In what U.N. officials called a "historic" vote, 122 nations approved a treaty to ban nuclear weapons at the U.N. headquarters in New York on July 7. The treaty is not supported by any nations that own nuclear weapons.
Signatories of the treaty agree “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It will be open for signatures on Sept. 20 and will go into effect once 50 countries have ratified it.
Of the nations participating in the discussion, only the Netherlands, who have U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory, rejected the treaty. Singapore chose to abstain from voting.
"It’s been seven decades since the world knew the power of destruction of nuclear weapons and since day one there was a call to prohibit nuclear weapons," president of the U.N. conference Elayne Whyte Gomez told The Guardian after the vote. "This is a very clear statement that the international community wants to move to a completely different security paradigm that does not include nuclear weapons."
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The treaty comes months after a December 2016 resolution by the U.N. General Assembly to "negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination." In all, 113 nations voted to move forward with the treaty while 35 voted against it. And 13 nations chose to abstain, though all were encouraged to take part in the discussion.
Negotiations for the treaty began on March 27. According to Reuters, the U.S., Britain and France were among several countries who chose not to participate in the treaty talks.
"You are going to see almost 40 countries that are not in the General Assembly today," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley back in March. "In this day and time we can't honestly that say we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them and those of us that are good, trying to keep peace and safety, not to have them."
Haley added: “[T]here is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons, but we have to be realistic.”
The U.N. ambassadors for the U.K. and France gave slightly different reasons for opposing the treaty, with the former saying that the treaty "would not lead to effective progress on nuclear disarmament" and the latter saying that nuclear weapons were still necessary for security given "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
The U.S. and other nations who opposed the treaty have indicated that they would rather strengthen the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) instead of initiating a global ban.
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That NPT limited nuclear weapons to the five nations that constituted the original nuclear powers: the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China. In return to other nations for not having nuclear stockpiles, the five powers would move toward eliminating nuclear weapons and guarantee other nations access to nuclear energy.
According to Beatrice Fihn at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, support of powerful nations is not always needed for treaties to be successful. The Guardian cites the Mine Ban Treaty as an example of a pact which the U.S. did not sign but eventually adjusted its policies to comply with.
“These kinds of treaties have an impact that forces countries to change their behavior," said Fihn. "It is not going to happen fast, but it does affect them. We have seen on all other weapons that prohibition comes first, and then elimination. This is taking the first step towards elimination.”
The Associated Press reports that opponents of the treaty assert North Korea's July 3 test of intercontinental ballistic missiles as a reason to maintain nuclear arsenals.
Fihn said that even with 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, North Korea has not ceased to develop nuclear technology and that a new approach is needed. According to her, prohibition of nuclear arms is the first step in eradicating them.