Hope by treaty

Cesar Jaramillo Featured, Nuclear Weapons

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 4 Winter 2020

On October 24, Honduras became the 50th state party to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), triggering the 90-day process that will culminate in the Treaty’s entry into force. On January 22, 2021, the TPNW will officially become international law.

Significant timing

The 50th ratification came on the 75th anniversary of the entry into force of the Charter of the United Nations and less than three months after the 75th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. The TPNW’s entry into force will predate by only two days the 75th anniversary of the UN’s first resolution, which dealt with “the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy.” Think of it—atomic/nuclear weapons have been in existence for three-quarters of a century.

And the threat of nuclear annihilation is growing. On January 23, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that its Doomsday Clock, which signals the imminence of the threat of global nuclear catastrophe, had been set at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest ever to Doomsday. The level of threat is determined by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel laureates.

However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) postponed the 2020 NPT Review Conference, the key multilateral forum in the global nuclear disarmament regime, until 2021.

How we got here

As with the Canada-led effort to negotiate a landmines treaty two decades ago, the growing global movement that resulted in the TPNW is deeply rooted in the clear recognition of the indiscriminate, catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of particular weapons. While landmines still exist, their explicit prohibition has become an integral and necessary element of the framework for their elimination, and has forever raised the normative bar against their possession. The TPNW has been designed to function in a similar way.

Negotiations on the TPNW were strongly opposed by nuclear-weapon states, including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France), and most members of NATO, a nuclear-armed alliance that includes Canada. Although opponents claimed that such a treaty would only hurt the progress of disarmament and non-proliferation, it appears that they saw something that would impede their freedom of action.

In October 2016, the United States published a non-paper entitled “Defense Impacts of Potential United Nations General Assembly Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty” for NATO colleagues. It acknowledges that “the effects of a nuclear weapons ban treaty could be wide-ranging” and “could impact non-parties as well as parties,” listing several ways in which the ban could impact NATO as a nuclear-weapons alliance.

For example, the TPNW could limit nuclear-weapons-related planning, training, and transit; the freedom to assist or induce allies to use, plan, or train to use nuclear weapons; the use of nuclear-capable delivery systems; and nuclear-weapons-sharing practices among NATO members. According to the United States, “such treaty elements could—and are designed by ban advocates to—destroy the basis for U.S. nuclear extended deterrence.”

Today, states that together own the world’s nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons continue to defend and upgrade them. The world is further destabilized by the breakdown in the strategic nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States, obstacles to achieving a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction, the overt nuclear deterrence policy endorsed by NATO, and the growing impatience by non-nuclear-weapon states over the lack of credible progress to nuclear abolition.

Earlier this year, as the trajectory toward the 50th treaty ratification became apparent, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council issued a letter to states that had joined the treaty, urging them to withdraw. In the letter, the five indicated that they “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the treaty.

Today, states that together own the world’s nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons continue to defend and upgrade them. The world is further destabilized by the breakdown in the strategic nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States, obstacles to achieving a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction, the overt nuclear deterrence policy endorsed by NATO, and the growing impatience by non-nuclear-weapon states over the lack of credible progress to nuclear abolition.

Getting to zero nuclear weapons

While it seems certain that the TPNW will have normative and practical value, it is difficult to predict its exact impact. But the signs are very positive for a treaty that, just over three years ago, 122 nations chose to adopt, despite widespread, ongoing opposition by nuclear-armed states and their allies.

The TPNW imposes specific legal obligations on its members, but it further extends its reach by taking control of the narrative around the legitimacy of nuclear weapons possession. Recently, for example, the Vatican made the significant leap from condemning the use of nuclear weapons to condemning “mere” possession.

Beyond the TPNW, alternative security arrangements will be necessary. As former U.S. statesmen Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Schultz argued in a 2007 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, a world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today’s world minus nuclear weapons.

But this recognition cannot be allowed to slide into a belief that some sort of Kantian peace or ideal international security conditions are necessary prerequisites for disarmament. Shifts in security arrangements must happen in parallel with nuclear disarmament efforts.

Non-nuclear-weapon states do not use less-than-ideal security conditions as a reason for acquiring nuclear weapons when they have pledged not to. The same standard must apply to states that possess nuclear arms. There will never be a perfect time to achieve nuclear disarmament.

No doubt misleading arguments against the treaty will continue. It is often said that the TPNW has not resulted in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon. Why is this suddenly the standard for supporting a nuclear disarmament effort?

A legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons, however thorough or stringent its provisions, will not automatically result in fewer nuclear warheads. No proponent of the TPNW argues that the ban is tantamount to abolition.

Almost all states advocate for the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons—in principle. But this objective will only be achieved through concrete action that truly reflects the gravity of the nuclear-weapons threat and the recognition that concrete steps toward abolition are urgently needed. Abolition must become a top policy priority for the nations of the world, whether they have nuclear weapons or not.

The complete and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons is an urgent and achievable objective. Regrettably, while a growing majority in the international community has embraced the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the hope it embodies, countries like Canada continue to embrace NATO’s overt nuclear deterrence policy as a legitimate security doctrine, effectively positioning themselves on the wrong side of history.

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