In-depth conversation: The Nuclear Ban Treaty

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Monitor

Cesar Jaramillo talks with ICAN’s Tim Wright about the significance of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, its impact, and how close we are to a world without nuclear weapons.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 1 Spring 2020

Tim Wright (Twitter: @TimMilesWright) is Treaty Coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) or Nuclear Ban Treaty, which was adopted in July of that year. Project Ploughshares is an ICAN partner and campaigned in support of the TPNW. Cesar and Tim participated in the multilateral process on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that preceded TPNW negotiations and in the negotiations themselves.

Cesar Jaramillo: Tell me a bit about the historical significance of the TPNW and its objectives. Why do you think it was necessary?

Tim Wright, pictured here in Vienna, is Treaty Coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Marcus Yipp/ICAN

Tim Wright: Countries have voiced strong objections to nuclear weapons ever since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly, adopted less than six months after those horrific attacks, sought to eliminate from national armaments “atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” But it took more than seven decades for the United Nations to agree to a categorical global ban on nuclear weapons.

Without doubt, the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, with the backing of 122 countries, was a momentous achievement. I think we will only fully grasp its historical significance in years to come. I hope we can look back on 2017 as a major turning point for humanity.

The treaty establishes a basic legal framework for the verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons. I believe it’s our best hope of moving from a world that is perpetually within a hair’s breadth of catastrophe to one in which we can all live in freedom from fear of nuclear war.

CJ: The TPNW has now been signed by 81 states and ratified by 35, moving closer to entry into force. Are you optimistic about the pace of TPNW signatures and ratifications? How soon do you think the treaty will enter into force?

TW: I expect it will enter into force this year or early next year. Only 15 further ratifications are needed to make this happen. Many governments have indicated to us that their domestic processes for approving ratification are now well advanced.

The pace of ratification to date has been comparable to that of other treaties relating to weapons of mass destruction. Though this treaty is still controversial in some quarters, it does enjoy very broad support. A large majority of the world’s countries believe very firmly that nuclear weapons serve no legitimate military or strategic purpose and must be abolished as soon as possible.

Regrettably, Canada isn’t one of them, and it hasn’t yet supported the treaty. But I think it will come onboard before too long. This isn’t an especially radical treaty, as some might claim. It’s a logical and sensible response to the grave threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity. What’s remarkable is that it wasn’t negotiated sooner.

CJ: What do you think will change in the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime once the TPNW enters into force?

TW: I suspect we won’t see sudden or rapid changes, unfortunately. But I’m confident that over time there will be very significant shifts in the policies and practices of many countries, including Canada, as the norms of the treaty become more deeply entrenched.

It won’t be long before a number of countries that currently claim protection from an ally’s nuclear weapons have the courage and good sense to break from the pack and join this treaty. And that in itself will be a very important contribution to disarmament. It will help erode the perception that nuclear weapons are somehow legitimate in certain hands.

The United States and other nuclear-armed countries rely very much on their allies’ support in making their weapons seem acceptable. Every time that Canada votes against nuclear disarmament at the United Nations—which is alarmingly often—it offers tacit endorsement to the nuclear-armed states’ behaviour. I hope Canada will soon become part of the solution, not the problem, as it currently is. Its accession to this treaty will help build pressure and momentum for disarmament.

Decisionmakers should remember that this treaty isn’t going away. It’s an integral part of the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime and will remain so permanently. Canada will eventually feel compelled to join it. Reason and humanity will ultimately prevail.

CJ: Has the TPNW already yielded benefits, in your view?

TW: Yes, we are already seeing benefits, even before its entry into force.

First and foremost, the treaty has helped reframe the debate on nuclear weapons. It has set a clear new international standard that never under any circumstances is it acceptable for any country to use, develop, or possess nuclear weapons. That standard didn’t previously exist in international law. This is an important starting point for meaningful action on disarmament.

We have also seen some quite tangible benefits emanating from the treaty’s adoption. For example, a number of major financial institutions have decided to define nuclear weapons for the first time as “controversial weapons” and consequently exclude nuclear-weapon producers from their investment portfolios. Previously, they had overlooked nuclear weapons—despite their devastating humanitarian impacts—because they were not subject to a comprehensive global ban.

Over the past few years, I think, we have also seen much greater parliamentary activity in support of nuclear disarmament. For example, in Belgium earlier this year, a motion to expel U.S. nuclear weapons from Belgian territory and join the ban treaty was put forward—and only very narrowly defeated. The closeness of the vote spooked many of those working hard to preserve the nuclear status quo in Europe. It demonstrates the great potential for change. I hope this parliamentary initiative, though unsuccessful in the immediate sense, will inspire parliamentarians in other NATO member states to act.

