Remarks of Patricia Lee Refo, President, American Bar Association, to New York State Bar Association’s Nuclear Weapons and International Law Conference

November, 12, 2020

Before we begin the rest of today’s program, I’d like to thank the New York State Bar Association International Law Section for organizing this conference with support from co-sponsors including the American Bar Association Section of International Law.

Meeting today, we advance a critical goal to ensure the very survival of our world, and that is to insist on the central role of the rule of law in the governance of nuclear weapons.

The legal profession is strengthened by the ABA’s dynamic relationship with the New York State Bar Association and other organizations that lead on the important issues of our day, issues where thoughtful and committed lawyers can and do make a difference. 

Speaking before the UN General Assembly in 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously said that “every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

After the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, the intelligence agencies of the both the United States and the Soviet Union concluded that without a legal constraint, a cascade of nuclear proliferation was likely—and thus they committed to advancing a path to curb proliferation and advance disarmament.

In 1970, under the Presidency of Richard Nixon, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty entered into force. I am proud that the ABA House of Delegates resolved to support the indefinite extension of that treaty in 1995.

Among today’s panelists is the distinguished U.S. diplomat who led the negotiations of that accomplishment, Ambassador Thomas Graham. Ambassador Graham is a member of the ABA International Law Section’s Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation.

The ABA also supports the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, for which Ambassador Graham was a central figure.

The ABA’s leadership in this area is part of our broader commitment to pursue international stability and order based on the rule of law. We act on our commitment with the hard work of our Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation and many other committees that focus on bringing about a safer and more secure world—not through the law of power, but the power of law.

The American Bar Association—the world’s largest and most prominent organization of legal professionals—stands firmly for advancing the power of law to control, constrain, and eliminate nuclear weapons. Thank you—all of you—for your contributions and commitment to protecting all the world’s inhabitants by advancing justice, security, and liberty for all. The American Bar Association stands with you.