Nuclear Weapons and International Law in the Contemporary Era

Organized by the International Section of the

New York State Bar Association

Keynote Address by Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu

High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

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Virtual Conference

12 November 2020 1

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to have been given this opportunity to address this Video Conference on Nuclear Weapons and International Law. While there are many aspects of international law relevant to nuclear weapons, today I want to focus on the nuclear disarmament regime and its roots in international law.

In the 75 years since the creation of the United Nations, the international community has established an international regime composed of diverse instruments to advance its goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. It is a mix of multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral treaty law supported by enduring norms against nuclear weapons. Taken as a whole, the regime imposes a number of important obligations on States, many of which are domesticated into national law. It also forms the foundation for and provides fora to negotiate further nuclear disarmament measures.

Though this system has moved us closer to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, we are not there yet. Comparing the situation of nuclear weapons to that of other weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons – there is still a considerable way to go. The latter have been totally prohibited by multilateral treaties that have been ratified by nearly all States, including many of those that possessed those weapons in the past. Today, I would like to provide an informal assessment of the nuclear disarmament regime as it stands now and make some suggestions for how it can be further strengthened.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It has become axiomatic that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Though not entirely successful in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five countries that had acquired them by 1967, it has prevented the once-predicted nightmare scenario of a world with dozens of nuclear-armed States.

From a historical perspective, the negotiation of this Treaty came about as disarmament negotiators were shifting to what has become known as the “step-by-step” or “building blocks” approach. Such steps included the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, the Seabed Treaty and reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the Soviet Union and the United States under various agreements.

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