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.
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.
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).
Like what we do at The AIMN?
You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.
Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!
42 total views, 2 views today