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Op-Ed: Ensuring the Nuclear Ban Treaty Is a Humanitarian Treaty


Republished from Nuclear Ban Daily, 1(1), p. 3.

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:

  1. Humanitarian framing
  2. Strong prohibitions
  3. 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.

First, the preambles of humanitarian disarmament treaties frame the object and purpose of the instrument not in narrow national security terms, but rather in terms of preventing unacceptable harm to people. Indeed the legitimacy of the instrument draws from its humanitarian intention. As a result, the preamble of the nuclear weapon ban treaty must include an acknowledgement of the harm caused by nuclear weapons and their testing and a commitment to reduce that suffering. It should include a reference to the Martens Clause, an expression of states’ duty to follow the laws of humanity and dictates of public conscience. In asserting the treaty’s moral, ethical, and legal imperatives, the preamble should note the role of the United Nations, Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, faith leaders, and civil society (including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), as representative voices of the public conscience. Since the work of disarmament continues after this treaty is negotiated, the preamble should also commit states to ongoing normative development, declaring intent continue pursuing both nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

Second, humanitarian disarmament treaties impose strong prohibitions on weapons or practices that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm. As a result, the ban treaty should include a comprehensive prohibition on production, transfer, transit, stationing, deployment, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons—without exceptions. Indeed, other humanitarian disarmament treaties have prioritized a water-tight prohibition over detailed verification and compliance measures. This is because the normative impact of a categorical ban is very powerful. The landmine ban, for example, has succeeded in massive reductions in the production and use of antipersonnel landmines, despite the lack of formal verification measures. The nuclear weapon ban treaty should also include provisions that commit states to “respect and ensure respect” for the prohibitions. This means that states must avoid engaging in behaviour that undermines the norm and should call out others that do so (look at Article 21 of the Cluster Munition Convention for an example). Whether specifically enumerated or broadly expressed, these provisions should make it clear it is unacceptable for a state party to countenance nuclear weapons testing, financing, research, and development, as well as accepting “extended deterrence” or colluding in nuclear war planning.

Finally, humanitarian disarmament treaties include provisions 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, through remediating areas made hazardous by use or testing, educating people about the risks posed by the weapon, and respecting the rights of victims. These measures ensure that states actively engage in promoting and enacting the norm, making it a process rather than just the one-off event of the treaty adoption.

The promise of the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons has been to offer an alternative approach to nuclear disarmament from the stalled, non-transparent approach of the past. It has been open to the voices of survivors, ethicists, faith leaders, and civil society activists. It has enabled states that have long been excluded from nuclear arms control negotiations to drive the process. States now have the opportunity—even duty—to culminate this effort in a strong humanitarian treaty. This could then serve as a model of what disarmament—centered on human security for all—should look like.

— Matthew Bolton, Director, International Disarmament Institute.

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