'Point of no return' reached in international campaign to ban nuclear weapons

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An international conference aimed at exploring the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons has been hailed as a “point of no return” in the campaign to commence negotiation of a legally binding international treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

A large majority of countries attending the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which took place at Nayarit in Mexico on 13-14 February 2014, concurred on the need to take concrete action to bring about an international ban on nuclear weapons and have agreed to meet again in Austria later this year to discuss follow-up actions.

Experts from United Nations agencies, academia, and civil society presented evidence at the conference on the likely impact of a nuclear weapons detonation on economic and social infrastructure, public health, the climate, and agriculture. They also assessed the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, either by accident or deliberately, concluding that the immediate and long-term effects of a single nuclear weapon detonation, let alone a nuclear exchange, would be catastrophic.

Ireland's delegation to the conference stated that it was “clear to us that inevitable and unavoidable policy implications arise from what we now know about the extent of the risks involved”, declaring itself one of the majority of states recognising a responsibility to take action to prevent any accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons.

At least 20 delegations, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, explicitly called for a ban on nuclear weapons and over 50 states made statements unequivocally calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons and the achievement of a nuclear weapons free world.

“Nayarit is a point of no return,” concluded the conference Chair, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, Mexico's Vice Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. He called for the development of new international standards on nuclear weapons and a diplomatic process to negotiate a legally binding international instrument within a specified timeframe.  The process should conclude by the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said that international nuclear disarmament efforts required “an urgent paradigm shift, not the least in light of the danger of further nuclear weapons proliferation”, and that nuclear disarmament was “a global task and a collective responsibility”.  As a member state committed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), he said that Austria would host a follow up international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Vienna later this year to ensure that momentum is maintained.

A total of 146 nations participated in the Nayarit conference – an increase from the130 nations which attended the previous conference in Oslo last year. Most European Union, NATO, and  Commonwealth states attended the conference.  

Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India were represented at the conference but the five nuclear-weapon states recognised under the Non-Proliferation Treaty – China, France Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – joined North Korea and Israel in boycotting the conference because of fears that it could be used as a forum to push for the elimination of their stockpiles.

Parliamentarians from each of the main political parties sharply criticised the British government for failing to participate in the conference.

Sir Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat MP and former armed forces minister, said Britain's refusal to attend was a "disgrace" while James Arbuthnot MP, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Defence committee said that Britain “should be there” and that he could not understand why the government was not present.

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said it was “beyond regrettable” that the UK had boycotted the conference and former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said it was “notable how many voices had criticised the government” for refusing to engage with the discussion on humanitarian issues.

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