Countries voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York on July 7.

© 2017 Bonnie Docherty/Human Rights Watch

History was made at the United Nations on Friday as 122 countries adopted the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

This outcome resulted from a process – which began in Oslo, Norway in 2013 – to address the humanitarian consequences of using and testing nuclear weapons. It is rooted in more than 70 years of activism that began with the deaths of thousands from atomic weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The treaty is a milestone in part because it ensures that all weapons of mass destruction are banned. It complements the conventions prohibiting chemical and biological weapons.

In addition, the treaty was inspired by and advances humanitarian disarmament law, exemplified by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. “Humanitarian disarmament” seeks to strengthen international humanitarian law and protect civilians from weapons that cause unacceptable harm, including weapons that are invariably indiscriminate in populated areas.

To prevent future harm, the new instrument categorically prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, transfer, and other activities involving nuclear weapons. It also requires countries that have joined the treaty to address the consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing – in particular by assisting victims and remediating environmental contamination.

The collective efforts of countries, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons led to the success of the recent negotiations.

Countries attending the negotiating conference voted overwhelmingly in favor of the treaty. Only the Netherlands, which called for the vote, voted against adoption, and only Singapore abstained.

Although no countries that possess nuclear weapons participated in the process or adopted the convention, it can still have a far-reaching impact. It provides a framework for the elimination of an inhumane and invariably indiscriminate weapon that causes unacceptable harm. It also reinforces the principle that disarmament law should focus on ending the human suffering caused by such weapons.