Negotiations of a new international treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons concluded at the United Nations today as the treaty was formally adopted by states. The treaty was adopted by a vote on the morning of the 7th July in New York with 122 states in favour, 1 against and 1 abstention after the delegation of the Netherlands called for a vote on the final text.

What is in the treaty?

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comprehensively and categorically prohibits nuclear weapons. It makes it illegal for countries to undertake any activities related to nuclear weapons – it bans the use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, threat of use, assisting, stationing, installation or deploying of nuclear weapons.

Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima survivor and ICAN support, celebrates the treaty’s adoption in the UN conference room with civil society (©ICAN Clare Conboy)

The treaty requires states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, and requires environmental remediation of contaminated areas. It also obliges states to provide international assistance to support the implementation of the treaty.

The treaty requires states that possess nuclear weapons to remove them operational status, and destroy them. The treaty provides for a verifiable, time-bound, transparent, and irreversible destruction of nuclear weapons programs and the implementation of safeguards.

It bans assistance with prohibited acts, and as such it should be interpreted as prohibiting states from engaging in any military preparations to use nuclear weapons, financing the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons, or permit the transit of nuclear weapons through its territorial waters or airspace.

The text also calls on States Parties encourage other states that haven’t signed or ratified, to do so, as well as including provisions on states to meet regularly to review progress.

Significance of the treaty                        

As with other treaties that prohibit weapons, such as the prohibition treaties on anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, the driving force for this initiative has been the humanitarian imperative given the catastrophic and long-lasting consequences that would result from any nuclear weapon use.

ICAN campaigners in New York’s central park during the negotiations (©ICAN Ralf Schlesener)

There has been little progress in the field of nuclear disarmament over the past several decades, but the widespread concerns over the catastrophic humanitarian impacts that would result from any use of a nuclear weapon has driven this process forward and provided renewed momentum and focus for both states and organisations. The role of civil society through the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN, of which Article 36 is a member) has been key in pushing towards this prohibition.

The treaty completes the prohibition on all weapons of mass destruction, which up until this point was a legal anomaly, with nuclear weapons being the only weapon of mass destruction not yet subject to an international prohibition. This treaty addresses that, and builds on the norm of humanitarian disarmament.

UK boycott of the process 

The United Kingdom, alongside other nuclear weapon possessor states, has boycotted the negotiations at the United Nations despite claims that it supports a world without nuclear weapons.

But despite the absence of nuclear weapon states in the negotiating process, the vast majority of states in the world have taken collective responsibility to drive this treaty process through to fruition. Over 130 states have taken part in the negotiations, and by adopting the treaty have shown the widespread rejection of nuclear weapons.

The UK will likely refuse to sign the treaty, at least initially. But it will still feel the impact of the treaty from mounting pressure as it attempts to renew Trident when most states are outlawing nuclear weapons because of the grave dangers that they pose.

As with other weapons treaties, banning the weapon is the first step and not only precedes but can also help facilitate elimination.

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