Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: The Road There and the Road Ahead

Everything must be done to apply concerted pressure on NWS governments. (Photo: Lamerie/flickr/cc)

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: The Road There and the Road Ahead

For those of us who have been part of the anti-nuclear movement, this moment in history is one filled with possibilities.

On January 22, 2021, the world will take a major step toward global nuclear disarmament when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enters effect. This is one step closer to realizing the vision the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hibakusha) have spoken about all over the world. They have never given up their efforts to prevent another collision between humans and nuclear weapons and end every talk with "No More Hibakusha, No More Hiroshimas and No More Nagasakis." Their message of preventing further nuclear catastrophe is now recognized and embodied in this groundbreaking new Treaty. Anti-nuclear organizing efforts need to honor the determination, commitment and vision of Hibakusha, even if achieving the end goal of nuclear abolition requires taking just one step at a time.

The Road to the TPNW

An early significant development was the conclusion of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), negotiated throughout the 1960s and entering force in 1970. Its aims were to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons and commit those states already in possession of such weapons to work toward disarmament. While the NPT has proved largely effective on the nonproliferation front, its disarmament achievements have been unsatisfactory, as nuclear weapon states (NWS) have continuously failed to pursue "negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race... and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament" as the NPT requires them to do (Article VI).

Non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) frustration with the lack of disarmament progress has grown over the years and finally reached a tipping point after the 2014 Ukraine Crisis and reinvigorated major power nuclear competition. The Marshall Islands brought an unprecedented case before the International Court of Justice claiming that the nuclear weapon states had failed to live up to their NPT disarmament obligations, which - while dismissed on suspect jurisdictional grounds - gained widespread international attention and support.

Around this same time in 2014, the New Agenda Coalition proposed the idea of a convention banning nuclear weapons to serve as an "effective measure" implementing Article VI.. Negotiations began in 2016 and, in summer 2017, 122 nations came together in support of the historic TPNW. Garnering its 50th ratification in late October 2020, the TPNW is now set to enter force on January 22, 2021 and will round out the chemical weapons and biological weapons conventions in banning the last outstanding weapon of mass destruction.

The Road Ahead--Obstacles to Overcome

Not unexpectedly, the NWS have maintained firm opposition to the TPNW, with the U.S. casting it as an illegitimate and "dangerous" challenger to the NPT. It asserts that the TPNW fails to recognize the strategic context in which nuclear weapon states find themselves and that it "is and will remain divisive in the international community," threatening the global nonproliferation regime by permitting "forum-shopping" opportunities for states seeking to skirt the NPT's strict International Atomic Energy Agency-overseen (IAEA) verification protocols.

This characterization is clearly suspect and motivated by self-interest. Countering it is an important first step. Statements from TPNW drafting states specifically emphasize the mutually-reinforcing relationship between the two treaties. Far from being in competition with the NPT, the TPNW specifically complements it by legally augmenting Article VI. The TPNW text also renders dubious the alleged forum-shopping concerns. TPNW Article 3 specifies that each state party "at a minimum, maintain its [IAEA] safeguards obligations in force at the time of entry into force of this Treaty" and that those states which have "not yet done so shall conclude with the [IAEA] and bring into force a comprehensive safeguards agreement."

This battle over narrative is particularly important now in the leadup to the next quinquennial NPT Review Conference (RevCon) this coming spring. A central RevCon issue will be how - and if - RevCon final documents acknowledge the TPNW in the event consensus is reached. The NWS have been fiercely opposed to any mention of the TPNW and the U.S. has urged states not to accede to (or recognize) it.

Formal acknowledgement in the RevCon process would be a significant step toward overcoming NWS attempts to stymie the TPNW and toward paving the way for ultimate integration of the treaty into the NPT and broader international legal framework. Such entrenchment would make it more and more difficult for the NWS to continue to belittle the TPNW and perpetually procrastinate on their disarmament obligations.

Carpe Diem

For those of us who have been part of the anti-nuclear movement, this moment in history is one filled with possibilities. When the majority of the world's peoples feel the need to mobilize and, once and for all, put a sense of urgency behind the need to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, it feels like a "now or never" moment. We must all take advantage of this moment to push for greater TPNW awareness. Those of us who live in the NWS have a unique responsibility to move our governments to understand that, once the TPNW becomes law, mere possession of nuclear weapons, let alone "upgrading and modernizing them" to the tune of trillions of dollars, will be understood as illegal by a growing number of the world's nations.

Everything must be done to apply concerted pressure on NWS governments. In the U.S., calls, e-mails and letters to our Senators should be issued, urging them to acknowledge the Treaty and its validity and value. Discontent with the allocation of enormous tax-payer dollars to gratuitously dangerous nuclear arsenal modernization should also be emphasized.

At the international level, the NNWS must insist on formal acknowledgement of the TPNW as a condition for their consent to any eventual NPT RevCon final documents. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and other NGOs should also continue their public relations campaigns in NWS ally states to pressure domestic governments to recognize the TPNW as valid international law.

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