The United Nations General Assembly adopts countless resolutions on nuclear weapons, every year. But this year something was different. At the UN headquarters in New York, a significant battle over nuclear weapons took place.
Taking the form of competing resolutions, bargaining over statements, securing co-sponsorships, tense meetings in back rooms, and quick huddles at the margins of the conference hall, a fight about the future of nuclear weapons played out last week.
In one corner: the nuclear possessors and their allies hiding behind vague ‘security concerns’ but increasingly aware of the unsustainable status quo. In the other corner: the non-nuclear weapons states, who after being kept on the sidelines for decades as less important actors on this matter, finally are starting to feel empowered.
It has been called an uprising, a quiet revolution, or a fight against nuclear apartheid. Through the renewed focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and by highlighting the ethical implications of threatening the rest of the world with a weapon of mass destruction, non-nuclear weapon states are taking control over the discussion and forging their own path to achieve real progress in nuclear disarmament.
This past month, a group of progressive governments put a question on the table of the United Nation General Assembly: Are nuclear weapons unacceptable weapons that must be prohibited? Or are they tolerable and worth keeping around? After decades of empty rhetoric, hiding behind others, and vague commitments to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, each state was forced to answer this question.
For some governments, particularly those in nuclear weapons alliances, this change in discourse has been a painful process. For years they’ve tried to cultivate a self-image of being champions of nuclear disarmament, while simultaneously relying on the United States’ extended nuclear deterrence. The states that include nuclear weapons in their security doctrines have had to admit that, regardless of the indiscriminate and catastrophic humanitarian consequences that these weapons cause, they consider nuclear weapons an acceptable means of warfare, beneficial for their security. Suddenly, their commitment to nuclear disarmament and ‘grave concerns’ about proliferation of nuclear weapons rings slightly hollow.
This small group of states employed numerous methods to pressure non-nuclear weapon states to back down on their demand for progress. Hostile statements, intensive bilateral arm-twisting, phone calls at the highest political level, procedural and budgetary roadblocks.
But the intimidation tactics did not work. When governments got ready to vote, the majority demanded change.
The voting at the United Nations this past week highlighted how much of the world wants real action to eliminate nuclear weapons, but also just how determined the nuclear-armed states and their allies are to resist such long-overdue change.
A clear majority of the United Nations member states voted yes to a set of resolutions on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the unethical and immoral nature of possessing them. Driven by concerns about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, governments now have established a working group to start developing new law for prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons.
The nuclear-armed states and their nuclear weapons allies did not only refuse to support any progress on nuclear disarmament but also went out of their way to try and protect the deadlocked status quo that has prevailed for the last 20 years.
The increasing split between those armed with nuclear weapons and those without nuclear weapons might be uncomfortable for diplomats working at the United Nations. But nuclear disarmament is not an issue that diplomacy alone can solve; it’s a political issue. And for political change to take place, the public needs be aware of what their political representatives really think of nuclear weapons.
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