by Ray Acheson
On 24 January 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution, which set out to “deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy.” It established a commission with the task, among others, to make proposals “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.” Nearly 71 years later, the General Assembly has taken an enormous step towards this goal.
The adoption of resolution L.41, establishing a conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, represents a meaningful advancement towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. It also represents a revolt of the vast majority of states against the violence, intimidation, and injustice perpetuated by those supporting these weapons of mass destruction.
Revolt, wrote philosopher Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, is “one of the only coherent philosophical positions…. It challenges the world anew every second.” Camus explored the theme of revolt across many books and novels, finding that struggle not only “gives value to life” but also that it is an obligation, even in the face of adversity, power, and overwhelming odds.
“Will this process be the most efficient way to achieve the goal of full nuclear disarmament?” asked Sweden after the vote on L.41. “The fact is that we do not know today. But given the stakes involved, we believe we have an obligation to try, mindful of the challenges involved.”
The act of prohibiting nuclear weapons is an act of nonviolent, positive, courageous revolt.
Those that oppose it are not giving up their weapons of terror without a fight. Even on the day of the vote on L.41, France, Russia, and the United States issued warnings against its adoption. Russia warned of the “fatal, destructive repercussions” of adopting the resolution, describing the initiative to prohibit nuclear weapons as “hasty” and at risk of “plunging the world into chaos and dangerous unpredictability.”
We have heard such remarks from most of the nuclear-armed states, and some of their allies, for the last two years.
At the core of this rhetoric is a belief that certain states have the right to possess nuclear weapons. Russia and the United Kingdom have both flatly stated during this First Committee that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) confers legitimacy on their possession of nuclear weapons. We can see how this belief has dictated the course of history. It has meant that for nearly half a century, five countries have refused to comply with their legal obligation to disarm. It has meant that four other countries have tried to assert their own claim to power through violence by acquiring nuclear weapons and shunning the NPT. It has meant a proliferation of programmes and mechanisms to prevent others from acquiring nuclear weapons whilst billions of dollars have gone to upgrade and extend the lives of the ones already existing.
By insisting on their “right” to inflict massive nuclear violence, the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supporting allies have created a division amongst the United Nations membership. They have forced the hand of the majority of states, which have gone along for decades in good faith with the agendas set by the nuclear-armed. This majority is now ready to take actions that align with its commitment to peace, justice, and security for all.
For this, they are being attacked and ridiculed and threatened by most of the states that wield nuclear weapons. They are being presented as interfering with matters that they do not understand or have no stake in. They are being told that they are the problem, not nuclear weapons or those that possess them. They are treated as if they are undermining international law and agreed commitments, when in reality the opposite is true.
In a joint statement last week, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States argued that banning nuclear weapons will render consensus at the next NPT Review Conference “impossible”. There is nothing, however, inherent in the process to prohibit nuclear weapons that would make this so. None of the states supporting L.41 and the negotiation of a ban treaty have blocked the adoption of NPT outcome documents. None have tried to prevent other states from supporting resolutions or initiatives on other nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation measures, at this meeting or at any other.
It is up to the states possessing nuclear weapons or believing in them for security to engage constructively in the upcoming processes, including negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons and the next NPT review cycle. These countries are being encouraged to do so for reasons of humanitarian protection, human rights, the environment, development, and justice.
The European Parliament adopted a resolution welcoming L.41 and inviting European Union member states to “participate constructively” in next year’s negotiations.
Amnesty International celebrated the adoption of L.41 and called on states not supporting the resolution to “take a stand for human rights by participating fully in the coming negotiations.”
17 Nobel laureates supported the adoption of L.41, urging states the ensure that negotiations are “brought to a timely and successful conclusion so that we can proceed rapidly toward the final elimination of this existential threat to humanity.”
Greenpeace International also supported the resolution, describing it as a “major breakthrough for nuclear disarmament” and outlining the importance and effectiveness of establishing a norm against nuclear weapons.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the prohibition of nuclear weapons as “an indispensible building block in reaching the universal goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” explaining that “unambiguous prohibition is both the foundation of disarmament and a disincentive for proliferation.”
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) hailed the adoption of the resolution as a major step forward, noting that the treaty will stigmatise nuclear weapons and compel states to take urgent action on disarmament.
We have a big task ahead of us. The first bold step, establishing negotiations, has been taken. The struggle will continue next year—but it is a struggle that states, civil society, and the world are ready for.
Ray Acheson is Director of Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. This editorial is reprinted with permission from the First Committee Monitor.