The newly adopted historic UN treaty banning nuclear weapons

by Alice Kooij Martinez
Senior Advocacy Officer

Note: This article originally appeared in Mosaico di pace, the magazine of Pax Christi Italy.

On 7 July 2017, the majority of world’s countries adopted a new treaty banning nuclear weapons at the UN in New York, a truly an historic moment for which civil society has for years been campaigning for. Pax Christi International, a member of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has been joining their efforts. The treaty, which makes nuclear weapons illegal under international law, will be open for countries for signature starting 20 September 2017. It is important for civil society to further build on this milestone momentum and to call upon states to sign the treaty during this year’s UN General Assembly. A very big step has been taken, but there is still important work ahead of us as civil society.

The new treaty bans the use, development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquiring, possession, stockpiling, transferring, receiving, threatening to use, stationing, installation, or deploying of nuclear weapons. It puts nuclear weapons in the same international law category as other indiscriminate, inhumane weapons such as chemical weapons and biological weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. It ends a strange exception, namely that the worst weapon of mass destruction is the only weapon of mass destruction not expressly prohibited. It therefore fills a gap in law created and sustained by the ways in which nuclear powers and their allies have used their international power and influence. Positively, the world’s majority of states has been able to join their forces and succeeded in completing the needed norms of international law.

Importantly, the treaty recognises that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, go beyond national boundaries, pose grave implications for human survival and are the responsibility of all states. Also it requires that states provide assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and to take age and gender-sensitive factors into account. When listening to the powerful statements of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings during the nuclear weapons ban treaty negotiations, the importance of these recognitions in the treaty becomes very clear. About 340.000 people have died immediately and in the years that have followed the bombings, but the death and illness continues. (1)

Moreover, this treaty is a clear indication that the world’s majority no longer accepts nuclear weapons and do not consider them legitimate weapons, even though nine countries with nuclear weapons and 30 countries that rely on U.S nuclear forces – including Italy – have boycotted the treaty negotiations. These states have defended themselves by referring to the security situation in the world, more specifically the threats coming from North Korea, and the importance of deterrence through nuclear weapons. However, as Monsignor Tomasi has rightly pointed out when welcoming the treaty on behalf of the Holy See: “security is guaranteed by dialogue and not by force”. (2) However, it is important to keep the doors open to these state in the hope that they can join the treaty, even one day with a change of government.

Pax Christi International has through its representation at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva and New York and the activities of its member organizations in their countries firstly advocated for a UN mandate to negotiate the treaty and then for specific human-centered provisions in the treaty. Through joint civil society efforts, the nuclear weapons ban treaty text developed during the negotiations into a more robust legal instrument, including by references to international human rights law and the inclusion of technical, material and financial assistance to states affected by nuclear-weapons use or testing. ICAN took up a crucial leading role in supporting joint work by its member organizations, such as through informing us about key moments, providing us with advocacy materials and by coordinating lobby activities during the negotiations.

Now that the treaty is adopted, the work is not yet done for us as civil society. We have joint work ahead for the treaty to actually enter into force and to be legally applicable to them. According to the treaty, fifty states are required to ratify the treaty for it to enter into force. At national level, the process of ratification of treaties varies, but usually requires parliamentary approval and the development of national legislation to turn international law prohibitions into national legislation. Pax Christi International through its member’s organizations around the world wishes to contact governments to encourage the heads of state or government or the Minister of Foreign Affairs to sign the treaty when it opens for signature on 20 September at the UN in New York.

Pax Christi International hopes that through the entering into force of this new UN treaty and subsequently more and more states becoming part and its implementation, it can step by step lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons in the world. Also, that the treaty can lead to the needed redeployment of resources from the trillions of dollars wasted on nuclear weapons to nonviolent and life-enhancing policies for sustainable development, especially for vulnerable communities. By joining the treaty, states can show their commitment and shift the focus of their policies and budgets to a sustainable future for current and future generations in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN Climate Agreement.

In the words of Pope Francis on the occasion of the 2014 Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons: “I am convinced that the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home. The security of our own future depends on guaranteeing the peaceful security of others, for if peace, security and stability are not established globally, they will not be enjoyed at all.” (3)


  1. See this website of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with an overview of impact on how survivors and families are still gravely affected:
  2. Zenit news article, ‘UN: Holy See Greets Treaty on Nuclear Arms’, 10 July 2017, online available at:
  3.  The declaration of the Pope is available on this website:

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