Today marks the third International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, an occasion to remind the international community of the pressing need for global nuclear disarmament, and a moment to remember the tragic destruction that these weapons have caused to human lives and the environment.

The introduction of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons through a UN General Assembly resolution in 2013 marked a shift in the dialogue on nuclear weapons. The President of the General Assembly that year noted that a “renewed international focus on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons has led to a reinvigoration of international nuclear disarmament efforts.”

The humanitarian initiative, which 127 states have now supported through their endorsement of the Humanitarian Pledge, presents an alternative to the “step-by-step approach” preferred by nuclear-armed states and others that include the use of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines.

Step-by-step vs. humanitarian

The two approaches differ fundamentally in their rationales, and are revelatory about a state’s priorities and motivations. The step-by-step approach, now sometimes referred to as the progressive approach, stems from the belief that nuclear weapons give certain states security and is presented by its supporters as pragmatic and politically reasoned. This pragmatism is set up in opposition to an “emotionally appealing” ban treaty that, the step-by-step supporters argue, would fail to confront the “real issues” at hand. Furthermore, proponents of the progressive approach often claim that since there are already provisions in place for nuclear disarmament, new instruments will detract from achievements and progress towards nuclear disarmament thus far.

By contrast, the humanitarian approach takes a few steps back. Instead of assuming progress, it asks what has been achieved to date that represents a real commitment to and concerted action for nuclear disarmament? Can we justify a hierarchy of concerns that prioritise a state’s security over human lives, especially in the context of weapons capable of such destruction? What is the difference between a state’s security and the security of its people and all of humanity and the planet? Met with the realisation that the nuclear-armed states are investing billions into modernising nuclear weapons while they refuse to participate in disarmament discussions, the majority of the international community is now calling for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Banning nuclear weapons

WILPF’s work, and that of likeminded civil society and states, cites a ban treaty as a means to “offer states opposed to nuclear weapons an opportunity to formalise a categorical rejection of the use or possession of nuclear weapons.” Ray Acheson, director of WILPF’s disarmament programme Reaching Critical Will, delivered a statement on behalf of ICAN last year, noting that “a [ban] treaty would set an international standard prohibiting all nuclear weapon activities and help us advance toward the verifiable and irreversible elimination of these heinous weapons once and for all.”

Despite continued resistance from nuclear-armed states and those states whose military doctrines claim the protection of nuclear weapons, there have been significant and exciting developments arising from the work of the international community committed to prohibiting nuclear weapons.

'Bikes against the bomb' protest in Australia 2015. Photo: MAPW/Flickr.

Picnic at the end of ICAN’s Melbourne bike ride to collect support for a ban on nuclear weapons, Australia 2013. Photo: MAPW/Flickr.

2017 talks on a nuclear ban treaty

In August 2016, the open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament (OEWG) adopted a resolution to recommend the commencement of negotiations in 2017 on a legally-binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination. The nuclear-armed states refused to attend the OEWG, under the pretext that such negotiations were a distraction from “the real work of disarmament.” This non-engagement is in effect a stalling mechanism that is offensive to those who have tried to engage with the nuclear-armed states for more than seventy years to encourage their compliance with the legal obligation to eliminate their nuclear weapons. It also underscores the importance of progressing with negotiations of a ban treaty based on the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

Contrary to some claims from nuclear-weapon supportive states, a ban treaty is the most practical option that the international community has seen. On a day when we commemorate a commitment to the total elimination of nuclear weapons, we have to be realistic about where the path for real forward movement lies. If nuclear-armed states will not engage in genuine actions for nuclear disarmament, a ban treaty will help to enhance the stigmatisation of these weapons. As stated by WILPF at the OEWG in August, this treaty will “help facilitate the development of a stronger community of states and civil society working together towards elimination based on a clear legal prohibition of nuclear weapons.”

Maintaining momentum

Last year at the UN commemoration of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, civil society and states supporting a ban encouraged the international community to take steps towards such a treaty. This year, the promise of ban treaty talks has come significantly closer. In the run up to the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, this year’s International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons should serve as a reminder of what can be achieved, and the work that still needs to be done.