Nuclear tensions and nuclear spending are on the rise, but the elevated danger of nuclear weapons is overshadowed as other urgent global threats from the COVID pandemic, climate and environmental emergencies, and other urgent crises dominate news headlines. The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in January, receives scant media attention, even as the United Nations prepares to mark September 26 as the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
Unlike other nuclear treaties and agreements, the TPNW, or nuclear ban treaty as it is also known, prohibits all activity including development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, and the use or threat to use nuclear weapons. The treaty also has provisions to assist victims of nuclear weapons use or testing, and for environmental remediation.
As the number of countries adopting and ratifying the TPNW grows, the division between treaty supporters and opponents remains stark. Proponents say the treaty represents a new norm in which nuclear weapons are not only immoral, but also illegal. Opponents see the treaty as too drastic, ineffective and as undermining nuclear deterrence policies.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
TPNW advocates argue that leaving questions of nuclear security and disarmament to the exclusive purview of diplomats and so-called experts underplays the humanitarian and environmental risks and consequences of nuclear weapons. As the nuclear ban treaty entered into force on January 22, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said, “This Treaty … sends a clear signal that nuclear weapons are unacceptable from a moral, humanitarian, and now legal point of view. It sets in motion even higher legal barriers and an even greater stigmatization of nuclear warheads than already exists.”
In October 2020, after Honduras became the 50th nation to ratify the TPNW, triggering the process for the treaty to enter into force, Derek Johnson, CEO of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, said, “The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has helped catalyze global attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons and the actions by nuclear-armed states to preserve the status quo. Its entry into force reflects the United States’ retreat from leadership on disarmament and global security, and marks a new chapter in the effort to eradicate these dangerous weapons before they can be used again.”
Of the 122 countries which voted in 2017 to adopt the ban treaty, 56 are now state parties, having ratified the treaty. These include three of the world’s most populous nations: Mexico, Nigeria and Bangladesh. Chile became the most recent country to ratify the treaty on September 23. The TPNW has been ratified around the world from tiny island nations Tuvalu, Nauru and Malta to enormous countries like Kazakhstan, South Africa and Venezuela. Jamaica, Botswana, Bolivia, Palestine and the Philippines are also state parties, and both Indonesia and Brazil are expected to ratify in the coming months.
In contrast, the governments of all nine nuclear-armed states oppose the treaty, as do five nations hosting U.S. nuclear weapons (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey) and “nuclear-endorsing” nations that include Australia, Japan, South Korea and all of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members.
In a 2018 declaration, NATO said the TPNW is “at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, risks undermining the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), is inconsistent with [NATO’s] nuclear deterrence policy and will not enhance any country’s security.”
Alicia Sanders-Zakre, policy and research coordinator with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), disputes NATO’s assertion, arguing that the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is fully compatible and complementary to existing nonproliferation and disarmament commitments.
In an email to Truthout, Sanders-Zakre pointed out that public opinion polls in at least six NATO member states reflect high levels of support for joining the treaty. As a tool designed to eliminate nuclear weapons, she added, the treaty increases the stigma against those weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
“As this stigma grows internationally and domestically … NATO political leaders will no longer be able to support the continued existence of [WMD] … it is only a matter of time before political leaders will represent the will of their people to join the TPNW.”
NATO did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Deterrence Against Whom?
Illustrating the complexity of differing positions on the treaty are the 43 nations under the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific (UNRCPD). More than one-third of the 43 countries have ratified the TPNW, but the bloc also includes four nuclear-armed states: China, North Korea, India and Pakistan.
Yuriy Kryvonos, director of UNRCPD, said nuclear-armed states often claim their arsenals serve as a deterrence tool. “Against whom [does] this deterrence tool exist? Against other nuclear-armed states.” The argument, he said, is “nonsense” because a nuclear war cannot be won; claiming protection from nuclear weapons is an illusion. Arguments that the TPNW undermines the NPT, Kryvonos insisted, do not hold water.
Instead of spending billions of dollars on modernizing nuclear arsenals, addressing climate change must be a priority. “This is a common challenge for all and it can be addressed only jointly by [redirecting] huge military spending towards researching and identifying new sources for water, food and new settlements for hundreds of millions of people,” Kryvonos said.
Countering a Failure to Act
Support for the TPNW stems in part from the lack of progress after 50 years since the adoption of the NPT, as “nuclear weapon states have not participated in, or supported” negotiations on effective measures for nuclear disarmament, according to New Zealand’s Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control Phil Twyford.
“The nuclear weapons states have not kept their part of the deal,” Twyford told Truthout in a written exchange, adding, “frustration at this situation, and our desire to implement our own [NPT] obligations, was a key driver behind New Zealand’s support for the TPNW.”
Twyford acknowledged that nuclear weapons states and many allies are “not keen on the TPNW” and actively discourage others from joining, but he said that New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance and advocacy for nuclear disarmament is strongly supported by New Zealand’s public. The TPNW, he said, “is a contest of ideas and we are on the right side of this one.”
