UNITED NATIONS -- A treaty declaring nuclear weapons illegal was adopted at the United Nations on Friday by a near consensus of more than 120 countries, setting in place a historic agreement that brings these devices into the ranks of other prohibited weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.
"We must not wait [for] another Hiroshima and Nagasaki to finally muster the political will to banish these weapons from our global arsenals," South African Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko said after the adoption, citing a moral responsibility to disarm. "To have voted 'no' would have been a slap in the face to the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima."
Japan, the only country to have experienced an atomic bomb attack, was absent from the talks despite the presence in the conference room of the hibakusha -- the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
"We are ... saying to the survivors, to the state of those people impacted by nuclear weapons, that after so many decades we have managed to sow the first seeds of a world free of nuclear weapons," Elayne Whyte Gomez, chair of the conference to negotiate the treaty and Costa Rica's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, said ahead of the vote.
Cheers after the initial adoption, thought at first to be by consensus, were punctuated by a request for a recorded vote by the Netherlands -- the only NATO member to participate in negotiations.
But the applause was no less raucous the second time around, when the recorded vote showed the Netherlands was the only conference participant to oppose the text, plus one abstention from Singapore -- against 122 countries in favor. The treaty will go into effect once 50 countries have ratified it.
A total of 129 countries, of the 193 represented at the U.N., participated in the negotiations. Absent from their ranks, however, were the very nations the ban hopes to address. None of the nine countries known to possess nuclear weapons participated in the conference.
The U.S., U.K. and France -- all three of whom are legally acknowledged nuclear weapons states and hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council -- rejected the treaty outright. "We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it," a joint statement after the adoption read.
But with new momentum, proponents hope the treaty -- open for signature Sept. 20, during a high-level week at the U.N. General Assembly -- will provide a new norm to unseat the paradigm of nuclear deterrence that has held back progress in disarmament efforts since the Cold War.
Nuclear haves and have-nots
Despite the rejection of the text by nuclear weapons states, Friday's adoption interrupts a long stretch of disappointment and deadlock with the first multilateral disarmament treaty to be agreed upon in 20 years.
The last such success was the 1996 adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which prohibits the testing of nuclear devices -- though it, too, has yet to go into effect.
Taking matters into their own hands, a group of non-nuclear-weapons states led by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Nigeria, Mexico and South Africa led the push to establish talks on a ban treaty, building off the momentum from three global conferences between 2013 and 2014 on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.
Those three conferences, held in Norway, Austria and Mexico, provided the foundation for the ban treaty. They moved the conversation away from abstract terms by taking into account the suffering of victims of nuclear testing and the Japanese atomic bomb survivors, while establishing a majority view that these weapons pose a grave threat to humanity and must never be used again.
Closing the gaps
Countries already had agreed on a shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, but few concrete legal obligations existed to achieve that end. By formally prohibiting nuclear weapons -- including their development, use and possession -- countries such as Austria argued that this "legal gap" left by previous disarmament frameworks would finally be addressed.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, does require countries to "undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament" and to pursue "good faith" negotiations toward disarmament. But the absence of nuclear weapons states throughout the ban treaty negotiations makes clear that an ideological gap, as well as the legal gap, prevents progress from being made.
Nearly 50 years since the NPT became active and set the most consequential legal framework for nuclear disarmament to date, non-nuclear countries have acted to sidestep the argument from nuclear weapons states that a prohibition of these armaments is not realistic in the current security environment.
"A major task lies ahead of us, which is ensuring that everybody comes into the fold of the treaty," Mxakato-Diseko said, noting that the treaty provides an outline for nuclear weapons states to disarm, should they choose to join. "They have a moral duty to join. We have a moral duty to bring them in."
In their joint statement, the U.S., U.K. and France reaffirmed their commitment to the NPT but criticized the ban, saying it ignored security concerns and would not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon.
"Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years," the statement read, arguing in particular that the ban "offers no solution" to the North Korean nuclear issue.
Ban proponents responded with criticism in turn. Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, called the joint statement "shortsighted" and said it was conducive to proliferation. If nuclear-armed countries argue that such weapons are good for the security of one state, others might seek out those weapons as well, he suggested at a news conference.
The treaty addresses this concept of deterrence, as a major provision prohibits the threat of using nuclear weapons. Ban proponents call such threats unacceptable, rejecting the strategies contingent on the ability to follow up threats with actions.
Long arc of history
Though nuclear-armed states remain adamant against joining the treaty, ban proponents cite precedents showing that positions can change. France firmly opposed the NPT when it was drafted, but eventually joined in 1992, more than 20 years after the treaty became active, ambassadors noted.
"If we look back in history several decades ago when the NPT was signed, it did not enjoy the large number of countries that are state parties today," Whyte Gomez said in a separate news conference. "It has taken decades to work on the universalization of this norm."
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also suggested that internal political change can sway the most steadfast of positions.
"We have seen drastic political changes happening in the last two years, quite unexpected turns with governments," Fihn said. "Who knows what will happen in the future."