Insights into Editorial: The birth of the new Nuclear Prohibition Treaty
In July 2017, the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans and makes it illegal to possess, use, produce, transfer, acquire, stockpile or deploy nuclear weapons. This was the culmination of 10 years of preparation by many national and international organizations. It was signed and approved by 122 of the 123 participant nations, representing two-thirds of the nations in the UN. Interestingly, none of the nuclear weapons nations participated.
- The NWPT is the most significant multilateral development on nuclear arms control since the adoption of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. It has to be ratified by 50 countries to come into force.
Previous efforts in this regard:
The U.N. General Assembly’s very first resolution on Jan. 24, 1946, discussed how to abolish weapons of mass destruction. Ever since, activists, NGOs, governments and the U.N. have been relentless in putting in place planks of an increasingly sophisticated normative architecture to limit the spread of nuclear weapon technology, materials and arsenals.
At the centre of the effort lies the NPT itself. But additional planks include the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) following earlier successes in proscribing atmospheric and underground testing; the Nuclear Suppliers Group set up after India’s testing breakout in 1974; various regional nuclear weapon-free zones that cover the southern hemisphere and extend to a limited extent into the northern hemisphere in Central Asia and Mongolia; the Proliferation Security Initiative; etc. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) acts as the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog to ensure compliance with nonproliferation obligations.
Reactions from the Nuclear-Armed States:
Nuclear weapons states and many of their NATO allies have opposed the initiative from the beginning. Although the United States and the United Kingdom participated in the 2014 Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, leaders from Washington and the other nuclear weapon states boycotted the Open Ended Working Group sessions and the 2017 negotiations on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
These states contend that the nuclear prohibition treaty will distract attention from other disarmament and nonproliferation initiatives, such as negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty or ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They have expressed concern that the a nuclear prohibition treaty could undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – and the extensive safeguard provisions included therein – by giving states the option to “forum shop,” or choose between the two treaties.
Arguments for the “Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” (CPNW) from Proponent States:
Supporters of the CPNW argue that new treaty will close a “legal gap” that exists regarding nuclear weapons, which are not expressly outlawed by the NPT even though their use would be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict. They argue that the CPNW initiative reinforces the NPT and the requirement in Article VI for nuclear disarmament and that it can reduce the salience nuclear weapons and help prompt more urgent action to reduce nuclear risk and promote disarmament.
What’s missing in the treaty?
- It does not offer a practical approach on how to prod nuclear weapons states to join it.
- It contains no mechanism to verify the reduction and abolition of nuclear weapons.
- It also does not provide a solution to the risk of nuclear weapons being used by accident or miscalculation, or by terrorists.
Why a total ban is being demanded?
Disarmament and deterrence are usually advocated by the nuclear weapons states. But, the failure of this policy is never discussed. If a nuclear-armed nation was attacked, either by intention or error, the expected response would be retaliation with a bevy of nuclear weapons. These weapons are indiscriminate and would invariably kill and wound millions. There is unimaginable suffering among the survivors. Operational infrastructure is gone. The North Korea crisis is a prime example of why these weapons do not belong in human hands. The only fail-safe way to prevent a catastrophe is to eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons; any number above zero should be unacceptable.
Will the ban treaty be easily ratified by all nations?
No. But the treaty, for the first time in history, makes nuclear weapons illegal by international law. It makes the issue permanently visible and gives the goal a greater opportunity to be reached.
Ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament:
Nuclear weapons obliterate the distinction between combatants and civilians that is central to every moral code in all cultures and civilizations. Most countries have chosen nuclear abstinence because people overwhelmingly abhor the bomb as deeply immoral. It is the most indiscriminately inhumane weapon ever invented. Its primary intended deterrent effect relies on the threat to kill millions of innocent civilians. Accurately called the balance of terror, deterrence is a euphemism for state-sanctioned nuclear terrorism.
The preamble of the NWPT explicitly acknowledges “the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament” and describes a nuclear weapon-free world as “a global public good of the highest order, serving both national and collective security interests.”
The new treaty has challenged the following myths on which the NPT is based:
- First, that nuclear weapons are an entitlement bestowed upon only a handful of countries that had tested a nuclear weapon before the treaty entered into force in 1970.
- Second, that the security of most of the world’s nations—indeed world order itself—is based on the possession of or protection by nuclear weapons.
- Third, that nuclear weapons cannot be banned and nuclear disarmament was only possible as part of a process of “general and complete disarmament”, implying that nuclear weapons might be the last to be disarmed.
How is the new treaty different from Nuclear Non- proliferation Treaty (NPT)?
- The new NPT challenges the old NPT’s myth of entitlement by holding states that after 7 July “owned, possessed or controlled nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” responsible for “verifying the irreversible elimination of its nuclear-weapon programme” if they become parties to the treaty. In doing so, nuclear weapons have been devalued and are reduced to a liability rather than being treated as an asset.
- Similarly, the fact that the majority of the 193 UN members voted for the treaty, including nearly a third of the Group of Twenty, nearly three-fourths of the Non-Aligned, and old NPT members, reflects that most countries do not depend on nuclear weapons for their security. In fact, the entire southern hemisphere is free of nuclear weapons.
The desire for peace emanating from Hiroshima and Nagasaki is nothing other than the desire that no other country become the target or perpetrator of a nuclear attack. A convention to prohibit nuclear weapons would establish this as humanity’s shared norm, and Japan’s mission lies in doing everything it can to achieve this. So long as arsenals of nuclear weapons continue to exist on our planet, we will be forced to live with the threat that hair-trigger situations like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis may again arise.
- To quote U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 address to the U.N. General Assembly, “… we far prefer world law, in the age of self-determination, to world war, in the age of mass extermination.”
- The efforts of many states and representatives of civil society to engage in constructive debate on the contours of this treaty can be seen as a forerunner to the kind of “world law” envisaged by Kennedy.
A convention prohibiting nuclear weapons will serve as a crucial impetus for fulfilling the disarmament obligations of the NPT. Its adoption will generate decisive momentum for nuclear weapons abolition, and it is thus vital that this be achieved. Irrespective of its future prospects, the passing of the new NPT has already challenged the very basis of nuclear deterrence and the nuclear order based on the old NPT. India and other nuclear weapon states would do well to track its progress—the future of their nuclear arsenals might depend on it.