A New Treaty to Speed Up Nuclear Disarmament


Amb. Sergio Duarte – TRANSCEND Media Service

12 Jul 2017 – Seventy-one and a half years after the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to establish a Commission charged with making specific proposals “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons” the international community finally took a historic step in that direction. Last July 7 a Conference attended by over 122 States and several governmental and non-governmental institutions and civil society organizations dedicated to disarmament and the pursuit of peace adopted a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons leading to their complete elimination. The report of the Conference, together with the text of the new Treaty will be sent to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which will open it to the signature of States as from December 20 2017. The Treaty will enter into force once fifty signatories have ratified it.

A number of international arrangements over the past seven decades sought mainly to limit the number of States possessing nuclear weapons. A total of 114 States, several of which might have been tempted to acquire their own nuclear arsenals have pledged not to take this step by negotiating and bringing into force nuclear weapon free zones in five continents. The first such regional arrangement – the Latin American and Caribbean Treaty of Tlatelolco – came into being before the advent of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), whose membership increased gradually and is today almost equal to the number of Member States of the United Nations. The NPT is generally considered the cornerstone of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime, but its main focus is the limitation of the number of possessors or nuclear weapons rather than the elimination of such arms.

Although it can be credited with helping prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, the clause dealing with nuclear disarmament still awaits substantive action while for their part its non-nuclear members have faithfully complied with their non-proliferation obligations. A small number of episodes of suspected proliferation have been averted outside the scope of the NPT by diplomatic or other means. Another important international instrument in the field of non-proliferation is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which, however, has not yet entered formally into force since its adoption in 1996. Since 1998 only one nuclear weapon State has carried out test detonations, while the eight others have observed unilateral moratoria on such explosions. Some of the possessors of nuclear weapons have unilaterally limited or bilaterally reduced the size of their arsenals, while at the same time engaging in a technological race for the improvement of the destructive power of their nuclear weapons in an elusive search for supremacy.  No clear, legally binding commitment to specific measures of nuclear disarmament has ever been accepted by those that possess such armament.

The overwhelming majority of the international community never believed that security can be assured at the price of threatening indiscriminate mass destruction. Nine States today still justify their exclusive possession of nuclear weapons as indispensable to maintain their security and that of their allies and to keep peace. So far, nuclear weapons have been used twice against populated areas and tests in remote parts of the world have caused disease and environmental damage on defenseless and uninformed peoples. The existence of nuclear weapons and the permanence of military doctrines predicated on their use constitute an ever-present threat against world peace and security.

Given this somber background, the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons leading to their elimination signals a new hope in the effort to rid the world of all weapons of mass destruction.

The prohibitions contained in the treaty just adopted encompass the development, testing, production and otherwise acquiring, possessing or stockpiling nuclear weapons or other explosive devices; in addition not to transfer such weapons or devices or control over them; not to receive such transfer or control; not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices; not to assist or encourage anyone to engage in activities prohibited by the Treaty, and finally not to allow stationing, installation and deployment of such weapons or devices. A number of articles specify the modalities of accession in order to make possible for States possessing nuclear weapons to become Party by divesting themselves of their arsenals. Other issues such as safeguards, national implementation, victim assistance and remediation, international cooperation and assistance, meetings of States Party, costs, amendments, settlement of disputes, universality and duration and withdrawal are covered by the articles of the instrument.

It is important to stress the humanitarian inspiration and the ethical imperatives behind the convening of the Conference and the negotiation and adoption of the Treaty. The general convergence of views of the participants on the main features of the new instrument and the able conduct of the work by President Elayne Whyte-Gomez greatly facilitated the task of the negotiators. Even so the complexity of the subject matter of the Treaty and its unprecedented character explain many of the difficulties that had to be overcome. The overriding desire to conclude a multilateral legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading to the elimination, in accordance with the mandate received from the United Nations  General Assembly in the historic Resolution 71/278 of 23 December 2016, together with the encouragement and substantive contribution from governmental and non-governmental organizations, was decisive for the success of the negotiation and subsequent adoption of a text that had the consensus minus one of the participants.

Nuclear Weapon States have shunned or ignored the negotiation of the Prohibition Treaty and at least for the time being are not expected to move in the direction of serious efforts to nuclear disarmament. Despite the general lack of interest and deeply ingrained misconceptions on the part of the mainstream media in these States and their allies, public opinion worldwide may have a different perception. It is essential, for this reason, to disseminate knowledge about the Treaty and its motivation. Governments and non-governmental organizations must unite their efforts to ensure the widest possible membership in the new Treaty and to spread information on its purpose and on the prospects for its universality.


Sergio Duarte – Brazilian Ambassador, former United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; former Chairman of the Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; former President of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Jul 2017.

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