Today, many around the world will celebrate the first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty to enter into force in 50 years.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 and finally reached the milestone of 50 ratifications in October. The countries that have signed and ratified include Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Nigeria and Thailand.
The treaty completes the suite of international bans on all major weapons considered unacceptable because of their indiscriminate and inhumane effects, including anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, biological and chemical weapons.
The countries that have signed the TPNW were fed up with over half a century of the nuclear-armed states flouting their obligation to rid the world of their weapons. They have asserted the interests of humanity and global democracy in a way the nuclear-armed states were powerless to stop.
It is certainly long overdue for the most cruel and destructive weapons of all — nuclear weapons — to be banned. But this treaty is a sign of hope — a necessary and important step toward a less destructive planet.
The aim of the treaty is a comprehensive and categorical ban of nuclear weapons. It binds signatories not to develop, test, produce, acquire, have control of, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
States also cannot “assist, encourage or induce” anyone to engage in any activity prohibited under the treaty — essentially anything to do with nuclear weapons.
The TPNW strengthens the current nuclear safeguards found in the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by requiring all states that join to have comprehensive provisions in place and not allowing states to weaken their existing safeguards.
The treaty provides the first legally binding multilateral framework for a process by which all nations can work toward eliminating nuclear weapons.
For instance, states with another nation’s nuclear weapons stationed on their territory must remove them.
States with nuclear weapons can “destroy then join” the treaty, or “join then destroy”. They must irreversibly dismantle their weapons, as well as the programs and facilities to produce them, subject to agreed timelines and verification by an international authority.
Further, the TPNW is the first treaty to commit member nations to provide long-neglected assistance for the victims of atomic bombs and weapon testing. It also calls for nations to clean up environments contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing, where feasible.
Currently, 86 nations have signed the TPNW, and 51 have ratified it (meaning they are bound by its provisions). The treaty now becomes part of international law, and the number of signatories and ratifications will continue to grow.
However, none of the nine nuclear powers — the US, China, Russia, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — have yet signed or ratified the treaty.
Many other countries that rely on other nations’ nuclear weapons for their security, such as the 27 members of NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea, have also not signed.
So, why does the treaty matter given these states currently oppose it? And what effect can we expect the treaty to have on them?
While any treaty is technically only binding on the states that join it, the TPNW establishes a new international legal standard against which all nuclear policies will now be judged.
The treaty, in short, is a game-changer, and the nuclear-armed and dependent countries have been put on notice. They know the treaty jeopardises their claimed right to continue to threaten the planet with their weapons, as well as their plans to modernise and maintain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely.
The strength of their opposition is a measure of the treaty’s importance. It will have implications for everything from defence policies and military plans to weapons manufacturing to financial investments in the companies that profit from making now illegal nuclear weapons.
For example, a growing number of banks, pension funds and insurance companies around the world are now divesting from companies that build nuclear weapons.
These include the Norwegian Pension Fund (the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund), ABP (Europe’s largest pension fund), Deutsche Bank, Belgium’s largest bank KBC, Resona Holdings, Kyushu Financial Group and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group in Japan, and the Japanese insurance companies Nippon Life, Dai-ichi Life, Meiji-Yasuda and Fukoku Mutual.
Would joining the treaty mean nations like Australia, Japan, South Korea and NATO members would have to end their military cooperation with nuclear-armed states like the US?
No. There is nothing in the TPNW that prevents military cooperation with a nuclear-armed state, provided nuclear weapons activities are excluded.
Countries like New Zealand and Kazakhstan have already demonstrated that joining the treaty is fully compatible with ongoing military cooperation with, respectively, the US and Russia.
In a recent letter urging their governments to join the treaty, 56 former presidents, prime ministers and defence and foreign ministers from these nations said
By claiming protection from nuclear weapons, we are promoting the dangerous and misguided belief that nuclear weapons enhance security.
As states parties, we could remain in alliances with nuclear-armed states, as nothing in the treaty itself nor in our respective defence pacts precludes that.
But we would be legally bound never under any circumstances to assist or encourage our allies to use, threaten to use or possess nuclear weapons. Given the very broad popular support in our countries for disarmament, this would be an uncontroversial and much-lauded move.
The signatories include two former NATO secretaries-general, Willy Claes and Javier Solana.
Ban treaties have been proven to work with other outlawed weapons — landmines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons. They have provided the basis and motivation for progressive efforts to control and eliminate these weapons. They are now significantly less produced, deployed and used, even by states that haven’t joined the treaties.
