How the "Impossible" became Possible (How Disarmament Treaties Can Work)

By Joanne Dufour posted 04-11-2018 12:41:10 PM


Recent reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2017, 2018 and in the UK in 2018 (an apparent assassination attempt with a nerve agent) and the international responses help demonstrate the way that international law works. A treaty to ban the use of chemical weapons officially became international law in 1997 when the minimum number of countries (a number designated in the treaty itself) ratified the treaty in their own ratification process. Following ratification, each country is then expected to integrate the conditions of the treaty into their own domestic legal system and enforce it. As others signed on, and support grew internationally for the treaty it became the norm for all, known as customary international law – even those countries which had not officially ratified it.

International reactions to the 2017 Syrian and 2018 UK incidents show examples of  enforcement of this treaty, (the bombing of a Syrian air force base, investigation of culpability of exactly who used the weapons, and the decisions to close consulates and/or sending diplomats back home) as the  Chemical Weapons treaty does not provide an enforcement mechanism per se authorizing other parties to attack violators as punishment. The treaty does have a fact finding agency (Organization for the  Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons) investigating the current use in Douma, Syria in April 2018. []

Recently the United Nations General Assembly created and authorized the process of adoption of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. While other treaties banning weapons of mass destruction (like the Chemical Weapons Treaty which was ratified by the United States Congress in 1998 with multiple conditions) have been passed, this one finally addressed nuclear weapons. (Future blogs will explain this more precisely but this blog will aid students in learning how this came to be.)

The point here is that the Convention to Ban Nuclear Weapons may be “pie in the sky” for some but this is simply a new chapter for those who have been working diligently for disarmament over the last several decades. Each step forward begins somewhere and needs support. The work of the 2017 Nobel Prize winner, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons ICAN) , reveals the rather amazing story for how this new treaty came to be.                    ( The following is a selection from their website as to how this happened.

“At a review of the Non Proliferation Treaty (  in 2010, all nations expressed their deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons – a collective statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations.” The International Committee of the Red Cross with an array of medical participants played a significant role in explaining the impossible role of providing humanitarian relief  to the victims of a nuclear attack. Not only would the number of victims be enormous, and the range of symptoms needing attention staggering, but the facilities in which they could be treated and the necessary medications and equipment would likely be non-existent in the affected areas. These testimonies became very convincing to the participants.

“ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these meetings, which brought together most of the world’s governments, along with international organizations and academic institutions. In 2015 we helped garner the support of 127 nations for a diplomatic pledge ‘to fill the legal gap’ in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons.”

While weapons of mass destruction like landmines, biological and chemical weapons and laser technology had been made illegal and their use condemned according to international law, this was not true of nuclear weapons. Consequently  a working group was established to examine specific proposals for making  nuclear weapons illegal. The discourse was beginning to change and the notion of disarmament entering into a new stage of consciousness and possibility.

 “The group of governments and interested non-governmental organizations met in Geneva in February, May and August 2016 [and] issued a landmark report recommending that negotiations begin in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons once and for all. Our campaign then lobbied successfully for the UN General Assembly to adopt the resolution in December 2016 to launch negotiations on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”.

Other items of consideration included:

(1) the prohibition of  its parties “from assisting, financing, encouraging and inducing others to carry out any of these prohibited acts. It should provide an obligation for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a framework to achieve it”

(2) how the states developing or housing the nuclear weapons would implement the decision to disarm if and when that time comes. Who would be in charge of monitoring that process? Decisions would have to be made so "parties could agree to relevant measures and timelines as part of the implementation process – through protocols or other appropriate legal instruments."

(3) the question of the rights of victims and survivors of any nuclear weapon use

(4) the question of addressing damage to affected environments and who would be responsible for that and for providing for international cooperation and assistance to meet the obligations of the instrument.

These are very serious items that would still need attention once the treaty becomes international law. But considering that the drafting of the treaty took place within a window of seven months, and won the support of the number of nations that it did, the “impossible” was becoming “possible”, especially in the realm of creating international law.

And what does this treaty (boycotted in its creation by all nuclear states and their allies) have to say?

“Our campaign [was] calling for the negotiation of a nondiscriminatory international legal instrument that prohibits its parties, their nationals and any other individual subject to its jurisdiction from engaging in activities such as the development, production, testing, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, deployment, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons” 

History has shown that legal prohibitions (possession and use) of weapons systems of mass destruction or unusually cruel impact on civilian populations do work. Noteworthy has been the Convention to Ban the Use of Nuclear Weapons in Space, which so far has been effective. []  Others, like the Chemical Weapons Treaty might not be perfect, but they certainly limit the violations that do occur, thanks to compliance with International Humanitarian Law. Outlawed weapons eventually are seen as illegitimate. They lose their political status and along with it money and resources for their production, modernization, proliferation and perpetuation. It becomes “news” when such weapons are in fact used because of  this reality. ( ).

In a number of countries protests to ban the bomb have already been held and the support for this initiative continues. Congratulations to the International Committee Against Nuclear Weapons for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Our support in helping the ratification process so that the treaty comes into force is needed, if you are so inclined. Interested persons are urged to contact ICAN at http/ for more information.