The negotiation session in March 2017

With these procedural hurdles out of the way, the first session of the negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons could get under way. At the opening plenary session, State representatives laid out their general views and expectations for the negotiations. Many delegations invoked the sense that these negotiations were an important and historical opportunity.

A message by Pope Francis was delivered to the conference in which he referred to the (future) treaty as being

inspired by ethical and moral arguments. [ . . . and hoped that] the efforts of this conference may be fruitful and provide an effective contribution to advancing an ethic of peace and of multilateral and cooperative security, which humanity very much needs today.9

The President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer stressed that “the historical importance of the Conference cannot be overstated. [... and] appeal(ed) to delegates to work with urgency and determination, to adopt a clear an unambiguous prohibition of nuclear weapons grounded in international humanitarian law”.10

Many States echoed these sentiments. Ireland underlined that "we are taking the opportunity to write a new history and in so doing to create a new, more stable, more security and more equal future for all”.11 ASEAN expressed the view that “this conference is a vital step in the path toward nuclear disarmament [which] complements and reinforces that treaty’s [note: the NPT’s] goals and objectives”.12 Algeria called the Conference a

historical juncture [. . . and] a necessity we owe it to the world, and a huge majority has decided to open this path for everyone’s sake and in the name of the very reason we are here at the United Nations: promote peace, prevent war through multilateral endeavours.13

The African Group called the conference “historic, the result of which will constitute an important contribution to global nuclear disarmament”.14 South Africa echoed this by referring to the conference as “a major milestone in the history of nuclear disarmament and the only reason for our presence here today is to negotiate an instrument that will prohibit nuclear weapons”.15 The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) reiterated the Continent's “desire for

2017: negotiating the TPNW 113 meaningful progress towards achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.. .. and encourage(d) others to join us on this path”.16 ICAN reminded delegations of their responsibility to “establish a clear, new, international standard ... to declare, in no uncertain terms, that nuclear weapons are illegitimate, immoral and illegal”.17

Not everyone shared this positive view of the negotiations or the sense of historical opportunity these offered. US Ambassador Nikki Haley orchestrated a press briefing outside the UN meeting room in which the rest of the international community had gathered for the negotiations. She was accompanied by representatives from the UK, France and other nuclear umbrella States who, looking rather uncomfortable, each said their countries would not participate in these negotiations but “wanted to have our voices heard”.18 The US ambassador said that

as a mother, as a daughter, there is nothing I would like more than a world without nuclear weapons [but] in this day and time we can’t honestly say that we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them and those of us that are good, trying to keep peace and safety, not to have them.19

Ambassador Haley closed by “thanking the States that will not be attending [the negotiations] today for their commitment to their people, their commitment to their countries and their commitment to safety, freedom and peace in the future”.20

For the States sitting inside the negotiation chamber and listening at that time to Pope Francis’ message, this “staged public boycott. . . with a ragtag band of about 20 diplomats”21 was a strange spectacle. One delegate remembered it as “being absurd for the delegations inside the room. There had been nothing of the sort before. The fact that States that could join in negotiations stand outside the room and say we will not enter . . . absurd!”22 Another diplomat recalled it as “a lost representative of a superpower looking impotent. It looked ridiculous. But it brought media attention and added value for the negotiations and clearly motivated many delegations to participate. For the negotiations, it was only a win”.23 ICAN was scathing, pointing out that the US ambassador had essentially said, “I don’t think nuclear weapons should be banned because I'm a mom and I care about my family”.24 Vanessa Griffen, an ICAN activist from the Pacific region, observed that “Pacific women - mothers and non-mothers alike - have spoken out against nuclear weapons repeatedly and want them banned [and]... (a)nyone who knows the impact of nuclear weapons knows their effects on women, and on children”.25 ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn remarked that “normally we NGOs stand outside of negotiation halls. Today, we are inside and the representative . . . Now the US is standing outside and protests. The whole world is upside down”.26

Among the negotiating States, the focus of attention shifted quickly onto the different expectations and what delegations wished to see in the future ban treaty. One defining feature of the negotiations and the result of the long process of getting to this point, was the “considerable confluence”27 that already existed in the positions. The States that took part in the negotiations, by and large, wanted to achieve a successful outcome and knew that they had a unique opportunity todo so, which should not be squandered. Nevertheless, the level of preparation varied considerably among delegations. At the March session, many delegations were “only ready to discuss their positions on the provisions at a general level of


This fact was taken into account by the President of the conference and the March session was structured accordingly. There were no actual negotiations on the treaty text, rather interactive panels and expert presentations on the key aspects for the future treaty, giving delegations the opportunity to outline either their general approach to the negotiations or, for the better prepared delegations, to present their detailed positions and expectations. This approach made a virtue out of necessity and helped clarify the key issues for delegations. It also provided Ambassador Whyte Gômez with the substantive basis upon which to prepare the first draft of the treaty text. It gave experts from academia, civil society and the ICRC a significant opportunity to impact the negotiations and to “clarify a number of complex and potentially contentious issues, including on approaches to verification, nuclear testing, the transit of nuclear weapons through national territory and adherence to the treaty by states possessing nuclear weapons”.29 The contribution of these expert panels and interactive sessions to the negotiation momentum and the subsequent successful outcome camiot be overstated.

The President presented her first draft of the treaty on 22 May 2017 in Geneva.30 Based on the “many common elements and aspirations that had emerged”31 during the March session, she attempted to “synthesize the many areas where the views of States converged”. Her goal was to prepare a "constructive starting point” for the negotiations in June and July. The draft thus included the elements which the President considered to be "ripe, well considered and deemed to constitute a basis for building consensus”. Issues that she considered not yet fully developed, she set aside for the second round of negotiations. These included the preamble, general obligations, safeguards, positive obligations (such as victim assistance and environmental remediation), and implementation and final provisions. The President listed the following four overarching principles for the draft: 1) complementarity with existing instruments (especially the NPT), 2) reinforcement (avoid loopholes to evade existing non-proliferation norms), 3) simple and non-discriminatory nature (reflecting a clear and strong prohibition of nuclear weapons and 4) be a basis for the future by providing pathways and frameworks for future accession of nuclear weapon States, thus promoting the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.32

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