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Nuclear weapons – always inhumane and unacceptable, now illegal

The nuclear weapons ban treaty has achieved the 50 ratifications needed for its entry into force.

By Tilman Ruff

On Saturday, 24 October, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Honduras brought the number of nations to ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) to 50. This means that 90 days later, on 22 January 2021, this treaty will enter into legal force and become international law, binding on the states that have already ratified it, and all those which subsequently do. Outlawing nuclear weapons is an essential step to eliminate them, the only reliable way to prevent their use. This is a historic achievement and an enormous win for planetary health.

For its role in achieving the treaty, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), founded in Melbourne, became the leading civil society coalition working with governments to conclude the nuclear weapons ban treaty. For its work for this treaty, in 2017 ICAN became the first Australian-born entity to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Growing danger

The treaty is especially needed in the face of the real and present danger of nuclear war climbing higher than ever. The hands of the Doomsday Clock stand further forward than they have ever been: 100 seconds to midnight. All nine nuclear-armed states are modernising their arsenals with new, more accurate and ‘useable’ weapons; their leaders making irresponsible explicit nuclear threats. The cold war is resurgent – hard won treaties reducing nuclear weapons numbers and types are being trashed, while nothing is being negotiated to replace them, let alone build on them. If the Trump administration allows the New START Treaty to expire, then from 5 Feb 2021, for the first time since 1972, there will be no treaty constraints on Russian and US nuclear weapons. Armed conflicts which could trigger nuclear escalation are increasing in a climate-stressed world. The rapidly evolving threat of cyberwarfare puts nuclear command and control in jeopardy from both nations and terrorist groups. Close to two thousand nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched within minutes of a leader’s fateful decision.

The radioactive incineration unleashed by nuclear war involving even less than 1% of the global nuclear arsenal targeted on cities in one part of the world would be followed by a worldwide nuclear ice age and nuclear famine, putting billions of people in jeopardy.

As the World Health Organisation and Red Cross/Red Crescent movement have confirmed, health and emergency services could not respond substantively to the needs of the victims of even a single nuclear weapon exploded on a city. When there is no cure, prevention is imperative.

Treaties work

The TPNW fills a gaping hole in international law that for far too long saw the most destructive weapon, the only weapon which poses an existential threat to all humanity and to the biosphere, as the only weapon of mass destruction not to be prohibited under international law.

Consistent lessons come from experience with biological and chemical weapons, antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. Treaties which have codified in international law the rejection of an unacceptable weapon have provided a crucial basis and motivation for the progressive work of eliminating these weapons. Providing one legal standard for all nations has been essential to the substantial progress made in controlling banned weapons. All the weapons subject to treaty prohibition are now less often justified, produced, traded, deployed and used. No indiscriminate and inhumane weapon has been controlled or eliminated without first being prohibited.

Nine nuclear-armed states, the 30 nuclear-dependent members of NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea appear unlikely to soon join the TPNW. Australia’s opposition to the TPNW is at odds with its support for all the bans on other inhumane weapons. The sticking point is that Australia cannot be serious about nuclear disarmament while claiming that US nuclear weapons are essential to Australia’s security, and providing assistance for their possible use. There is nothing in this treaty which stops non-nuclear military cooperation with a nuclear-armed state, as other US allies like New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines have already proven.

There are welcome signs towards Australia getting on the right side of history, including support for Australia joining the treaty from parliamentarians from a wide cross-party spectrum. Labor leader Anthony Albanese and shadow foreign minister Penny Wong welcomed the 50th ratification and affirmed Labor’s National Policy Platform commitment to joining the treaty.

A sure sign that this treaty matters is the strong opposition it continues to arouse among nuclear-armed states. Last week the Trump administration wrote to all states that have joined the treaty saying it “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” and admonishing them that “… you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification of accession.” They are clearly nervous that the treaty becoming international law puts their continued justification and possession of nuclear weapons on notice and exposes their failure to deliver on their obligation to disarm.

Another important sign that the treaty matter is that money is already moving away from companies that profit from making the worst weapons of mass destruction, soon to be illegal. The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (in Norway), major banks (like Deutsche Bank, KBC in Belgium and Kyushu Financial Group) and pension funds (including ABP, Europe’s largest) are among the growing number of financial institutions that have divested from companies building nuclear weapons. Every responsible financial institution should now do the same.

