More than 100 countries were to launch the first UN talks on a global nuclear weapons ban on Monday despite objections from major nuclear powers.

A total of 123 UN members announced in October that they would launch the UN conference to negotiate a legally binding nuclear ban treaty, even as most of the world’s declared and undeclared nuclear powers voted against the talks.

Britain, France, Israel, Russia and the US voted no. China, India and Pakistan abstained.

Even Japan — the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks, in 1945 — voted against the talks, saying the lack of consensus over the negotiations could undermine progress on effective nuclear disarmament.

The countries leading the effort include Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Brazil, SA and Sweden.

Hundreds of NGOs back their efforts. They say the threat of nuclear disaster is growing, thanks to mounting tensions fanned by North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and an unpredictable new administration in Washington.

Supporters point to successful grassroots movements that led to the prohibition of landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008.

"I expect that this will take a long time, let’s not be naive," Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said at the UN last week. "But it’s very important in these days when you see more of this rhetoric, and also sort of power demonstrations, including threatening to use nuclear weapons. Quite a high number of countries are actually interested in saying we have to break the deadlock that has been on this issue for so many years."

No progress had been made on nuclear disarmament in recent years despite commitments by the major nuclear powers to work towards disarmament under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), said Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an international coalition of NGOs. "There was disappointment with the Obama administration, which made some pledges, but then ignored most of them. And now there are raised worries with the new US president."

Then president Barack Obama announced a drive in 2009 to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminate them. But his administration encouraged Nato allies to vote against the UN talks, saying a ban would obstruct
co-operation to respond to threats from adversaries.

President Donald Trump threatened a nuclear arms race in a tweet shortly before he took office in January, saying "we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all". However, with experience from the campaigns against cluster munitions and landmines, Fihn said there was a "good chance" a treaty would be adopted, if not necessarily after the first phase of talks, which will end in July.

Even with the major nuclear powers boycotting the debate, a treaty would oblige them to revisit their policies sooner or later — even if, like Russia and the US, they are modernising their nuclear weapons arsenal.

"Even if major [nuclear weapon] producers don’t sign it, they have a big impact," Fihn said of global treaties. "Look at Russia denying using cluster bombs in Syria. Why? They did not sign [the cluster munition ban], but they know it’s bad."

No major powers have commented on the start of the talks, but US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is expected to issue a statement on the sidelines.

US and French representatives explained their countries’ opposition in October, citing a need to make progress in stages, without disturbing the strategic balance of weapons or jeopardising nuclear deterrence.


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