Editor’s Note: The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty will be open for signature and ratification on 20 September 2017 at United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
By Ramsey Clark, the 66th Attorney General of the United States
An observer of international affairs in its current state might be forgiven for being pessimistic about the state of the world in particular its respect for international law. It is easy to forget that international law is usually respected when we see a world in which there are prominent examples of serious violations of the most fundamental rules of international law. Perhaps the most serious area in which international law is underwhelmingly respected is as relates to nuclear weapons. While only a few States possess nuclear weapons and some allow nuclear weapons to be housed on their territory, the overwhelming majority of States want to eliminate nuclear weapons.
In 1996 the International Court of Justice, the principle judicial organ of the United Nations, was asked to give an Advisory Opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. The Court opined that it could not think of an instance when the use of nuclear weapons could be legal. In other words, every example of the possible use of nuclear weapons that the Court could come up with would violate international law. Nevertheless, the Court determined then it could not find a rule of international law generally prohibiting nuclear weapons. It did state, however, that article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty required all states to negotiate in good faith to eliminate nuclear weapons.
It is in furtherance of this obligation that States agreed in 2016 to begin negotiations in the spring of 2017 towards a Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. This treaty text was agreed by the overwhelming majority of States of the UN General Assembly. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the States participated in negotiations during the spring and summer of 2017. The States that possessed nuclear weapons, their own weapons or other States’ weapons stationed in their States and a very few of their allies, refused to participate in the negotiations.
Nevertheless, on 7 July 2017, the United Nations General Assembly took the historic step of adopting the text of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. This treaty was adopted by a vote of 122 States voting for the treaty text, one state—the Netherlands—voting against the treaty text, and one state—Singapore—abstaining. In total 70 States, including the United States, did not participate in the vote; many of the smaller States seem to have been intimidated by the United States and other nuclear weapon possessing States.
This treaty calls upon States to report the exact size of their nuclear weapons armories and, most importantly, calls upon all State Parties to eliminate their nuclear weapons. States not only have legal obligations to cut back the number of nuclear weapons they possess, but they have a legal obligation to eliminate all the nuclear weapons they possess. When this laudable goal is accomplished it will be one of the most significant steps taken towards ensuring global peace and security that we have ever taken. Whether the United Nations can make this treaty work, which requires ensuring the membership of all States, is perhaps the most important test of the vitality and usefulness of the United Nations in the 21st century.
As someone who has lived through the creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons, I have for decades warned of the grave threat that they pose to humanity. I have testified to this in courtrooms and I have advocated it from public stages. More importantly I have advocated for their complete elimination. The just-adopted Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty aspires to accomplish this goal. It is an example of the law leading humanity in the right direction. It is a treaty that all States, including the United States, must ratified as part of their responsibility to humanity, both of those living today and future generations. No State can afford to be on the wrong side of history on this issue. Nuclear weapons must be eliminated for the survival of humankind.