29 April 2014, Vol.12, No.2

Editorial: Magical realism
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will

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In opening the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee, Ambassador Enrique Roman-Morey of Peru noted that there is no magic to make nuclear weapons disappear overnight. We agree. It is bold action by governments, international organizations, and civil society that will lead to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. 

Such boldness was demonstrated by the Marshall Islands, which on 25 April filed lawsuits against all nine nuclear-armed states for their failure to negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament. The suits were filed against all nine governments at the International Court of Justice, with an additional complaint against the United States filed in US Federal District Court.

Speaking at a side event on Monday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands emphasized that the lawsuits are not acts of hostility but have been filed in a spirit of friendship. As he noted in his general debate statement, the objective of the NPT is to stop the spread of and lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. But the continued relevance of this goal, he argued, is not fully matched by political will or adequate progress. Reporting on the 2010 action plan at this PrepCom is likely to reveal “grave shortcomings” in the implementation of its provisions.

This concern has been voiced by many others ahead of this PrepCom. In its working paper on article VI, the New Agenda Coalition questioned the seriousness with which nuclear-armed states approach their unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) noted in its opening remarks that the step-by-step approach has failed to achieve the objectives of the NPT and that rolling over the 2010 action plan for another five years is not acceptable.

There is a growing recognition of the risks and consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation. Yet nuclear-armed states and those in military alliances with them continue to rely upon and invest in nuclear weapons. This contradiction is politically, legally, and morally untenable. It is leading to increasing frustration among most of the world’s governments, which demand more concrete action for nuclear disarmament than the nuclear-armed states have so far demonstrated.

In this context, the renewed focus on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has opened space for consideration of the most appropriate political and legal responses to the existence of nuclear weapons.

The Marshall Islands’ lawsuit is one such response. A complementary approach is to develop a legal framework for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. A treaty banning nuclear weapons could bridge the gap between long-held aspirations for nuclear disarmament and the seemingly intractable legal and political landscape that exists today.

“We cannot continue to condemn the existence of some weapons of mass destruction while allowing the existence of others,” argued Ambassador Ulibarri of Costa Rica, representing CELAC. “The time is ripe to take multilateral action on the longstanding call for the adoption of a legally-binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons.” The delegation of Mexico highlighted the Chair’s summary from the Nayarit conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which likewise called for the development of an international treaty.

“International law—and legal obligations—are not hollow and empty words on a page, but instead the most serious form of duty and commitment between nations, and to our collective international purpose,” argued Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum. Treaties may not be magic, but they are crucial elements in building a legal and normative system to ensure human security. 

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