The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Dagmar Topf Aguiar de Medeiros is reading for a PhD in Law at the University of Edinburgh, and is an intern at UN House Scotland. As a member of a delegation from Scottish civil society, she recently attended negotiations in New York on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted 7 July 2017, at the United Nations.

The United Nations has aimed to ban nuclear weapons since it was established in 1945.[1] In fact, the very first UN General Assembly resolution established a Commission to set in motion measures towards nuclear disarmament.[2] Until recently, the most important instrument to this end was the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).[3] Recent years have seen growing discontent with the discriminatory nature of the NPT, which distinguishes between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. Additionally, the NPT faces criticism with regard to the stagnation of nuclear disarmament. Although the treaty includes an obligation to work towards nuclear disarmament, Article 6 has not, as of late, provided sufficient incentive for nuclear weapon states to act.

With an aim to finally move forwards, in October 2016 the UN disarmament and international security committee saw 123 nations voting in favour of meeting to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination. These negotiations have taken place throughout spring and summer 2017 and have culminated in the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on the 7th July this year.

The treaty prohibits member states from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, and disallows them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to participate in such activities. Furthermore, it has become forbidden to allow nuclear weapons to be stationed or deployed on member states’ territory. Of equal importance are the positive obligations in the treaty to provide adequate victim assistance and to take measures towards the remediation of environments contaminated as a result of the use or testing of nuclear weapons. Although not explicitly mentioned, there is a growing understanding that financing constitutes ‘assistance’ with prohibited acts.

The text and preamble of the ban treaty reflect the efforts of civil society by emphasising the humanitarian and environmental impact of any nuclear detonation, be it accidental or intentional. The humanitarian initiative proved successful in shifting the debate out of the security argument stalemate states had become entrenched in. At the negotiations, civil society had the opportunity to share the experiences of victims of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing, and to highlight the devastating impact of any detonation and the lack of adequate emergency-response capacity.

By placing human welfare and safety at the centre of the treaty, it is hoped that the ban treaty will have a ripple effect similar to that of the Conventions prohibiting Biological and Chemical weapons. Therefore, even though none of the nuclear weapons states have expressed any interest in joining the negotiations or the treaty, it is hoped the legal norm combined with continued pressure from civil society will eventually convince governments to discontinue nuclear deterrence policies.

The ban treaty is of particular interest to Scotland because of the country’s unique position of having to facilitate nuclear weapons without having any say in the decisions involving them. This is because nuclear weapons are considered a matter of national security and as such fall outside the scope of Scotland’s devolved powers.

[1] https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/ (last visited 9 July 2017).

[2] General Assembly Resolution VIII, Establishment of a commission to deal with the problem raised by the discovery of atomic energy (24 January 1946), available from http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/1(I) (last visited 9 July 2017).

[3] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (5 March 1970) 729 U.N.T.S. 161.

If you are interested in reading more about the negotiations on the ban treaty, including daily reports from the Scottish civil society delegation to New York, visit http://www.nuclearban.scot/ and http://www.icanw.org/

If you want to find out more about civil society engagement surrounding nuclear disarmament, please visit:

http://www.banthebomb.org/

http://www.nukewatch.org.uk/

http://www.article36.org/

If you’re interested in reading twitter updates, the handle to follow is #nuclearban

More about the author:

Dagmar Topf Aguiar de Medeiros is reading for a PhD in Law at the University of Edinburgh. She holds an LLM in Private Law from the University of Leiden and an LLB from the Utrecht Law College of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Dagmar’s research interests span public international law, specifically environmental law, climate change law and human rights. Her current research relates to the international constitutionalism in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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