A little-noticed phrase agreed by the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference laid the foundation for a surprisingly successful effort to achieve a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons.

The inclusion of a little-noticed phrase in the final document agreed by a review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010 can be seen, in retrospect, to have laid the foundation for what, some seven years later, has become a surprisingly successful effort to achieve a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons – or, as it is commonly known, a nuclear ban treaty. At the time of writing, a ban treaty was being negotiated at the United Nations, and was likely to be concluded in early July 2017. The ban treaty is, at least in some respects, an outgrowth of what can be termed the ‘humanitarian-impact movement’ (HIM). This movement, pursued by both states and civil-society groups, has sought to refocus attention on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and especially the potential impacts of their use.

The politics surrounding the movement and its relationship to the campaign for a ban treaty are complex, with many storylines, characters and subplots, and – much like Akira Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon – the heroes and villains look very different depending on one’s vantage point, be it that of a nuclear-weapons possessor, ally of the United States, other non-nuclear-weapons state (NNWS), advocate of nuclear-weapons abolition or proponent of nuclear deterrence. This essay seeks to trace the evolution of the HIM in order to answer three questions: What gave rise to the HIM within the context of the NPT review process? How did the HIM morph into the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on disarmament, and the attendant UN General Assembly resolution to commence negotiations on a multilateral treaty to ban the possession of nuclear weapons? What are likely to be the short-term consequences of ban-treaty negotiations in the lead-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference?1

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William C. Potter is Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he also serves as Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies. This paper was originally prepared for a Workshop on US Engagement in the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons Debate held at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation on 9–11 February 2017.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2017

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