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The UN will decide on the future of nuclear weapons

On 27 October, the member states of the United Nations voted to open negotiations on a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. The debate, held in occasion of the Nuclear Disarmament Education Week promoted by UNODA (United Nations for Disarmament Affairs), could lead to of the most critical decisions taken in the 71 years of the UN's work on one of the central themes of the contemporary international system. Despite the opposition from eight nuclear-weapon states (France, the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and Israel), the Resolution "L.41" passed with 123 votes in favour, 38 against and 16 abstentions. With unexpected permission from North Korea, the ninth nuclear state, the resolution found the support of Mexico, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Nigeria and South Africa.

The United States has strongly opposed the adoption of this resolution, putting the pressure on its allied states as its regional and global security depends on nuclear weapons. "The ban treaty threatens to compromise our regional security", stated US Ambassador Robert Wood upon the UN disarmament conference in Geneva. Yet during his speech at Hiroshima Peace Memorial on 27 May 2016, US President Barack Obama has expressed the need for a "moral revolution" on the use of nuclear weapons. This controversial resolution, which would mark a decisive step forward 46 years after the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which passed in July 1968 at the UN General Assembly, and shows a renewed attention by world leaders on the issue. It also reflects the fear of a new "Cold War" as the relations between the US and the Russian Federation are deteriorating alarmingly. The probability of nuclear war remains one of the cornerstones in the decisions that the UN will take.

Australia strongly opposed the opening of the discussion by voting against the start of the negotiations scheduled for 2017. According to Australian diplomat Ian Mcconville, "a ban treaty would not facilitate the disarmament and would make it even more difficult to persuade the nuclear states to reduce their arsenal". Behind the decision to oppose the adoption of the Treaty, the government could conceal its desire not to lose a security deterrent from US nuclear weapons. A hypothesis that is possible, according to government emails released for freedom of information, in which the Australian diplomatic corps expresses its fear in view of the increasing consensus among the coalition of non-nuclear powers on the ban. This coalition, made of 127 states and led by Austria, has officially supported the humanitarian commitment to "fill the gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons", just as an equally firm position that arose during the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014.

An intense debate is ahead of the opening conference on negotiations scheduled for March 2017. Despite the broad consensus gained in the resolution, the major nuclear states could make use of their influence and put pressure on their allies to prevent its adoption. However, it seems like the world is finally moving towards a new direction in the topic of weapons of mass destruction, as previously occurred for chemical and biological weapons. This scenario could lead to a downsizing of state security projects and a big change in the international system based on nuclear deterrence, where major powers such as the United States should rebuild their long-term defence strategies from scratch and rely on new technologies. Now we have to wait for the evolution of this situation and this debate in view of the opening of the conference, hoping that the atrocities suffered by Hiroshima and Nagasaki awaken the consciousness of world leaders.

By Andrea Maria Vassallo

Translated by Vittoria Visconti


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  • L'Autore

    Andrea Maria Vassallo

    Andrea Maria Vassallo, laureato in Relazioni Internazionali e specializzato nel settore della sicurezza energetica e dei trasporti marittimi. Inoltre, segue con attenzione le politiche internazionali nell’Artico e nell’Antartide, andando ad analizzare quelli che sono i rischi e le opportunità per i principali attori statuali e non-statuali che operano nella regione.

    Andrea Maria Vassallo, he has a Master Degree in International Relations and he is specialized in energy security and maritime transports. In addition, he follows closely the international policies in the Arctic and Antarctica, analyzing the risks and opportunities for the state and non-state actors operating in the region.

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