July 25, 2017

Banning the Bomb: Reflections on the UN Negotiations for the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty


By Carina Bentata Gryting JD ’18, Molly Doggett JD ’17, Lan Mei JD ’17, and Alice Osman LLM ’17


Carina Bentata Gryting and Alice Osman in the UN General Assembly Hall where the negotiations opened in March 2017.

Signing up for the International Human Rights Clinic in spring 2017, we could not have imagined that it would lead us to the United Nations and global negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. With Bonnie Docherty and Anna Crowe as our clinical supervisors, we worked alongside London-based organization Article 36 as well as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the civil society coalition at the conference. We had the unique opportunity to not only witness, but also actually participate in, norm-building at the international level.

It was at times difficult to explain to those not involved in the negotiations why the ban treaty was an important or even a sensible cause. Many people questioned the impact of a treaty being boycotted by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. For those of us participating in the negotiations, however, the purpose behind the treaty was complex but clear.

Nuclear weapons should no longer be the only weapon of mass destruction not prohibited by international law. A categorical ban on nuclear weapons would increase the stigma surrounding the weapons and ramp up pressure on nuclear states to work towards eliminating their arsenals. Moreover, a strong humanitarian motivation drove the treaty. Prior conferences on the impact of nuclear weapons had led many countries to declare the catastrophic effect of nuclear weapons incompatible with any legal or practical purpose. Countries like the Marshall Islands, Algeria, and Kazakhstan suffered from years of testing and their populations have experienced decades-long harm. Victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, known as Hibakusha, along with their children and grandchildren, still deal with the health and environmental consequences of atomic bombs today. Survivors of this use and testing offered compelling testimony for why nuclear weapons should be banned.

Our team focused on ensuring that the treaty not only prohibited nuclear weapons but also held true to its humanitarian purpose by directly addressing the horrific effects of nuclear weapon use and testing. Throughout the spring semester, we prepared papers, released at the negotiations, that made the case for including relevant provisions in the ban treaty. We argued that states parties should have the obligation to remediate environments affected by nuclear explosions and to provide assistance to victims within their territories. Other states parties should in turn help affected states implement their responsibilities. These “positive obligations” would not merely mitigate hypothetical future instances of nuclear weapon use, but would require states to deal with the significant ongoing impact of historic detonations. Existing humanitarian disarmament treaties, such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, provided precedent for such provisions.

At first, it seemed unclear exactly how our research and advocacy could possibly influence the final text of the treaty. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had a limited status at the negotiations, and indeed, during the three-week session in June and July, the breakout working groups discussing specific articles were closed to civil society members. This was an unfortunate and unexpected development, especially given that the president of the conference, along with many states, had thanked civil society for its contributions and acknowledged that the negotiations likely would not have come about without its efforts. Furthermore, several smaller states, whose UN missions in New York had only two or three officers, relied on civil society to provide them with information about the headway of the negotiations.

While disappointed at not having full access to the negotiating rooms, we continued to make our voices heard. We presented diplomats with papers laying out our legal and policy arguments. We regularly met with diplomats over lunch or coffee to receive updates about the progress of negotiations and to analyze key developments. We did real-time research on the concerns states had about our positions and figured out ways to address them. The publications we had disseminated at the opening of the negotiations served as a foundation for our advocacy efforts: they helped us articulate our positions to both state delegates and fellow civil society actors and formed the basis of presentations, talking points, newsletter articles, and model treaty language. It was extremely rewarding to know that the work we had put in throughout the semester was able to assist Article 36 and the broader civil society coalition.

The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.

Our work ultimately had a tangible impact on the content of the treaty. A year ago, few people were thinking about including positive obligations in the prohibition convention, and the first draft of the text, released in May, was weak. But the final version included all the obligations for which we had advocated.

The last moments of the negotiations on July 7 were a dramatic affair. Against the hopes of most governments and civil society, the Netherlands objected to adopting the new treaty by consensus. In the final vote, though, overwhelming support for the treaty bolstered its credibility equally well: 122 states voted in favor of the ground-breaking convention, with only the Netherlands voting against and Singapore abstaining.

Joining the celebrations of jubilant state delegates and civil society advocates, many of whom had been campaigning against nuclear weapons for decades, was an unforgettable experience. We all felt extremely grateful to have had the chance to be a part of this passionate community of disarmament activists during what was a major moment in the history of efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.

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