By Kirthi Jayakumar
Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb explosion in 1945 (Source: ICRC)
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Weapons Treaty) was ratified by Honduras, the 50th country to do so, on 24 October 2020. This means that the Nuclear Weapons Treaty enters into force after 90 days from this date. Globally hailed as a powerful move coming in 75 years after they were first used at the end of World War II, the convention follows several decades of activism and advocacy calling for a world free of nuclear weapons.
The Nuclear Weapons Treaty was adopted by the United Nations on July 7, 2017 at a UN conference in New York. It marks the first multilateral legally binding instrument calling for nuclear disarmament in two decades. The treaty declares that signatory countries must “never under any circumstance develop, test, produce, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It has been signed by 84 countries and ratified by 50.
Despite its ambitious and significantly valuable pursuits, the treaty is less likely to achieve much in terms of regulating nuclear weapons that have already been developed, tested, produced, manufactured, or otherwise acquired, possessed, or stockpiled. According to Article 34 of the Vienna Convention on the Laws of Treaties, and the customary norm of pacta tertis nec nocent nec prosunt, a treaty binds only those that are party to it. Even as fifty nations have ratified the treaty, the five permanent members of the UN, namely United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France have not signed the Nuclear Weapons Treaty.
No nuclear-armed nation – US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – has supported the Nuclear Weapons Treaty. Israel, which has never openly declared having nuclear weapons, has also opposed the treaty. The NATO, US, UK, France, China, and Russia have vociferously expressed their opposition to signing the treaty. Historically, only South Africa disassembled its nuclear weapons arsenal before joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1991 (Viotti, 2010). Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine had nuclear weapons that were repatriated to Russia. Given the vehement opposition to banning nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that any of the nuclear-armed nations will give up their cache. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that there are 13,865 nuclear weapons worldwide, of which 3,750 were deployed with operational forces as of 2019; of these, over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons were owned by the US and Russia. The Nuclear Weapons Treaty does nothing to address this massive number of weapons in circulation.
Given this, it is clear as day that the convention is not likely to achieve its goals: it calls for actions that are future facing without addressing anything that has already been done. This is not to discredit any of the work that has gone into making the treaty possible at all – but rather to establish the lay of the land ahead that stands between the entry into force of this treaty and the idea of success in achieving the goals of this treaty.
At the base, the lack of political will needs to shift for the treaty to translate into emphatic action on ground. Admittedly, the treaty has not provided for measures to address weapons that already exist. But to enjoin the nuclear-armed states to stop short of developing more in the future, the engagement of political will and enjoining stake-holding in the global comity of nations is vital. One way to do this is to present the nuclear-armed states with the implementation of robust measures that specifically respond to their arguments for not signing it. For example, Russia and China have argued that the lack of definitions, verification mechanisms, and compliance measures prevented them from signing the treaty. India has argued that the treaty was negotiated in the wrong forum and (that it should have been the Conference on Disarmament rather than the General Assembly), and that the text of the treaty in itself uses expressions that are not defined appropriately, thus producing ambiguous calls to action without establishing monitoring and evaluating bodies that can determine progress made and keep members in check.
The idea of building sustainable futures under Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for robust institutions toward the development of peace. Committing to establishing institutional support to transition into a nuclear weapons-free future starts with a change in political will and deterrence from relying on weaponry that can erase massive chunks of the world’s population in a matter of seconds. With the Nuclear Weapons Treaty entering into force in January 2021, this work has only just begun.
Viotti, Paul (2010). “Arms Control and Global Security.” P. 312
SIPRI (2019) SIPRI Yearbook of 2019 Armament, Disarmament, and International Security.
Sethi, Manpreet (2020). “Disarming the Unarmed: Current Reality of the Nuclear Ban Treaty.” https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/opinion/disarming-unarmed-current-reality-nuclear-ban-treaty