Vol. 18, No. 3
Editorial: Nuclear ban treaty reaches 50!
25 October 2020
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has reached the 50 ratifications required for its entry into force!
Honduras deposited its instrument of ratification on 24 October, United Nations Day, which marks the 75th anniversary of the entry into force of the UN Charter in 1945. The governments of Jamaica and Nauru deposited their instruments of ratification on 23 October, the eve of this anniversary. Their collective efforts mean the TPNW has reached the requisite 50 ratifications to enter into force, which will happen in 90 days, on 22 January 2021.
This is truly a historic moment for nuclear abolition, achieved only by the relentless efforts of generations of activists and diplomats around the world. In January, nuclear weapons will be unlawful to possess, develop, deploy, test, use threaten to use, or assist in any way, shape, or form for TPNW states parties. Nuclear weapons will be on the same legal footing as biological and chemical weapons, as landmines and cluster bombs, as blinding laser weapons. Just as chemical weapon stockpiling and use is so rightly condemned, so too will be the possession of nuclear weapons.
Speaking at the First Committee side event where Jamaica and Nauru announced their ratifications on Friday, 23 October, Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow said that when she heard the news of the TPNW’s imminent entry into force, she found herself communing with the spirits of hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
I was immediately in conversation with these beloved souls—my sister, my nephew Eiji, other dear family members, my classmates, all the children and innocent people who perished. I was reporting to the dead, sharing this good news first with them, because they paid the ultimate price with their precious lives. Like many survivors, I made a vow that their deaths would not be in vain and to warn the world about the danger of nuclear weapons, to make sure that no one else suffers as we have suffered.
Condemning the “barbaric behavior of nine nations who continue to develop more horrendous weapons, prepared to repeat nuclear massacres,” Thurlow rejoiced that so many activists and governments persisted in spite of being confronted by indifference and ignorance; in spite of being ridiculed by nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent states. “Nuclear abolitionists everywhere can be incredibly encouraged and empowered by this new legal status. Now, with greater intensity and purpose, we will push forward.” While we have a long path to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons, she noted, “with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, we can be certain that that beautiful day will dawn.”
We are long past due for the dawn of this day. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, making it even more fitting that UN Day would see the advancement toward entry into force of a new international law that finally prohibits these weapons. The TPNW is, as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said during general debate, a response to this resolution. Among other things, “it offers a promise to current and future generations that one day we will be freed of the dark shadow of nuclear warfare.”
This year, as several delegations have noted through the First Committee general debate, is also the 75th anniversary of the first—and hopefully last—instance of nuclear war. The horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during World War II are, as Palestine described, war crimes and crimes against humanity that have left “an eternal scare on humanity’s conscious.” San Marino remarked, “The touching testimonies of the survivors are a constant reminder that we need to urgently commit to a world free of nuclear weapons.” This is why, as in previous years, the vast majority of UN member states issued resounding calls at the First Committee for total nuclear disarmament and a redirection of resources to protect people and planet.
But instead, the nuclear-armed states continue to actively build-up their arsenals, modernising warheads, missiles, bombers, and submarines; and spending billions to threaten each other and the entire planet with mass destruction. Their rhetoric about their commitment to nuclear disarmament is unequivocally empty and visibly disingenuous. After China, Russia, and the United States viciously attacked each other in the general debate last week, accusing each other of undermining the “international security environment” and the total “world order,” they joined together with France and the United Kingdom this week in a joint statement that passively—and patently falsely—reiterates their assurances that they’ve got everything under control.
One sign that they do not, in fact, have everything in hand is the US government’s apparent panic about the entry into force of the TPNW. As the Associated Press reported, the United States has sent a letter to countries that have ratified the Treaty, informing them that they have made a “strategic error” and thus “should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.”
It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for a government to demand sovereign states to withdraw from a treaty. This behaviour is not just about undermining the TPNW, to prevent its entry into force. It also undercuts state sovereignty, which the US government purports to be all about. It is offensive to the legislative processes within each country that decided to ratify the Treaty and is a belligerent and bullish move to tell other countries—mostly those of the global south—that they have made a mistake or did not understand what they were signing up to.
This move by the US is undermining to the concept of international law, of forming binding agreements among nations to achieve peace, safety, and well-being. Of course, given the current US government’s propensity to withdraw from treaties, the revelation that it would urge others to do the same is not really a big surprise. What’s more interesting is that for a government so dismissive about and hostile to international law, it clearly recognises the threat that this treaty poses to its behaviour—regardless of whether or not it joins.
Proponents of the TPNW have always argued that outlawing nuclear weapons is not just about constraining the behaviour of states who sign and ratify the Treaty, but about the normative impacts it will have on the behaviour of all states. Even before the TPNW enters into force, it is already having impacts on economic investments in nuclear weapon producing companies, on national and local debates about the bomb, on city-level support for nuclear disarmament, on public engagement and activism, and on opening up space for new conversations about the patriarchal, racist, and colonial nature of nuclear weapons.
The nuclear-armed states have denied time and again that the Treaty will have any legal or political bearing on them. Yet, time and again, their behaviour shows that they know the opposite is true. They have consistently tried to pressure other countries—by threatening, cajoling, ridiculing, and bullying—to not support the establishment of the Treaty’s negotiation, to not participate in the Treaty’s negotiation, to not sign or ratify the Treaty—and now, to withdraw from it. Why are they making all this effort if they believe the Treaty will have no impact on them?
Rather than admit that they know this Treaty will advance meaningful normative, political, and legal consequences for the possession of nuclear weapons, most of the nuclear-armed states claim that the TPNW is contrary to existing international law on nuclear weapons, particularly the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This, too, is obfuscation. The norm against nuclear weapons that the TPNW solidifies into law actually enhances non-proliferation efforts. It’s remarkable to see these so-called champions of non-proliferation—governments that have invested billions in various initiatives to stop other countries from doing what they themselves have already done—actively try to tear down the most stringent legally-binding rules against nuclear weapon development, possession, and proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In reality, the nuclear-armed states know that the TPNW, to paraphrase Setsuko Thurlow at the Treaty’s adoption, makes weapons that have always been immoral, now also illegal. While we have much work to do in order to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, if the nuclear-armed states are this afraid of the prohibition treaty, we know we’re on the right track.