Nuclear agreement breaks new ground on inclusion

A new treaty at last acknowledges the greater harms nuclear weapons cause indigenous peoples and women, write Melissa Parke and Alicia Sanders-Zakre.

The World Today
Published 2 February 2024 Updated 21 March 2024 3 minute READ

Melissa Parke

Executive Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Alicia Sanders-Zakre

Policy and Research Coordinator, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

The relatively new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted in 2017 and which came into force in 2021, broke new ground. The treaty’s recognition of the gendered and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons and the need for global cooperation to address the harms caused by nuclear weapons reflects the input of traditionally marginalized voices.

Over 135 states negotiated the treaty. And while it is often remarked that nuclear-armed states were not among them, who was in the negotiating room, and who was leading the way, are just as significant.

Female leadership

Governments from around the world, including many from the Global South, and many female diplomats, played a key role in the negotiations. The leadership of many female diplomats, including the president of the negotiating conference, was notable.

Many women and those from communities directly affected by nuclear weapons were active partners, working alongside states in rallying support for the treaty’s adoption.

This is evident not just from accounts of the negotiations written since, but from the negotiating record itself, which features an unprecedented number of statements from civil society about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, including the way they have a greater effect on women and girls, as well as the lasting radioactive contamination of areas where tests have been carried out.

Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of these deadly [nuclear] experiments.

There was also a statement from Indigenous-led organizations about their experience of nuclear weapons. ‘We write to remind those drafting this important new treaty about the ongoing harm caused by the use of nuclear weapons, and by more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions around the globe,’ it reads. ‘Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of these deadly experiments. Our land, our sea, our communities and our physical bodies carry this legacy with us now, and for unknown generations to come.’

A remarkably progressive treaty

The involvement of diverse actors in the negotiations resulted in a remarkably progressive text. The treaty recognizes the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on Indigenous peoples, as well as on women and girls, and the importance of women’s participation in nuclear disarmament.

It also acknowledges that the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of the use of nuclear weapons could not be addressed. What is more, it goes beyond recognizing these humanitarian and environmental effects and creates the first international framework to address them through Articles 6 and 7 that require international cooperation to provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to address the harms of nuclear weapon use and testing.

This trend of inclusivity continued into the treaty’s First Meeting of States Parties in June 2022 in Vienna. The rules of procedure adopted by these states parties allowed members of civil society to intervene in the conference and introduce working papers alongside states.

Ionizing radiation has a disproportionate impact on women and girls.

Particularly significant was the decision of the president of the meeting to convene a one-day conference on the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons. This included testimonies from those communities, mainly from the Global South, that had been harmed by nuclear weapons, alongside presentations from researchers, including from an expert on the disproportionate impact of ionizing radiation on women and girls

The result was a landmark action plan – the first adopted by an international body on nuclear weapons in more than a decade – and a powerful consensus declaration. It put in motion a plan to advance principles of inclusion, gender equality, and victim assistance and environmental remediation, as well as the establishment of a Scientific Advisory Group for the treaty.

The Vienna Action Plan established four commitments on advancing the treaty’s gender provisions, and four principles on inclusivity and cooperation, including the involvement of affected communities and Indigenous peoples. A working group to coordinate implementation is led by two countries affected by nuclear weapons testing: Kazakhstan and Kiribati.

Next steps

Adopting treaties and plans of action are only the first step. But even in its early days, the treaty is demonstrating that progress is possible. In the ‘intersessional period’ between the Meetings of States Parties, participants met in each of the working groups established at the first meeting, led by diplomats primarily from the Global South.

This constructive work was on full display at the second meeting last year.

The conference began with an interactive discussion, featuring presentations explaining the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons from scientists, researchers and representatives from affected communities. The meeting’s general debate section put on full display the diversity of stakeholders committed to the full universalization and implementation of this agreement from governments to civil society.

A side event at the conference called into the COP 28 climate conference happening at the same time in Dubai and focused on the connections between nuclear weapons and environmental issues, including climate change and biodiversity loss.

Separate sessions highlighted the enormous sums spent by nuclear armed states on their arsenals – $83 billion last year according to research by ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. This vast sum comes at the cost of investment in genuine human security, including disarmament, development, diplomacy, health and environmental protection.

It was noted that the financial community has now divested more than $1 trillion from nuclear weapons development because it does not accord with environmental, social and governance criteria. Other conference side events spotlighted the health and human rights effects of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons have disproportionately harmed people in the Global South and have a greater impact on women and girls. Yet, for most of the history of arms control negotiations, those affected have been pushed to the sidelines. Negotiations for the treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons changed the game.

Since then, the treaty has continued to become more inclusive and to directly address the harms of nuclear weapons. At the next Meeting of States Parties in March 2025, states should continue this practice of inclusion and continue to highlight the connections between nuclear weapons and other global issues of concern.