As an official of a relatively small country, Twyford emphasized the importance of working with other countries to advance the ban treaty, citing Ireland as a partner nation with whom it shares similar views on disarmament.
Europe Says “No” to Nuclear Weapons
The Republic of Ireland is one of five European state parties that have ratified the ban treaty. In an address on the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs and defense, Simon Coveney, said, “I am proud that Ireland today ratifies the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” adding that the treaty “sets a global norm prohibiting all nuclear weapons.”
Nuclear disarmament, Coveney said, has long been a feature of Irish foreign policy, adding, “the only guarantee of protection from nuclear weapons use is their complete elimination.”
On the day the TPNW entered into force, Coveney said that the elimination of nuclear weapons is a priority shared by all parties in Ireland’s government and “strongly supported by the Irish people.”
Like Ireland, Austria is a member of the European Union but not NATO. Increasingly, the landlocked nation is playing a leading role in advancing the nuclear ban treaty. With its own staunch, anti-nuclear consensus and constitutional law, Austria is a de facto nuclear weapons-free zone. Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, director for disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation with the Austrian Ministry for Europe and International Affairs, said Austria takes these issues “very seriously.”
In 2013-14, along with Norway and Mexico, Austria helped launch a humanitarian initiative in a bid to shift the nuclear conversation from insider discussions of strategic stability and deterrence theory, to a more inclusive global dialogue that focuses on the humanitarian consequences and risks associated with nuclear weapons. That initiative led to what became the TPNW, which was fostered by everything from international working groups, public awareness and engagement campaigns, civil society-centered conferences, publications and innovative platforms like the Japan-based NGO Peace Boat.
Kmentt has been named president-designate of the first Meeting of State Parties (MSP) scheduled to take place in Vienna next March. He told Truthout that Austria, which ratified the TPNW with unanimous parliamentary support in 2018, is strongly criticized by treaty opponents. Because it forces a clarity of position, Kmennt says the treaty exposes the double standard of mouthing support for disarmament, while at the same time insisting on keeping nuclear weapons.
“They [nuclear armed states, NATO and nuclear weapons-endorsing states] don’t like the TPNW because it essentially asks the question in a crystal-clear way: Are you really for nuclear disarmament or would you rather keep those weapons?” said Kmentt.
“If you have the most powerful military alliance [NATO] that includes three nuclear weapons states saying, ‘Yes, of course we will get rid of nuclear weapons, but we can’t do this as long as these weapons exist,’ it’s a recipe for keeping nuclear weapons in perpetuity. What’s missing is any perspective on how to move forward on nuclear disarmament and beyond the nuclear deterrence paradigm,” Kmentt said.
As for countries that have not yet signed the treaty, Kmentt says it is regrettable but should not preclude them from engaging in discussions of nuclear risks and consequences.
Called to the Table
Few countries have suffered the effects of nuclear weapons as the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). The 67 nuclear tests conducted between 1946-58 by the U.S. at Bikini and Enewetak atolls caused health, environmental, social and economic impacts that persist. Yet despite its leading role in negotiating the TPNW, the Micronesian nation has yet to ratify the treaty.
Speaking from New York, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United Nations, Amatlain Kabua, asked how her country can ratify the treaty when nuclear nations are unwilling to engage. “How do we in good faith sign up [for] something that we don’t see any commitment from the countries that really are the powerful ones that should come to the table?”
“Those countries with the nuclear weapons, they now [do] not even show up for this kind of debate at the UN. They should be there so we can see what’s the importance of having all these weapons that kill humankind,” Kabua said.
While the RMI strongly supports the treaty’s ultimate goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, she said, “it requires partnership and commitment, especially from those countries that possess nuclear weapons.”
Chief among RMI concerns is whether treaty ratification will force the Marshall Islands to accept sole responsibility for environmental remediation and assistance for the victims of U.S. nuclear tests. Additional questions remain about how ratification would affect a bilateral compact of free association (COFA) between the RMI and the U.S. The compact allows Marshallese citizens to live and work in the United States and also for the operation of a U.S. missile-testing range at Kwajalein Atoll. Under COFA, which was first negotiated in the 1980s, the U.S. tests nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under a lease agreement through at least 2066 (with a 20-year option to extend).
The amount the U.S. pays local landowners (not the RMI government) to use the atoll is adjusted annually for inflation, with the U.S. paying over $22.6 million this year, according to the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Majuro. If the RMI were to ratify the ban treaty, continued ICBM testing at Kwajalein could raise questions of compliance, specifically under the Article 1 obligation to never “assist, encourage or induce” prohibited activity.
A 2018 study by the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic examined compatibility of the TPNW with COFA and suggests the compact does not preclude the Marshall Islands from ratifying the ban treaty.
But asked if she sees treaty ratification posing a specific conflict with COFA, Kabua said, “Of course. Because we would like to extend hosting the base [at] Kwajalein and also our ability to come and live and work [in the U.S.] without a visa.”
