Nuclear Weapons Will Soon Be Banned Under International Law

Nuclear weapons will soon be illegal under international law. Seventy-five years to the day after the founding of the United Nations, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) began the 90-day countdown until the treaty enters into force.

The milestone was achieved after years of global efforts spearheaded by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) led to the treaty’s adoption by 122 UN member states in 2017. One day after Jamaica and the Republic of Nauru became the 48th and 49th countries to ratify the treaty, Honduras became the 50th on October 24, triggering the 90-day countdown to January 22, 2021, when the treaty will enter into force.

After adopting the treaty to indicate initial support, each country must sign and ratify the treaty by affirming that its national laws are consistent with treaty obligations. Currently, the TPNW has been adopted by 122 countries, signed by 84 and ratified by 50.

Under the TPNW, informally called the “ban treaty,” state parties may not develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The treaty also prohibits the transfer or control over, or threat to use nuclear weapons, as well as the stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

Furthermore, the treaty calls for state parties to provide assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use or testing and environmental remediation in places that have been sites of nuclear tests, and compels state parties to encourage other nations to join the treaty.

Yet none of the nine nuclear-armed nations (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) or many of their closest allies support the ban treaty. Those nine countries possess 13,400 nuclear weapons (90 percent belong to Russia and the U.S.). Meanwhile, the U.S. has been actively trying to stop the TPNW from advancing.

The first 50 countries to ratify the treaty include small island nations like Antigua and Barbuda, Malta and the Maldives, as well as larger ones, including Botswana, Mexico, Thailand and Kazakhstan, which was the site of more than 450 Soviet nuclear weapons tests.

Pacific Island nations, such as Kiribati, Fiji, Samoa and Tuvalu, along with New Zealand, are TPNW signatories representing a region contaminated by British, French and American nuclear testing. Other state parties include countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe. Sixteen nations have ratified the treaty in 2020 so far with at least a dozen more countries working through their own internal ratification process. These include Indonesia, Brazil, Algeria, Mongolia, Guatemala, Nepal, the Philippines, and others.

Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Truthout that the TPNW’s entry into force “demonstrates a growing demand from countries around the world to finally see significant steps toward disarmament.”

Bell noted that the five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-recognized nuclear weapon states — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States — have made many unfulfilled disarmament-related commitments. “The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation hopes that those states can work with members of the TPNW to find common ground and new practical approaches to advance nuclear disarmament.”

WMD Hall of Shame

When the TPNW enters into force on January 22, nuclear weapons will become illegal under international law, joining other controversial weapons that have been banned, such as biological weapons (in 1975), chemical weapons (1997), mines (1999) and cluster munitions (2010). Proponents of the TPNW say the speed with which it achieved its threshold is indicative of its popular support around the world.

Speaking from Geneva, Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s policy and research coordinator, told Truthout that nuclear weapons joining other prohibited weapons is “really critical in shifting public perception and underlining how unacceptable these weapons are.”

The treaty’s entry into force will increase pressure on governments to follow the will of their citizens who support outlawing nuclear weapons. The significance of the treaty extends to divesting from projects and businesses that support nuclear weapons. History shows that many financial institutions prefer to avoid investing in banned controversial weapons, Sanders-Zakre said.

Saying No to “Ban the Bomb”

Even as the number of countries ratifying the TPNW grows, the nine nuclear-armed nations (Russia, U.S., China, France, U.K, Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel) strongly oppose the treaty. Days before the 50th ratification announcement, a number of countries that had ratified the TPNW received letters from the Trump administration attempting to persuade them to withdraw from the treaty, calling their support a “strategic error.”

ICAN’s Sanders-Zakre called the letter a “show of desperation,” saying the move was “unhelpful and counterproductive,” while Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, called U.S. attempts to pressure countries to abandon the treaty “the height of hypocrisy” given the Trump administration’s failure to preserve any arms control treaties.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are also opposed to the TPNW and warn of the treaty’s “potential repercussions.” In a 2017 statement, the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political body, said the treaty will not be effective because it will not engage any states actually possessing nuclear weapons, will not reduce nuclear arsenals, and will not enhance any country’s security or international peace and stability. The treaty, the council said, risks creating “divisions and divergences” and “undermining the NPT.”

The Council defended the possession of nuclear weapons, saying, “The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression.”

Nuclear deterrence, however, is seen by many as a flawed, fallacious and dangerous means of pursuing or preserving peace.

And while nuclear-armed nations and NATO oppose the treaty, Sanders-Zakre pointed to broad support among the citizens of NATO nations. In September, 56 former leaders and heads of state from U.S. allies penned an open letter calling for countries to join the ban treaty. Signers include former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former NATO secretaries-general, and former presidents, prime ministers, and high-level ministers from Canada, Norway, Poland, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, and other nuclear-endorsing nations, including the five NATO countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons (Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey).

In Japan, 495 municipalities have called on the Japanese government to join the treaty, a move Tokyo currently views as a non-starter based on its obligations as an ally that the U.S. promises to defend under the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.”

