UN looks to outlaw nuclear weapons: Could it happen?

UN member countries voted Thursday to prepare a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. The problem: all nine nuclear powers are united in opposing the resolution.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Large display monitors show the result of voting from member states during a meeting of the UN General Assembly, Wednesday, at UN headquarters.

The United Nations says it’s time to take another look at eliminating nuclear weapons. But the countries that have them are united by one thing: their desire to keep the weapons.

On Thursday, UN member states voted on a resolution that would create a pathway to banning nuclear weapons. There was substantial support for the measure, with 123 countries voting in favor. All nine countries that have nuclear weapons, however, opposed the potential ban.

A split this early in the process highlights the challenges inherent in eliminating nuclear capability. Nations like the United States, Russia, and China see maintaining nuclear capabilities as essential to securing their citizens – and their allies – against outside threats. But supporters of the ban say that, even if it started out without universal adherence, a treaty would create international pressure on nuclear countries to draw down and destroy their stockpiles.

“Given the tremendous humanitarian consequences of any nuclear explosion, we have to take action,” explained Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria’s ambassador to the UN, according to Bloomberg. “Nuclear weapons states always say it’s too early for such a treaty but we think the time is right to create legal norms to ban weapons of mass destruction.” Austria was one of the sponsors of Thursday’s resolution.

The nuclear nonproliferation treaty already helps prevent non-nuclear countries from acquiring the weapons and limits the production of new nuclear weapons. The United States also has a bilateral treaty with Russia, signed in 2011, to mutually draw down their stockpiles to 1,550 warheads. The new resolution also comes one year after the deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program. 

But for countries with nuclear weapons, those sorts of measures are about as far as they are willing to go. A “ban treaty runs the risk of undermining regional security,” said Robert Wood, US special representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament, on October 14. He said that the US would refuse to participate in any conference that aimed to eliminate nuclear weapons completely.

Current tensions between the US and Russia, as well as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and the uncertainties surrounding the advancing North Korean nuclear program, may contribute to the sense that now is not a good time to try for a ban. That’s a position supported by some allies of nuclear weapons powers, such as Australia.

Yet the UN resolution suggested that mistrust and simmering conflict between the powers mean that this is exactly the moment to act. Recent comments by a US presidential candidate have also raised international concerns that the United States might soon consider using its nuclear arsenal.

“The current international climate makes increased political attention to disarmament and non-proliferation issues, the promotion of multilateral disarmament and the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons all the more urgent,” it reads.

Proponents of the treaty note that nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not currently banned. They point to the success of a treaty banning landmines as evidence that the international community can pressure countries to stop using certain weapons, even if these countries are not part of the initial treaty-elaboration process.

“Today’s vote demonstrates very clearly that a majority of the world’s nations consider the prohibition of nuclear weapons to be necessary, feasible and urgent. They view it as the most viable option for achieving real progress on disarmament,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Since the resolution passed, it will go to a General Assembly vote in December. If that is successful, a UN conference will convene in March to start work on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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