In December, the ground shifted on nuclear weapons.

The Austrian government, at a conference it was hosting on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, pledged to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

In the coming months, it will be encouraging other states to sign this pledge and join in the pursuit of a ban on nuclear weapons.

This is what WILPF, as a partner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has been working for. This is our chance to finally outlaw these horrific weapons of mass destruction once and for all – which we think will lead to their total elimination.

What’s the story with nuclear weapons?

Nine countries together possess more than 16,000 nuclear weapons and many of these are ready to be launched within a few minutes’ warning. Most are more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades.

Reaching Critical Will Director Ray Achenson and Sofia Tuvestad of WILPF Sweden participated in the ICAN Civil Society Forum in December 2014.

Reaching Critical Will Director Ray Achenson and Sofia Tuvestad of WILPF Sweden participated in the ICAN Civil Society Forum in December 2014.
Photo credit: Flickr/ICAN

The consequences of any nuclear weapon use would be devastating, long lasting, and unacceptable and the only solution is to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons now.

For decades, discussions on nuclear weapons have been dominated by the few nuclear-armed states. The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons has prompted a fundamental change in this conversation, with non-nuclear armed states leading the way in a discussion on the actual effects of the weapons.

Changing the discourse

It all started with the 2010 nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, when governments officially expressed their “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons” and reaffirmed “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”

Following this, 16 governments delivered a joint statement at the 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee, and 35 governments did so at the 2012 General Assembly First Committee session, highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and calling on all states to intensify their efforts to outlaw these weapons. At the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee, 80 governments joined this statement and by the 2013 First Committee, 125 governments were on board. A year later in October 2014, at the First Committee, 155 states joined a similar statement.

Governmental conferences

In March 2013, for the first time ever, governments, international organisations, and civil society addressed the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons at a conference in Oslo, Norway. The meeting was a huge success, with the participation of 128 governments, UN agencies, international organisations, and civil society. Evidence was presented on the immediate impact of nuclear weapon detonation and governments and relief agencies alike concluded that no adequate humanitarian response would be possible.

States and other actors convened again in Nayarit, Mexico from 13 – 14 February 2014 to discuss the global and long-term consequences of a nuclear detonation from the perspective and variables of the 21st century society. In his summary of the meeting, the Chair called for the development of new international standards on nuclear weapons, including a legally binding instrument. The time has come, he noted, for a diplomatic process to reach this goal.

In December 2014 states and other actors gathered for a third conference in Vienna, Austria. This conference was aimed at strengthening the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and at contributing to the growing momentum to firmly anchor the humanitarian imperative in all global efforts dealing with nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament.

At the end of the conference, Austria delivered the “Austrian Pledge” in which it committed to work to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

At the end of the conference, Austria delivered the “Austrian Pledge” in which it committed to work to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”
Photo credit: Flickr/UNIS Vienna

At the end of this conference, Austria delivered the “Austrian Pledge” in which it committed to work to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and pledged “to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”

The road ahead

Vienna gave us a starting point. It is the most exciting opportunity we have to deal with these weapons once and for all. We must seize it and ban nuclear weapons now.

For more info on the humanitarian consequences process and the three governmental conferences, go to Reaching Critical Will’s website were you can find our monitoring reports of the conferences and statement archive and other documents from the meetings.