Reading Room

UN Negotiations Begin on Nuclear Weapons “Ban Treaty”

Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Posted by Marylia Kelley

The opening moment of the opening day of negotiations on a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading towards their total elimination” at the United Nations in New York was, at once, literal and deeply metaphorical.

Inside, countries from around the globe convened formal deliberations on an international nuclear weapons ban treaty in the stately UN General Assembly Hall. Outside, US Ambassador Nikki Haley held a press conference to criticize the proceedings and reiterate a US boycott. A small cadre of nuclear-armed allies and client states could be seen behind Haley. No questions were allowed, and the energy seemed flat. Meanwhile, the air inside the Hall crackled with excitement and new possibility. There was no mistaking where the action was taking place.

The opening session ran from March 27 to 31. More than 130 nations - and about as many non-governmental organizations including ours - shared ideas about what should be covered in the treaty’s preambular language, core prohibitions, and institutional arrangements.

As the countries made formal statements and negotiations unfolded, areas of broad agreement could be plainly seen. Most countries noted that the ban should create an unequivocal prohibition on the use, deployment, development and possession of nuclear weapons, with clear obligations to eliminate all nuclear arsenals.

Other countries would also prohibit financing the bomb or allowing one to be transported across a signatory’s national boundaries. Still others spoke for a prohibition on the threat to use nuclear weapons, which, if adopted, would delegitimize the basis for nuclear deterrence.

Many delegates spoke of how a ban treaty could strengthen international law and support existing treaties, like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although there were differences in the details. Numerous countries spoke of incorporating “positive obligations” like nuclear victim assistance and cleanup of contaminated areas.

Further, there was general agreement that the ban treaty should be a clear, concise document focused on outlining the prohibitions relating to nuclear weapons. The general idea is that subsequent, more detailed agreements could tier off of the ban treaty to focus on more granular provisions covering what the verified elimination processes for nuclear weapons would look like and how governance mechanisms would work in a world free of nuclear weapons.

The precursor for this visionary and productive negotiation session can be found in the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons conferences held, beginning in 2013, in Norway, Mexico and Austria. With input from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Vatican and civil society, these conferences shifted the debate from abstract security postures to a deep consideration of the unparalleled catastrophe of a nuclear war. One can draw a line from the humanitarian initiative to this first week of negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The next step will be the preparation of a draft text. The elected President for the negotiations, Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica, will prepare a draft treaty based on the full proceedings of the opening session.

Then, the second round of negotiations will resume at the UN for three weeks beginning on June 15. Participating states will work through the draft text with the goal of concluding the ban treaty on or before July 7, 2017. This is an extremely ambitious schedule, but with continuing good faith efforts, it is achievable.

Ray Acheson, writing in the “Nuclear Ban Daily,” noted a sea change at the United Nations more broadly. “The majority of states came together at the UN to start negotiating a treaty that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (aka the P5) – and the other nuclear-armed states – do not want. This alone is transformative. It is extremely rare, if not unheard of, for anything to get done at the UN if the P5 collectively oppose it.” (See

The positive energy was palpable. Words like historical come readily to mind. We at Tri-Valley CAREs were honored to participate, to present on a panel covering US nuclear weapons policy in the context of the ban treaty, and to play a role in garnering international support for this effort. (See

We invite you to get involved, write letters, talk to friends, and, if you are able, come to New York for the “Women’s March to Ban the Bomb” on Saturday, June 17 to support the ban treaty as negotiations enter the home stretch.

And, click in, below, to watch Tri-Valley CAREs and colleague organizations present at the UN on US nuclear policy in the age of Trump, what’s really going on inside the nuclear weapons complex, how it affects the world, and why the ban treaty is integral to the process of delegitimizing nuclear weapons in the United States and globally.