CJ: Have you observed any interesting trends, regional or otherwise, concerning signature and ratification dynamics?

TW: The treaty enjoys very strong support in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. These three regions are leading the way with ratifications. It also enjoys significant support across much of Asia and throughout Africa. For most countries, joining the treaty is an obvious move, given their longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons.

European countries have so far been the slowest to join, due in large part to the pressure exerted by the United States on its NATO allies. But sooner or later, NATO members will act out of principle—and indeed in their own interests—and start signing up.

CJ: Will ICAN’s focus on treaty universalization continue after the TPNW enters into force?

TW: Yes. It’s not enough to have just 50 countries on board. We need every last country. That’s how we’ll eliminate nuclear weapons and ensure they’re never produced again. So ICAN will certainly be working to ensure that the remaining supporters—those that voted to adopt the treaty in 2017—complete their ratification processes.

At the same time, we will be strengthening our campaigning in countries that are not yet supportive of the treaty. We will continue presenting the clear and compelling humanitarian case for disarmament until our leaders are willing to act.

CJ: No nuclear-armed states have yet signed on to the TPNW. How do you respond to critics who challenge the value of the treaty on this basis?

TW: The nuclear-armed states strenuously resisted the adoption of this treaty. They protested outside the UN General Assembly hall when the negotiations began in early 2017. And now they’re working energetically to discourage countries from joining.

If they thought this treaty would have no effect on them, they would be responding with a shrug. But, quite evidently, they understand very well the power and stigmatizing effect of international legal norms. They’re fearful of the pressure this treaty will create once in force and once ratified by the vast majority of the world’s countries.

That pressure won’t just come from the rest of the international community. There will be domestic pressure, too. We are already witnessing this pressure in some of the nuclear-armed states. In the United States, for example, several state legislatures and major city councils have endorsed the treaty, helping shift the national debate away from a limited “nonproliferation” agenda and toward an “abolitionist” agenda. Even if the present leadership in these countries is unwilling to embrace the treaty, activity of this kind will set the stage for future administrations to chart a radically different course.

CJ: Do you think a non-nuclear-weapon state that is a member of NATO could join the TPNW in the foreseeable future? Is there an inherent incompatibility between NATO membership and the TPNW?

TW: I think it’s inevitable. And when the first NATO state joins, others will quickly follow.

There’s no incompatibility between this treaty and being a member of NATO. That is clear. The negotiators of the treaty took great care to ensure that countries could remain in alliances with nuclear-armed states. But they must agree never under any circumstances to encourage or assist a nuclear-armed state to use, threaten to use, or possess nuclear weapons.

There’s much scholarship in support of the conclusion that NATO members face no legal impediment to joining the treaty. Their decision not to join the treaty is purely political. Of course, most of the leaders and policymakers in these countries don’t seriously believe that U.S. nuclear weapons make them safer. But they’re so afraid of ruffling feathers that they just sit back and say nothing. They’ve calculated that the cost of doing the right thing is greater than the cost of doing nothing. But a popular movement in support of the treaty could quickly change that calculus.

CJ: Are you aware of TPNW opponents who actively pressure other states not to join the treaty?

TW: Yes. We regularly receive reports from diplomats that the nuclear-armed states—in particular, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—have aggressively lobbied them not to join. In many cases, the nuclear-armed states have preyed on countries that are heavily reliant on their aid.

But this kind of pressure has on occasion backfired, as it has prompted leaders to pay greater attention to the treaty and to take a stand. They resent being told what to do or not do, especially by former colonial masters. Ultimately, governments are accountable to their own citizens, not answerable to their powerful allies or former colonizers. Many diplomats have also reported that the pressure has disappeared as soon as their countries have ratified the treaty.

CJ: How do you understand the relationship between the TPNW and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)? Complementary? Competing? Mutually exclusive? Must governments and/or civil society make choices about which process to support or where to expend energy and resources?

TW: Those who negotiated the Non-Proliferation Treaty more than half a century ago quite clearly envisaged the need, at some point in the future, for additional, complementary instruments to advance disarmament. This is apparent in the text of the treaty itself and in the negotiating records.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, adopted in 1996, is one such instrument. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is another. All of these instruments are mutually reinforcing. No one is arguing that past agreements should now be abandoned. Any government that says it’s committed to the NPT and therefore can’t support the TPNW is just misleading its citizens. This is an excuse for inaction.

We often hear nuclear-armed states make the extraordinary accusation that supporters of the TPNW are somehow undermining the NPT. But the TPNW is a much-needed reinforcement to the NPT. And the countries actually undermining the NPT are the nuclear-armed states, which continue to invest many billions of dollars each year in upgrades to their nuclear forces, with plans to retain them for decades to come.

