All during this week, the UN building in New York, along with many of the surrounding streets, is closed to the public as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Crown Princes and other high-level dignitaries rub shoulders with each other during a once-a-year ritual that involves lots of speeches, high-level meetings and the signing of treaties. I was very fortunate to be one of a handful of observers from civil society who were allowed into the UN today to witness the signing ceremony for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that was agreed in July of this year. I was there on behalf of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and joined other ICAN colleagues from around the world, including two hibakusha from Japan and the Mayor of Nagasaki as well as ICAN partners from Latin America, Europe and America.

The ceremony began at 8am with UN General-Secretary Antonio Guterres declaring that this historic treaty was now officially ‘open for signing’. The President of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solís, then spelt out just how important a step it was that was being taken today, and Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, reminded us that the Red Cross movement has been trying to convince governments to ban nuclear weapons since they were first used in 1945.

Peter Maurer read out the cable that was received in August 1945 from doctors on the ground in Hiroshima. “We do not ever want to receive such a message again,” he said. “The reality is that if a nuclear conflict happened today, there is no humanitarian assistance capacity that could adequately respond to such a catastrophe.”

Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN, then had an opportunity to say a few words on behalf of the 400 civil society organisations in over 100 countries who have campaigned so hard to get governments to take this step.

The President of Brazil, Michel Temer, then sat down at the ceremonial table to become the first head of state to sign the treaty. Other Presidents then followed, from Chile, Costa Rica, South Africa… After the Presidents came the Prime Ministers, and after Prime Ministers came Foreign Ministers. In total, 41 countries signed the treaty this morning, out of 122 that voted for the treaty on 7th July of this year and 147 countries who have, at one time or another, indicated support for this treaty since it was first mooted in the UN First Committee in 2015.

At least 12 more countries have promised to sign the treaty before the end of the week, which would bring it over the 50-mark in terms of total signatures. The treaty needs 50 states to ratify it before can enter into force. The work goes on to get the other 100 or so countries who support this treaty to actually sign it.

The nine nuclear weapon states and their nuclear allies still resolutely refuse to sign this treaty despite all their claims to be working for the ‘eventual’ elimination of all nuclear weapons – and their legal obligation to do so under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Time will tell which of these will be the first to crack, but one thing is for sure: this treaty will not go away! Public pressure on governments to sign this treaty will only increase as the people in those countries come to realise how out of step they are with the rest of the world. 

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