A Legally-Binding Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons

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A Legally-Binding Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons

'States and other actors,' writes Acheson, 'must now be willing to act to achieve disarmament, by developing a legally-binding instrument to prohibit and establish a framework for eliminating nuclear weapons.' (Photo: medact.org)

Five years after the adoption of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Action Plan in 2010, compliance with commitments related to nuclear disarmament lags far behind those related to non-proliferation or the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Yet during the same five years, new evidence and international discussions have emphasised the catastrophic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and the unacceptable risks of such use, either by design or accident.

"It is past time that the NPT nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies fulfill their responsibilities, commitments, and obligations—or risk undermining the very treaty regime they claim to want to protect."Thus the NPT’s full implementation, particularly regarding nuclear disarmament, is as urgent as ever. One of the most effective measures for nuclear disarmament would be the negotiation of a legally-binding instrument prohibiting and establishing a framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Not everyone sees it that way.

In fact, ahead of the 2015 Review Conference (scheduled to take place in New York April 27-May 22), the NPT nuclear-armed states and some of their nuclear-dependent allies have argued that any such negotiations would “undermine” the NPT and that the Action Plan is a long-term roadmap that should be “rolled over” for at least another review cycle.

This is an extremely retrogressive approach to what should be an opportunity for meaningful action. Negotiating an instrument to fulfill article VI of the NPT would hardly undermine the Treaty.

On the contrary, it would finally bring the nuclear-armed states into compliance with the legal obligations.

Those countries that possess or rely on nuclear weapons often highlight the importance of the NPT for preventing proliferation and enhancing security.

Yet these same countries, more than any other states parties, do the most to undermine the Treaty by preventing, avoiding, or delaying concrete actions necessary for disarmament.

It is past time that the NPT nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies fulfill their responsibilities, commitments, and obligations—or risk undermining the very treaty regime they claim to want to protect.

Their failure to implement their commitments presents dim prospects for the future of the NPT. The apparent expectation that this non-compliance can continue in perpetuity, allowing not only for continued possession but also modernisation and deployment of nuclear weapon systems, is misguided.

The 2015 Review Conference will provide an opportunity for other governments to confront and challenge this behaviour and to demand concerted and immediate action. This is the end of a review cycle; it is time for conclusions to be drawn.

States parties will have to not only undertake a serious assessment of the last five years but will have to determine what actions are necessary to ensure continued survival of the NPT and to achieve all of its goals and objectives, including those on stopping the nuclear arms race, ceasing the manufacture of nuclear weapons, preventing the use of nuclear weapons, and eliminating existing arsenals.

The recent renewed investigation of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is a good place to look for guidance. The 2010 NPT Review Conference expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

Since then, especially at the series of conferences hosted by Norway, Mexico, and Austria, these consequences have increasingly become a focal point for discussion and proposed action.

Governments are also increasingly raising the issue of humanitarian impacts in traditional forums, with 155 states signing a joint statement at the 2014 session of the UN General Assembly highlighting the unacceptable harm caused by nuclear weapons and calling for action to ensure they are never used again, under any circumstances.

The humanitarian initiative has provided the basis for a new momentum on nuclear disarmament. It has involved new types of actors, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and a new generation of civil society campaigners.

The discussion around the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should be fully supported by all states parties to the NPT.

The humanitarian initiative has also resulted in the Austrian Pledge, which commits its government (and any countries that wish to associate themselves with the Pledge) to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

As of February 2015, 40 states have endorsed the Pledge. These states are committed to change. They believe that existing international law is inadequate for achieving nuclear disarmament and that a process of change that involves stigmatising, prohibiting, and eliminating nuclear weapons is necessary.

This process requires a legally-binding international instrument that clearly prohibits nuclear weapons based on their unacceptable consequences. Such a treaty would put nuclear weapons on the same footing as the other weapons of mass destruction, which are subject to prohibition through specific treaties.

A treaty banning nuclear weapons would build on existing norms and reinforce existing legal instruments, including the NPT, but it would also close loopholes in the current legal regime that enable states to engage in nuclear weapon activities or to otherwise claim perceived benefit from the continued existence of nuclear weapons while purporting to promote their elimination.

NPT states parties need to ask themselves how long we can wait for disarmament. Several initiatives since the 2010 Review Conference have advanced the ongoing international discussion about nuclear weapons.

States and other actors must now be willing to act to achieve disarmament, by developing a legally-binding instrument to prohibit and establish a framework for eliminating nuclear weapons. This year, the year of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is a good place to start.

Ray Acheson

Ray Acheson is the Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament programme of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

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