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The case for a ban treaty

In one of its final acts of 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted with overwhelming support a landmark resolution to begin negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. This historic decision heralds an end to two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.

Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited in a comprehensive and universal manner, despite their well-documented impacts. Biological weapons, chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions have all been explicitly and completely banned under international law.

The vast majority of UN member states believe that weapons intended to inflict catastrophic humanitarian harm should, as a matter of principle, be prohibited under international law. They have concluded that nuclear weapons must now be placed on the same legal footing as other weapons of mass destruction.

The new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons will strengthen the global norms against using and possessing these weapons. And it will spur long-overdue progress towards disarmament. Experience shows that the prohibition of a particular type of weapon provides a solid legal and political foundation for advancing its progressive elimination.

Eliminating the nuclear threat has been high on the UN agenda since the organization’s formation in 1945. But international efforts to advance this goal have stalled in recent years, with nuclear-armed nations investing heavily in the build- up and modernization of their nuclear arsenals.

Weapons that are outlawed are increasingly seen as illegitimate, losing their political status and, along with it, the resources for their production, modernization and retention. Arms companies find it more difficult to acquire resources for work on illegal weapons, and such work carries a great reputational risk.

The treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons will complement existing bans on other indiscriminate and inhumane weapons, and reinforce existing legal instruments on nuclear weapons, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, regional nuclear-weapon-free zones, and the treaty banning nuclear test explosions.

Underpinning the decision by governments and civil society to pursue a ban treaty is our belief that changing the rules regarding nuclear weapons will have a major impact beyond those nations that may formally adopt the treaty at the outset. This belief stems from experience with treaties banning other weapons, which have established powerful norms.

The new treaty will aim not only to advance nuclear disarmament, but also to help prevent further proliferation. It will enhance the security of people everywhere, not least of all those in nations currently armed with nuclear weapons, who are more likely than others to be the victims of a nuclear attack.

The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014 shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law. Governments are now taking action.

ICAN’s principles for the treaty


  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate