NEW YORK – A landmark treaty banning nuclear weapons became reality on Friday, making reference to the “unacceptable suffering” of the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
A total of 122 countries gave their blessing to the unprecedented global initiative after months of negotiations at the United Nations, with only the Netherlands opposed and Singapore abstaining.
“This is a historic moment for the international community,” Elayne Whyte Gomez, president of the talks, told reporters. “This is the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to be concluded in more than 20 years.”
“We all feel very emotional today. We feel that we are responding to the hopes and to the dreams of present and future generations — that we undertake our responsibility as a generation to do whatever is in our hands to achieve and to move the world toward the dream of a world free of nuclear weapons,” she said.
Ironically, Japan joined nuclear-armed nations like the United States, as well as other countries that Washington has sworn to protect with its arsenal, in boycotting the talks, which began in March.
The approval of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came almost 72 years after the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The preamble of the pact mentions “the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha), as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons.”
The phrase reinforces the deep concern voiced at the outset of the preamble about “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons.”
“I have been waiting for this day for seven decades and I am overjoyed that it has finally arrived,” said Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor. “This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”
At the heart of the treaty is ensuring that states “never under any circumstances … develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices … (or) use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.”
Thurlow was 13 years old when she witnessed the attack on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The 85-year-old has become an advocate of nuclear nonproliferation.
Separately, Toshiki Fujimori, assistant secretary-general of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, known as Nihon Hidankyo, also hailed the adoption of the treaty.
“I never would imagine this treaty was going to be concluded on July 7,” he told reporters. “I think it is the collective effort of the humanity of all the people that came together here at the United Nations.”
More than 120 of the 193 U.N. member states participated in the negotiations with scores of representatives from civil society, including A-bomb victims from Hiroshima.
However, the five recognized members of the nuclear club — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus four states known to possess nuclear weapons — India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan — did not join the negotiations.
Also absent were nations that rely on U.S. nuclear deterrence for protection, such as Japan — the only country to have ever suffered a nuclear attack — Germany and South Korea. The sole exception was the Netherlands.
The United States and other nuclear powers have called a pact to ban nuclear weapons unrealistic, especially at a time when North Korea has been aggressively pursuing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.
“This treaty offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, nor does it address other security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary,” said the permanent representatives to the United Nations of the United States, Britain and France in a joint statement released after the adoption of the treaty.
But proponents say a legally binding ban will create moral suasion — in the vein of the cluster bomb and land mine conventions — to stigmatize atomic weapons and alter the nnuclear powers’ behavior.
“This treaty is a clear indication that the majority of the world no longer accepts nuclear weapons and does not consider them legitimate tools of war,” said the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a nongovernmental organization.
“The repeated objection and boycott of the negotiations by many nuclear-weapons states demonstrates that this treaty has the potential to significantly impact their behavior and stature,” it said in a statement.
The treaty will be opened for signatures in September and enter into force 90 days after the document has been ratified by 50 nations, and will be legally effective for an unlimited duration.
In a controversial move, the text also bans threats to use nuclear weapons, in line with a call from many nations including Brazil and Iran.
The ban on nuclear threats is feared to have virtually closed the door to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or U.S. allies who may want to join the pact in the future.
Such a rule would be incompatible with their alliance obligations based on extended nuclear deterrence — the U.S. threat to retaliate with atomic weapons on behalf of allies.
“The obligations in Article 1 are incompatible with our commitments as a NATO state,” said Lise Gregoire-Van-Haaren, deputy chief of the Dutch mission to the U.N., in an apparent reference to the ban on nuclear threats.
Elsewhere, the pact obliges states to provide hibakusha and victims of nuclear testing with medical care, rehabilitation and other support, as well as to remediate any environmental damage caused.
It also recognizes the importance of peace and disarmament education and of raising awareness of the risks and consequences of nuclear arms for current and future generations.
Last August, a U.N. working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva adopted a report recommending to the General Assembly that negotiations begin in 2017 to make nuclear weapons illegal.
The issue was taken up in New York two months later, when the committee overseeing disarmament issued a resolution that was ultimately endorsed by a large majority in the December plenary session.