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How the "Impossible" Became Possible
How the "Impossible" Became Possible

Recent reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2017 and the international responses help demonstrate the way that international law works. A treaty to ban the use of chemical weapons officially became international law in 1997 when the minimum number of countries (designated in the treaty itself) ratified the treaty in their own ratification process. Following ratification, each country is then expected to integrate the conditions of the treaty into their own domestic legal system. As others signed on, and support grew internationally for the treaty it became the norm for all, known as customary international law – even those countries which had not officially ratified it. International reactions to the Syrian incident, including the US missile attack on a Syrian air base, show enforcement of this treaty. More recent chemical weapons usages have led to investigations to determine responsibility.

Poster from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs depicting doves escaping from the top of a nuclear bomb.

A poster from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs

The point here is that the newly adopted Convention to Ban Nuclear Weapons may be “pie in the sky” for some, but this is simply a new chapter for those who have been working diligently for disarmament over the last several decades. Each step forward begins somewhere and needs support. The work of the 2017 Nobel Prize winner, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), reveals the rather amazing story of how this new treaty came to be:

"At a review of the Non Proliferation Treaty in 2010, all nations expressed their deep concern at the ‘catastrophic humanitarian consequences’ of any use of nuclear weapons – a collective statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations.” 

The International Committee of the Red Cross with an array of medical participants played a significant role in explaining the impossible role of providing humanitarian relief to the victims of a nuclear attack. Not only would the number of victims be enormous, and the range of symptoms needing attention staggering, but the facilities in which they could be treated and the necessary medications and equipment would likely be non-existent in the affected areas. These testimonies became very convincing to the participants.

“ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these meetings, which brought together most of the world’s governments, along with international organizations and academic institutions. In 2015 we helped garner the support of 127 nations for a diplomatic pledge ‘to fill the legal gap’ in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons.”

While weapons of mass destruction, like landmines, biological and chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and blinding laser technology, had been made illegal and their use condemned according to international law, this was not true of nuclear weapons. Consequently, a working group was established to examine specific proposals for making nuclear weapons illegal. The discourse was beginning to change and the notion of disarmament entering into a new stage of consciousness and possibility.

The group of governments and interested non-governmental organizations met in Geneva in February, May, and August 2016 [and] “issued a landmark report recommending that negotiations begin in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons once and for all. Our campaign then lobbied successfully for the UN General Assembly to adopt the resolution in December 2016 to launch negotiations on ‘a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons’.”

And what does this treaty (boycotted in its creation by all nuclear states and their allies) have to say?

“Our campaign [was] calling for the negotiation of a nondiscriminatory international legal instrument that prohibits its parties, their nationals and any other individual subject to its jurisdiction from engaging in activities such as the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons” 

Other items of consideration included:

  1. The prohibition of its parties “from assisting, financing, encouraging and inducing others to carry out any of these prohibited acts. It should provide an obligation for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a framework to achieve it.”
  2. Procedures for how the states developing or housing the nuclear weapons would implement the decision to disarm if and when that time comes. Who would be in charge of monitoring that process? Decisions would have to be made so "parties could agree to relevant measures and timelines as part of the implementation process – through protocols or other appropriate legal instruments." 
  3. The question of the rights of victims and survivors of any nuclear weapon use.
  4. The question of addressing damage to affected environments and who would be responsible for that and for providing for international cooperation and assistance to meet the obligations of the treaty.

These are very serious items that would still need attention once the treaty becomes international law. But considering that the drafting of the treaty took place within a window of seven months, and won the support of the number of nations that it did, the “impossible” was becoming “possible,” especially in the realm of creating international law.

History has shown that legal prohibitions on the possession and use of weapons systems of mass destruction or weapons systems with unusually cruel impact on civilian populations do work. It might not be perfect but it certainly limits the violations that do occur, thanks to compliance with International Humanitarian Law. Outlawed weapons eventually are seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and along with it money and resources for their production, modernization, proliferation and perpetuation. It becomes “news” when such weapons are in fact used because of this reality.

In a number of countries, protests to ban the bomb have already been held and the support for this initiative continues. Congratulations to the International Committee Against Nuclear Weapons for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Our support is needed in helping the ratification process so that the treaty comes into force. Interested persons are urged to explore ICAN’s website for more information.

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

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