At the United Nations in New York this month the world’s first nuclear ban treaty will open for signatures by UN member states.

“Until now, nuclear weapons were the only weapons of mass destruction without a prohibition treaty, despite the widespread and catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their intentional or accidental detonation,” says Yvette Zegenhagen, Australian Red Cross National Manager of International Humanitarian Law and Advocacy. “Biological weapons were banned in 1972 and chemical weapons in 1992.”

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has called for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons since 1945.

The treaty, which opens for signing on 20 September, was formally adopted at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in July. It needs to be ratified by 50 states before it enters into international law.

At the meeting 122 UN member states adopted the treaty. The Netherlands, the only NATO member that participated voted against it –while Singapore abstained. Nuclear-armed states and most of those under the US nuclear-umbrella, including Australia, did not take part in the talks.

Banning nuclear weapons is a key step towards eventual disarmament. Under the new treaty, signatory states must agree not to develop, test, manufacture or possess nuclear weapons, or threaten to use them, or allow any nuclear arms to be stationed on their territory.

The treaty also creates ways for nuclear states which sign on to eliminate weapons, stockpiles and programs.

Yvette Zegenhagen says a growing majority of the world’s nations have made their intentions clear. They want a treaty to clearly prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination.

“The international community has shown they do not permit moral indifference in the face of the terrifying effects of a weapon that threatens the lives of billions and the very essence of our common humanity,” she says.

Richard Moyes, Managing Director of Article 36, a UK organisation that works to prevent harm from nuclear and other weapons, says the UN negotiations had made clear that “a substantial number of states think that killing hundreds and thousands of people and poisoning their environment is morally wrong and that this should be reflected in law”.

“The UK, along with other states that possess nuclear weapons, has chosen to boycott these talks but the process has shown that any group of committed and concerned states can and should take collective responsibility to reject these horrific weapons.”