Even when a country doesn’t immediately join an arms treaty, Sanders-Zakre said treaties banning mines and cluster munitions have influenced actions in countries that hadn’t joined the treaty, including an end to weapons production and increased divestment. As the TPNW enters into force, she expects the growing stigma of possessing illegal weapons will influence non-state parties, long before they join.

Different Views of the Treaty

One nation that participated in treaty negotiations and supports the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) which was the site of 67 U.S. nuclear weapons tests from 1946-1958. Those tests caused widespread environmental contamination, sickness, death and dislocation, yet the RMI has not ratified the treaty.

Rhea Moss-Christian, chair of the RMI’s National Nuclear Commission (NNC), told Truthout in an email, “the RMI continues to consider specific provisions of the TPNW and their implications on our efforts to seek nuclear justice.”

Referring to a radioactive waste-filled concrete dome built by the U.S. that is now leaking contamination into the sea, Moss-Christian continued, “Runit dome at Enewetak Atoll remains a direct threat to the local community as well as the entire Marshallese population and it requires U.S. support to ensure its safety or removal. The assistance provisions of the TPNW don’t provide us with enough assurance that if the RMI becomes a party, we wouldn’t then assume full responsibility for managing the Dome and its risk.”

As it considers how best to ensure justice for the Marshallese people, the NNC expressed concern over the nuclear-armed states’ failure to join the treaty, calling on those nations to “reconsider their role in effective implementation of the treaty.”

Others support the ban treaty’s vision of a nuclear weapons-free world but not the approach. David Santoro, vice president and director for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum, said his own primary objection to the treaty is his belief that it will disproportionately impact nuclear-armed democracies, which may feel obliged to respond to pressure from civil society more than other nuclear-armed countries like North Korea, China or Russia.

Santoro fears “the TPNW will not only fail to bring about nuclear disarmament, but it will likely complicate the strategic outlook for nuclear-armed democracies and their allies.” Disarmament, Santoro said, “is best pursued incrementally, not with a blanket ban.”

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the speed at which the treaty has reached the 50-nation threshold demonstrates that the nuclear-armed states campaign to pressure non-nuclear states has been only partially successful, as non-nuclear nations proceed, undeterred. He said that even though the treaty’s entry into force is unlikely to have a direct effect on nuclear states or their allies, indirectly, some countries may have to reconsider how they cooperate with the U.S. in terms of joint exercises, military bases or defense relations that may assist in nuclear operations in any way. Kristensen pointed to New Zealand, Thailand and Palau as examples.

An Important and Positive Contribution

The Arms Control Association’s Kimball told Truthout over Skype that he considers the treaty’s entry into force a “new phase in the long-running effort to prevent nuclear war and get rid of nuclear weapons.”

Kimball called the treaty an “important contribution to the legal framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” adding that it “reinforces the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s ban on nuclear test explosions and importantly, it challenges nuclear deterrence thinking — the idea that nuclear weapons can be safely possessed and that nuclear war will not erupt.”

In response to charges that the TPNW undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Kimball said, “it’s not a challenge to the NPT. It’s not an alternative to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We would say it reinforces it because it strengthens the norm, the taboo against nuclear weapons, and that should be welcome.”

He added that the public has an important role to play. “What will matter is whether the publics in Germany and Italy and Belgium, where U.S. nuclear weapons are stored on NATO bases … [will] encourage their governments to do [something in order] to reduce the nuclear risk.”

For countries that are not yet treaty parties, including nuclear weapon states, Kimball encourages them to take the first step of acknowledging that the TPNW exists and is a good faith effort by non-nuclear weapon states “to advance the common cause of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Catastrophic Weapons, Intolerable Risks

Derek Johnson, chief executive officer of Global Zero, an international organization committed to eliminating nuclear weapons, told Truthout in an email that he hoped the ban treaty would mark a new chapter in the effort to eradicate nuclear weapons. “But given the current trends, it’s fair to be skeptical about whether the treaty will have a meaningful impact,” he added, pointing to nuclear-armed states “spending lavishly to upgrade, expand, or operationalize their arsenals.”

As the role of nuclear weapons becomes more deeply entrenched and the risk of being used — whether by accident, unauthorized action, mistaken launch or deliberate decision — more probable, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons poses a growing danger. “This is the real threat to the NPT,” Johnson said. “Any complaints about the [TPNW] from nuclear-armed governments must be viewed in that context.”

He added, “I welcome any effort to delegitimize these weapons and reinforce in the minds of people and governments that the continued existence of these barbaric weapons and their inherent risks must not be tolerated.”

Currently, just nine nations are dependent on nuclear weapons, but there are now 50 nations who unequivocally reject any claim that those weapons are legitimate, marking them not as assets, but as liabilities that violate fundamental human rights, the most basic precepts of nature and international law.

Speaking at the UN as it voted to adopt the TPNW in 2017, Hiroshima atomic bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow declared, “This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

In a voice filled with conviction, she continued, “To the leaders of the countries across the world, I beseech you. If you love this planet, you will sign this treaty. Nuclear weapons [have] always been immoral. Now they are also illegal.”