CJ: The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is closer to midnight; the Iran nuclear deal is all but dead; the North Korea nuclear situation remains unresolved; the strategic relationship between Russia and the United States is increasingly challenging. These ingredients seem to contribute to a recipe for despair about the prospects for nuclear disarmament. How and why do you remain hopeful? Where do you see progress happening?

TW: There are many reasons for deep concern and alarm. Multilateralism and the international rule of law are seriously under threat. But times of crisis can lead to transformative change of the kind we so desperately need.

I hope that these very troubling developments serve as a wakeup call to decisionmakers in Canada and elsewhere. We can’t idly watch as others take reckless steps that heighten the risk of nuclear weapons being used again, whether by accident, miscalculation, or design.

I remain optimistic for the future because I know that most people do support our cause and do care passionately about preserving our one precious home. And most countries don’t want to see a recurrence of the atrocities of 1945. I see each new signature and ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a small step toward our goal.

CJ: Analyses of the nuclear disarmament regime tend to focus on government policies and doctrines. What about grassroots movements, civil society advocacy, and public opinion? How influential are these in shaping the nuclear-disarmament landscape?

TW: Organized public resistance to nuclear weapons over the past seven decades has had a profound impact, without a doubt. I think many more governments would have gone down the path of developing nuclear weapons had it not been for the overwhelming public opposition.

I think the significant decline in the number of nuclear weapons in the world since the 1980s can be attributed to the global anti-nuclear movement. And I think fear of the public outrage and revulsion that would undoubtedly follow any nuclear attack has served as a major deterrent, so to speak. Many past leaders have spoken candidly about the effect of the disarmament movement on their thinking.

In recent years, the global coalition of organizations that came together under the umbrella of ICAN certainly helped catalyze the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which the Norwegian Nobel Committee acknowledged. And I believe it will be a civil-society movement that brings countries like Canada onboard with this treaty, as our elected representatives are unlikely to show leadership in the absence of public pressure.

CJ: Do you think the renewed attention to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has influenced public discourse and attitudes about the threat of nuclear weapons? How?

TW: Yes, it has. You will notice that opponents of disarmament typically speak of nuclear weapons in very abstract terms. Rarely do they discuss what the weapons do to people and the environment. In fact, often they avoid referring to weapons at all. The weapons are reduced to a mere concept: deterrence.

Look, for example, at the British government’s policy documents on nuclear weapons, and the term “nuclear deterrent” is invariably used, not nuclear weapons. Journalists unthinkingly embrace this language, and it becomes the accepted terminology. But it is just propaganda. It is part of a deliberate effort to make the public feel more comfortable with the retention—on their behalf—of instruments designed to inflict human suffering on a massive scale.

The concerted effort over the past decade or so by ICAN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many governments to put humanitarian concerns at the forefront of the debate on nuclear weapons has helped to demonstrate the urgency of action. I think many people have started to think more about what these weapons actually are, and to consider seriously the profound impact they would have across borders and generations, how they would affect the global economy, agriculture, food security, migration, and so on. More and more often, people are questioning the myths promoted by their governments.

CJ: What might be a best-case scenario concerning the status and impact of the TPNW over the next five years?

TW: The treaty will enter into force and continue to attract several new adherents each year. A number of NATO countries will have the courage to come onboard, which in turn will lead to the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. Nuclear-armed states will feel much greater pressure than ever before to comply with their disarmament obligations, and new political pathways will open in these states to make serious progress toward eliminating their arsenals. A major divestment campaign will make involvement in the production of nuclear weapons unprofitable and a major liability for any publicly listed company. And serious steps will be taken to begin the long and difficult task of addressing the ongoing human and environmental harm inflicted by decades of nuclear testing around the world.

CJ: What would you say to the leaders of nuclear-armed states if you could address them?

TW: These weapons don’t make your country safe. They make it less safe. They make us all less safe. Disarm and you will be celebrated for it.

Remember that the vast majority of the world’s nations don’t have nuclear weapons and don’t want to have them. All countries have security challenges of some sort. Yours are not unique, and they are certainly not addressed by having nuclear weapons.

Don’t wait for these weapons to be used again before finally doing something to get rid of them. Any use will be a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale we’ve never seen before. Even if you have no direct involvement, you will unavoidably bear some responsibility, for you and your government have promoted the very sick idea that these are acceptable weapons.

They are not. They are the most anti-human devices ever invented.

Photo: ICAN members react as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is adopted in July 2017. Credit: Clare Conboy

Spread the Word