 18 other countries.
“You know me as the U.S. ambassador to the UN, but first and foremost I’m a mom,” Haley announced. “As a mom, as a daughter, there’s nothing I want more for my family than a world without nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic . . . today when you see those walking into the General Assembly to create a nuclear weapons ban, you have to ask yourself, are they looking out for their people? Do they really understand the threats that we have?”
The United States and the other eight nuclear weapon states are all boycotting the negotiations, along with NATO states (with the exception of the Netherlands), Australia, South Korea, and Japan.
U.S. resistance to the nuclear ban began before Nikki Haley took office. A boycott was actually announced last October by the Obama Administration. Despite this opposition, a negotiating mandate was adopted at the UN committee by a vote of 123 to 38, with 16 abstentions.
Notably, North Korea voted to negotiate a nuclear weapons ban, and China, alone among the nuclear weapon states, abstained.
A weakened cornerstone
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is the undisputed cornerstone of the world’s nuclear nonproliferation regime. Article VI of that treaty states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Haley did not explain how boycotting the negotiations could possibly comply with the requirement that the United States act in “good faith.” These negotiations are the culmination of a multi-year process principally led by about a dozen states, the Red Cross, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a network of more than 400 non-governmental organizations in ninety countries.
One hundred and twenty states are in attendance at the General Assembly this week. The four-week negotiating process will proceed from general statements and the drafting of a text, to final negotiations in late June and early July.
A moving account
On the second day of negotiations, as the opening statements concluded, Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow gave a moving first-hand account of the blast and its aftermath. Thurlow was followed by Sue Coleman speaking about the devastating impacts of British nuclear testing on aboriginal people.
These are moments of high drama in disarmament affairs. For a supermajority of UN member states to take the reins from the nuclear club and demand a treaty that declares nuclear weapons anathema once and for all, is entirely unprecedented.
Likewise unprecedented is Haley’s conspicuous boycott and protest by the United States and its allies of a major UN disarmament meeting, arguably a flagrant violation of U.S. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. It is certainly damaging to U.S. prestige — and no doubt a spur to negotiators, who are being reminded once again that the United States is not interested in multilateral nuclear disarmament.
The resolution establishing these negotiations rejects nuclear deterrence on moral and legal grounds. The resulting ban would lower the status and legitimacy of nuclear weapons, even within nuclear states. Its efficacy would develop further over time, as more states joined the treaty.
These negotiations are the product of the rising multipolar world, a tide which the United States cannot hold back. More than the legitimacy and status of nuclear weapons is in play. The ban process is in part about who can decide whether nuclear weapons are legitimate.
In a dark time, diplomats from countries without nuclear weapons and alliances are reasserting civilizational values. Despite the shameful efforts of the Obama and now the Trump Administration to impede the ban process, momentum toward a ban is strong.
Negotiations are being webcast in their entirety. Reaching Critical Will offers daily analysis, and analysis is available from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. You can also search twitter for #nuclearban.
Greg Mello is executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group and is a leading expert on nuclear policy.
Nuclear ban negotiations get underway at the UN, published on Reaching Critical Will, March 27, 2017
UN considers a historic ban on nuclear weapons, but U.S. leads boycott of the talks, interview with Zia Mian, broadcast on Democracy Now!, March 30, 2017 (Zia Mian is a physicist, nuclear expert and disarmament activist. He is Co-Director of the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is co-author of ‘Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation’.)
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