NEW YORK -- A United Nations conference to negotiate a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons is set to open at U.N. Headquarters here on March 27, with a tug-of-war expected between nuclear powers and non-nuclear countries, and Japan's presence as the world's only atomic-bombed country thrust into the spotlight.
About 40 countries, including nuclear powers and countries that are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, are expected to boycott the conference on the Nuclear Weapons Convention, while non-nuclear nations are seeking to introduce a ban treaty at an early date.
"It will be an historic treaty," said one member supporting the global pact, as survivors of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as members of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and other citizens groups arrived in New York ahead of the conference.
At a U.N. General Assembly meeting in December last year, it was decided that the conference will be held in two parts, the first of which is scheduled for March 27-31. The first round of talks is expected to focus on the purpose, content and format of the treaty, and will apparently be led by Austria, Mexico and other countries underlining the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons. By banning nuclear weapons under international law and creating a global norm that the use of nuclear weapons is a crime, countries rallying behind the treaty are hoping it will apply pressure on nuclear powers.
Opinions are, however, divided over the scope of the nuclear weapons ban under the treaty. Issues include whether only the use of nuclear arms should be prohibited, or if the ban should be extended to their possession, development, production and transfer.
Given the fact that the vast majority of non-nuclear nations in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia -- which are frustrated over stalled nuclear disarmament talks -- are in favor of the treaty, the pact is nonetheless expected to be approved sooner or later. Some observers have projected that the treaty draft will be compiled during the second round of the U.N. conference scheduled for June 15 through July 7 at the earliest -- and will even be put to vote.
The five nuclear powers of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, however, are anticipated to skip the first round of talks. While China had attended the preparatory meeting for the conference, it decided to absent itself from the first-round session, highlighting the unified stand among the so-called "nuclear club" nations.
During a March 21 speech in Washington, U.S. National Security Council senior director Christopher Ford lashed out at the proposed nuclear weapons ban treaty, saying that it wouldn't reduce the world's stockpiles by even a single warhead as it cannot hold nuclear powers and their allies that are not participating in the treaty legally liable. He added that it's a waste of time to negotiate an ineffective treaty.
Furthermore, Ford threatened that NATO members and other U.S. allies would face legal consequences over the U.S. policy of extended nuclear deterrence if they signed the nuclear weapons ban treaty. He admitted that his country was applying pressure on its allies to oppose the treaty.
About 90 percent of the global nuclear stockpile is in the hands of the U.S. and Russia. In December last year, President Vladimir Putin ordered that the capabilities of Russia's intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines carrying nuclear warheads be strengthened. Immediately after this, President Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.
The Trump administration is poised to review whether the pursuit of "a world without nuclear weapons" as advocated by the previous administration of President Barack Obama is realistic, according to Ford. On the Asian front, China, India and Pakistan are boosting their nuclear warhead numbers, while North Korea has been pushing ahead with its nuclear tests.
Voices for nuclear disarmament are being overtaken by the louder voices for nuclear deterrence. A source close to the United Nations commented that, while proponents of the nuclear weapons ban treaty are regarded as out of touch with reality, it is true that without such a movement, there will be no progress on nuclear disarmament.