We can achieve the same result with nuclear weapons. As Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow said at the UN after the treaty was adopted,
This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will finally come into force after the 50th country (Honduras) ratified it over the weekend. The treaty will make the development, testing, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons illegal for those countries that have signed it.
This is an extraordinary achievement for those who have suffered the most from these weapons — including the hibakusha (survivors) of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the islanders who lived through nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Since 1956, the hibakusha in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere have been some of the most strident campaigners against the use of these weapons. Among them is a group of Japanese Catholics from Nagasaki whom I interviewed as part of my research collecting the oral histories of atomic bomb survivors.
A 92-year-old hibakusha of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a brother in a Catholic order, Ozaki Tōmei, explained the significance of the treaty to survivors like him. He was orphaned from the bombing at 17 and never found his mother’s body.
The Germans made tools for war including poisonous gas, which was [eventually] banned […] However, when the USA made an atomic weapon, then they … wanted to try it out. It was a war […] they were human.
And so this is why we say we have to eliminate nuclear weapons […] They said they did it to end the war, but for the people who were struck, it was horrific […] there was no need to use it.
The treaty was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by a vote of 122 nations in favour, one against and one abstention.
Sixty-nine nations, however, have not signed it, including all of the nuclear powers such as the US, UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea, as well as NATO member states (apart from the Netherlands who voted against), Japan and Australia.
Since the treaty was adopted, it needed ratification by 50 countries to come into force. This will now happen in 90 days.
The campaign for the treaty has relied heavily on civil society and organisations such as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
And from the beginning, it has exposed political fault lines. The United States has been particularly outspoken in its opposition to the treaty, warning last week the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT sought to prevent the spread of nuclear arms beyond the five original weapons powers (the US, Russia, China, UK and France). It has been signed by 190 countries, including those five nations.
The head of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, says the new treaty banning nuclear weapons merely builds on the nonproliferation treaty.
There’s no way you can undermine the nonproliferation treaty by banning nuclear weapons. It’s the end goal of the nonproliferation treaty.
States like Japan and Australia have opposed the treaty on the grounds their security is boosted by the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said the treaty
was created without taking into account the realities of security.
Making the bomb illegal turns an old US justification for the weapon on its head. Harry Stimson, the former US war secretary, argued in 1947 the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to compel the Japanese to surrender at the end of the second world war.
The atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.
At the forefront of the campaign to support the nuclear weapons ban treaty have been the voices of hibakusha who experienced the carnage firsthand.
Another Catholic hibakusha, Nakamura Kazutoshi, told me the stockpiling of nuclear weapons enables states to carry out genocide.
In war, we are at a level below animals. Among monkeys, or chimpanzees, there are no animals who would carry out a genocide.
A third hibakusha, 90-year-old Jōji Fukahori, told me about how he lost his mother and three younger siblings in the Nagasaki bombing.
His younger brother, Kōji, died an excruciating death around a week after the bombing, walking in the hot ash with no shoes and complaining to his brother, “I’m so hot!”
At the site where Fukahori’s brother was exposed, the temperature was about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Fukahori said,
You would have thought everyone would have turned into charcoal.
For Fukahori, the lasting effects of radiation exposure is a major reason why nuclear weapons must be banned. He continued:
the terror of radiation has to be fully communicated … The atomic bomb is unacceptable. I still cannot get over it.
Since 2009, Fukahori has been speaking out at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and on the Peace Boat, a non-governmental organisation that organises cruises where passengers learn about the consequences of using nuclear weapons from hibakusha.
The Japanese government is now under mounting pressure to ratify the treaty. Major Japanese financial institutions and companies have said they will no longer fund the production of nuclear weapons and nearly a third of all local assemblies have adopted proposals calling on the government to act.
The government, however, has been unmoved. In August, Abe gave a speech at a memorial service in Nagasaki, in which he suggested the effects of the bombings had been overcome.
Seventy-five years ago today, Nagasaki was reduced to ashes, with not a single tree or blade of grass remaining. Yet through the efforts of its citizens, it achieved reconstruction beautifully as we see today. Mindful of this, we again feel strongly that there is no trial that cannot be overcome and feel acutely how precious peace is.
A Japanese atomic researcher, who knows how Fukahori and other hibakusha have not been able to move on, told me Abe’s words don’t go far enough:
Rather than placing a ‘full-stop’ at the end of damages such as this, we have a necessity to make our claim that the damages are not finished.
The nuclear weapons ban treaty offers a moment of hope for all the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still with us after 75 years. It is certainly their hope the ratification of the treaty now moves us one step closer to a world free of nuclear war.