Speaking from Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, Foreign Minister Casten Nemra told Truthout that the Marshall Islands welcomes and supports countries that join the TPNW.
Before ratifying the treaty, Nemra says it’s important to understand how specific provisions might affect the RMI-U.S. relationship and clarify who would bear the burden of environmental remediation and victims assistance. “It’s always been a natural position that the U.S. is responsible for the rehab and cleaning up these islands,” Nemra said.
Meanwhile, as the Marshall Islands studies the ban treaty, it continues to grapple with the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing and, despite its cautious approach, Nemra said the Marshall Islands supports the treaty. “We have [been] a strong advocate for a ban on these terrible weapons … and encourage all to sign up and take part.”
Nemra said that the RMI and U.S. share a “very unique, complex relationship,” adding, “We value this relationship, and it comes in many aspects in how we move together or how we choose to partner with the U.S. for the long term. But at the same time, we have our own issues and challenges…”
Abandoning an Arsenal and Embracing Peace
Kazakhstan, the 26th country to ratify the TPNW, both possessed and was poisoned by nuclear weapons. At the time it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan inherited the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. The Central Asian nation was the site of over 450 Soviet nuclear tests and knows first-hand the horrific human and environmental toll.
After it voluntarily abandoned its 1,200 nuclear warheads for dismantlement, the country has prioritized the pursuit of a nuclear-weapon free world, something it hopes will be achieved by 2045, the centennial of the UN. Calling on all nations to join the TPNW, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Magzhan Ilyassov, told Truthout that his country embraces its role as a leader in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
He added that Kazakhstan cooperates with the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, (another nuclear testing site for the U.K. and U.S.) to highlight the importance of implementing Articles 6 and 7 of the ban treaty, which focus on victim assistance, environmental remediation and other forms of cooperation.
Although flanked by nuclear-armed Russia and China, and close to volatile flashpoints between China, India and Pakistan, Ilyassov said, “True power is not in nuclear bombs and missiles. The real protection is the trust of the world community.”
Hiding Beneath a “Nuclear Umbrella”
In September 2020, 56 former global leaders wrote an open letter in support of the TPNW. Alongside retired ministers, heads of state, and two past NATO and UN secretary generals, former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama signed the letter. In an email, Hatoyama told Truthout that in the current Japanese government’s subordinate position, as long as the U.S. remains opposed to the treaty, he believes Japan will not support it.
Despite Japan having experienced two atomic bombings and public support for the treaty as high as 75 percent, the Japanese government remains one of the most ardent opponents of the TPNW. Tokyo’s primary argument is that it relies on the U.S. for protection under the “nuclear umbrella” and a bilateral agreement for protection from regional threats. Japan’s dependence on the U.S. takes precedent over joining the nuclear ban treaty.
“Many Japanese misunderstand that even under the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty, it is not a certainty that the United States will risk its own lives fighting to protect Japan,” Hatoyama said. “It is necessary to correctly understand that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is an illusion.”
He stressed the need for Japan and its neighbors to form an East Asian cooperative body similar to the European Union to build a region free of warfare.
“It goes without saying,” Hatoyama added, “Japan does not need its own nuclear weapons.”
Cracks in the Edifice
Today, the United States and Russia possess around 91 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Both countries are modernizing and expanding their nuclear capabilities, but in 2020, the U.S. increased its spending on nuclear weapons to $37.4 billion — more than twice what Russia and China spent combined.
This month, The Intercept published a letter from 29 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus calling on President Biden to limit the role of nuclear weapons, reduce unnecessary spending, and pursue additional arms control and risk-reduction measures.
To date, 11 members of the U.S. Congress have gone further by signing the ICAN Parliamentary (Legislative) Pledge stating their support for the TPNW.
District of Columbia Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the first to sign the pledge, has co-sponsored legislation that would require the U.S. to ratify the TPNW. Norton’s bill calls for U.S. nuclear weapons program funding to be redirected to “human and infrastructure needs such as housing, healthcare, social security, restoring environment and creating a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy, and a conversion to a peace economy.”
In a recorded statement, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) said, “the consequences of our nation’s obsession with military power and spending are on full display in districts like mine where we have water that is undrinkable and unaffordable, crumbling schools, and a broken healthcare system.” Tlaib urged her colleagues to join her in supporting the treaty.
Beyond politics, pressure to support the TPNW is being applied at the city, state and county levels by large municipalities like Sydney, Toronto, Paris and Washington, D.C., as well as smaller ones from Anchorage to Zurich to Helsinki. Around the world, in nuclear weapons-free countries as well as nuclear-armed nations, a growing number of people recognize that nuclear weapons — like chemical, biological and other banned weapons of mass destruction — should be declared illegal and unacceptable at every level.
As the number of TPNW state parties grows, the nine nuclear-dependent nations and their supporters face a future in which they will be increasingly isolated, outside of international norms, clinging to a class of deadly weapons the world cannot afford and which, if ever used, could wreak global catastrophe at an unimaginable scale and bring life on Earth to a sudden and unexpected end.