In a dark time, the TPNW shines a light on the most promising path to free the world from the risk of indiscriminate nuclear violence. Not only does the treaty provide a comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, it also provides the only internationally agreed framework for all nations to fulfil their legal obligation to eliminate these weapons.

Further, the TPNW obliges nations which join to provide long neglected assistance for the victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, and to undertake feasible remediation of environments contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing.

All states should join the treaty as a matter of urgency and faithfully implement it. Time is not on our side. The treaty provides our best hope for the worst weapons.

A/Prof Tilman Ruff AO is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985) and founding chair of ICAN (Nobel Peace Prize 2017).

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  1. Jack Cade

    The United States is the worlds major rogue state. It is the only state to have used nuclear weapons and quite possibly the only state that is still prepared to. Furthermore it deliberately utilised the Bikini Atoll tests to see what fallout actually did by ensuring that it’s own soldiers were downwind of the tests, situations which it first said were ‘unfortunate’ but which it admitted – many years later – that it was deliberate. Nuclear disarmament is a dirty joke because Uncle Sam won’t relinquish any, just as Uncle Sam kept phials of the smallpox virus after the world had ‘eliminated smallpox. Why, if it’s gone? Occam’s razor provides the answer.
    I still believe the Covid-19 virus was a Fort Detrick development. You can’t trust the USA, regardless of which military-industrial-complex- sponsored President is in the White House, Elephant or donkey -they are all arseholes I read the other day that the sainted Obama bombed more countries than the tainted Dumbya. I haven’t checked, but it’s extremely likely. The Democrats started the Korean War snd the Vietnam war.

  2. Aleks. A.

    As long as the “five eyes” and particularly Caliphate of Chaos and Kingdom of Genocides control military alliances as NATO – you can forget about that. Nuclear weapons are not a problem – have not been used since 1945. Real problem is that “five eyes” and particularly their masters in Washington and London have been involved in never ending military conflicts since 1945. More people were killed in these conflicts than from detonating two nuclear bombs in Japan (completely needlessly).

  3. Michael Taylor

    Jack, it always stumps me why it’s OK for the USA to have nuclear weapons, but it’s a problem when other countries develop them.

    Nobody should have them. Full stop. They should have thrown away the blueprint after Hiroshima.

  4. Jack Cade

    Michael Taylor

    It is a little-known fact that the USA only joined the European theatre in WW2 on condition that the UK give the USA access to the nuclear bomb information It had developed. Blackmail, more or less. And they didn’t share the subsequent developments with the UK, despite it being part of the agreement. Also, they demanded that the UK dismantle its empire.
    With friends like that…etc…

  5. Michael Taylor

    Jack, the USA is fast becoming a rogue state, as well as one that appears to be leaning towards isolationism.

    Let’s see if that changes shortly.

  6. DrakeN

    Rogue State?

    Terrorist State with all that it entails.

  7. Watchdog

    Responding to Alex’s.A comment, “Nuclear weapons are not a problem – have not been used since 1945”.

    I was of the understanding that nuclear assisted conventional bombs were used recently by the USA in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s army.

    I also believe Congress in USA recently approved the use of nuclear bombs for underground bunker busting.

  8. Aleks A.


    You did not understand my point. Nuclear weapons are NOT problem – trust in what any of the “five eyes” sign IS problem.
    USA and UK follow the rules and agreements as long as 1. THEY ARE FORCED TO, 2. These give them favorable position.
    So, as long as they are organised in criminal organisations as NATO – the rest of the world would be STUPID to give up on their nuclear arms.
    Those who believe to be EXCEPTIONAL and INDISPENSABLE are not trustworthy because after couple of centuries of genocides and blatant lies (always doing something for a greater good) the rest of the world is opening their eyes.
    To be short – if North Korea gives up on their nukes, Caliphate of Chaos would obliterate them with depleted uranium ammunition – and, of course, that would be in order to protect world’s freedom and democracy. And FREE?!? western media will make sure that everyone understands that.
    Do you really think that the rest of the world is stupid?
    The same applies for ban of landmines. Taking the cheap and effective way for poor countries to defend themselves. Mate, if you stop sending your soldiers overseas they will stop stepping on landmines. Is that clear or what?

  9. Pingback: UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons hits 50 ratifications! | Marrickville Peace Group

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