Bonnie Docherty (left) of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Matthew Bolton (right), Director of Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute on a panel regarding positive obligations in the proposed nuclear weapons ban treaty at the UN in March 2017.
The case for the nuclear weapons ban treaty has been rooted in the traditions of international humanitarian law and humanitarian disarmament law, which bind states to acknowledging the suffering caused by war, establishing prohibitions on inhuman methods and means of warfare and taking positive harm-limiting measures.
The Geneva Conventions – the most well-known treaties forming the core of international humanitarian law – prohibit states from targeting civilians, wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, the shipwrecked and relief workers. But they also commit states to a positive “duty to ensure respect” for the conventions (Common Article 1). And they mandate the International Committee of the Red Cross and the National Societies to provide relief and to raise awareness of humanitarian norms.
The nuclear weapon ban treaty negotiations are the culmination of the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons. It has emerged from conferences (in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna) and UN General Assembly discussions that have demonstrated the horrifying suffering caused by nuclear weapons. Given that the motivation for the nuclear weapon ban is first and foremost humanitarian, diplomats and advocates involved in these negotiations must make sure that the eventual treaty actually meets the norms and standards of a humanitarian disarmament treaty.
Humanitarian treaties seeking to limit the impact of weapons (such as the 1907 Hague Conventions, landmine and cluster munition bans, and the explosive remnants of war protocol) differ from other arms control and nonproliferation treaties in at least three ways:
Harm-limiting positive provisions
Taken together, these three aspects ensure that a humanitarian disarmament treaty establishes a clear normative framework. The power of humanitarian disarmament treaties derive from their ability to generate a stigma around a weapon and address the human suffering it causes.
Gathering in New York this year, the majority of the world’s countries aim to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons (meeting 27-31 March and 15 June to 7 July 2017). Deeply concerned with the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear detonations – whether intentional or accidental – the UN General Assembly called for a new, humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament. Humanitarian disarmament treaties (such as the 1907 Hague Conventions, Landmine and Cluster Munition Bans, and Explosive Remnants of War Protocol) differ from other arms control and nonproliferation treaties. In addition to having a humanitarian framing and strong prohibitions, they often include positive provisions such as educational and awareness-raising measures that encourage states, civil society and international organizations to ensure respect for the norms set by the treaties and limit harm caused by the weapons they address.
In this two-pager, Director of the Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute Matthew Bolton makes the case for including educational provisions as one such set of harm-limiting positive provisions in the nuclear weapons ban treaty text.
The academic journal Global Policy has published a Special Section on nuclear disarmament edited by Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, focusing on the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons. As states meet in Geneva this week for the UN Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament, it is clear that the Humanitarian Initiative has created new openings for stigmatizing and prohibiting nuclear weapons.
Below are abstracts of and links to the articles, written by scholars and practitioners involved in the effort to change the way policymakers think about nuclear weapons, reframing them from instruments of security to a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the making.