How a U.N. treaty on nuclear weapons makes international security policy more inclusive

Reactions to the recently-adopted U.N. Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons focus on the fact that none of the states possessing nuclear weapons were part of the negotiations. This is a valid concern, as these countries have shown no interest in joining the treaty. However, something different caught my attention when I read the new agreement. The final three paragraphs of the preamble are unusual for a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) disarmament treaty. In those paragraphs, the treaty negotiators recognize the role of women, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and education in addressing nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. In other words, the agreement acknowledges the importance of an inclusive process that engages civil society in maintaining international security, one founded on the principle of an educated global citizenry.

Progress on nuclear disarmament

The new treaty, negotiated by over 130 countries, represents a positive step forward in nuclear disarmament, though naturally it has its challenges. The crucial provisions call on states with nuclear weapons to “remove them from operational status and destroy them as soon as possible but not later than a deadline agreed by the first meeting of States Parties.” The treaty also requires states possessing nuclear weapons to report on their progress until disarmament is completed.

These essential provisions will prove difficult for states possessing nuclear weapons to accept, especially since they opted out of the negotiation of the agreement itself. However, the treaty has the potential to set the stage for making tangible progress on the long-awaited goal of nuclear disarmament. The treaty has reaffirmed the desire of many states to move toward the conclusion of a treaty to rid the world of nuclear weapons and strengthen the global norm against their use, which is in itself a very positive result. The agreement’s ultimate success, however, will depend on how the states possessing nuclear weapons react to the treaty and whether they decide to take steps toward joining it.

Recognizing women’s role in dealing with hard security issues

The treaty’s preamble recognizes the importance of “equal, full and effective participation of both women and men” for promoting peace and security, as well as the engagement of women in nuclear disarmament. It also acknowledges the role of peace and disarmament education in “raising the awareness of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons,” and also highlights the efforts of the NGO community in calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

As a woman of color who has worked in the area of arms control and non-proliferation, as well as WMD threat reduction for over 20 years, I am always pleased when policies represent the input of experts from throughout society. I am therefore especially pleased that women are finally being highlighted for what they do and can bring to the table on weapons of mass destruction issues. In my experience at the former U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as legal advisor to U.S. delegations negotiating arms control treaties and to treaty implementation bodies such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), I do not recall any particular effort to ensure women’s voices are a part of such negotiations or any language in prior treaties advocating for peace and disarmament education.

The recognition that women are valuable agents of change in advancing peace and security, and yet are often absent in peace and security negotiations, is what prompted the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which calls for women to participate in peacebuilding and end gender discrimination. The resolution reaffirmed the importance of women’s “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” At a time when we are facing increased threats to international security, from North Korean nuclear weapons, terrorism and cyber attacks, to climate change and infectious diseases, diverse expert input, including the voices of women, is essential to devising and implementing effective policy responses.

Since I began working in this field in the 1990s, the number of women in influential positions in international security, both in government and in NGOs, has steadily increased, though gender parity remains a far-off goal. Female diplomats such as Elayne Whyte Gómez played an important role in negotiating the text of the new treaty. It is important to recognize the inclusion of gender-related language in the convention, even if only in the preamble. Demonstrating global engagement of women on an issue long dominated by men would advance the goals expressed in UNSCR 1325 and help ensure the more of the best minds work on the important issue of nuclear disarmament.

Beyond governments: The role for NGOs in addressing global threats

Also, while NGOs have previously engaged in treaty implementation and negotiations—notably, the significant role of the Chemical Manufacturers Association in the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—no previous WMD disarmament treaty has recognized the importance of nongovernmental organizations. In the past few years, several initiatives set up to prevent and respond to WMD terrorism, such as the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Material of Mass Destruction, increasingly incorporate entities outside of government. Those organizations attend official meetings as observers, and their views can be represented in final documents. UNSCR 1540, which recognizes WMD proliferation as a threat to international peace and security under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, also encourages partnerships with civil society as a means of enabling states to meet their non-proliferation responsibilities.

The NGO community was very active in engaging the U.S. public on the importance of ratifying the 2010 START treaty with Russia. In the lead-up to the ratification of the treaty, NGOs mobilized college students and conducted outreach to senators about the importance of ratification, convening monthly meetings to develop strategies, and launching a major grassroots effort to educate citizens and editorial boards around the country. A more educated citizenry helped to ratify a treaty to strengthen global security.

On transnational threats such as WMD and infectious disease, the Obama administration engaged in significant outreach to entities outside government, reflecting a recognition of the importance of a multisector approach that includes all relevant voices. In preparations for the four Nuclear Security Summits that took place between 2010-16, the U.S. government sought to include the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, hosted side events at each of the summits with an international audience of industry representatives, in order to highlight the importance of nuclear security in their activities.

Similarly, on global health security, I led outreach efforts to the private sector, academic and research institutions, foundations, humanitarian organizations, and others. For instance, the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Private Sector Roundtable (PSRT) and the GHSA Consortium of NGOs were established to sustain civil society engagement around the goal of preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious disease threats. The Roundtable has been instrumental in bringing private sector perspectives to the efforts to advance global health security through its direct engagement with the World Health Organization and the establishment of several working groups, including one focusing on supply chain issues. In addition, the GHSA Next Generation brings an international youth perspective to issues of infectious disease.

The preamble to the new U.N. Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons recognizes the role of various sectors and entities in nuclear disarmament. It also acknowledges the importance of ensuring a global community that, through education, becomes more aware of nuclear weapons issues. The text can be an important aspect of the treaty and enhances the critical principle of representative governance in international security, whether or not the agreement succeeds in promoting tangible progress toward disarmament.