ICAN do it: Nuclear Weapons Ban Made Official with a 50th UN Signatory!

by: Raihan Woodhouse

Picture Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

On January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons [TPNW] will be in effect. The UN has come closer than ever before to ensure peace and security across the globe regarding nuclear weapons. In August, the 75th anniversary of the atoming of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was honoured with numerous countries ratifying the treaty. Within a month  Honduras became the 50th signatory of the TPNW in October. Unlike the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], the TPNW is the first of its kind to completely abolish nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, though, given the current state of global affairs, this piece of news may prompt one to bring out the confetti with a grain of salt. Out of the 50 signatories of the TPNW, none of the five Nuclear Weapon States [NWS]: China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have signed the treaty. Over the years, the UN’s credibility has been tainted with criticism over “minimalist diplomacy” and the effectiveness of its actions and policies; as well as its ability to enforce and uphold the standards as specified in its policies. Overall, the TPNW presents the UN with a colossal test; but with every test comes opportunities. The UN has the opportunity to confront its critics and assure its place as the global governing body responsible for international security. Yet we must still ask: how effective is the TPNW without the signatories of the five NWS nations? Is the UN capable of upholding its firm stance on denuclearization?

Previous actions the UN took for the purpose of  nuclear disarmament was most prevalent during the Cold War, especially in the 70s, when the NPT came into effect. Immediately after the ratification of the NPT, critics have been quick to voice their concerns. Many Low Income Countries [LICs] argued that the treaty kept the balance of global power in favour of nuclear states, citing that it is “a conspiracy of the nuclear ‘haves’ to keep the nuclear ‘have-nots’ in their place.” Stemming from Article VI of the treaty which “obligates the nuclear weapons states to liquidate their nuclear stockpiles and pursue complete disarmament,” non-nuclear states have observed that NWS did not comply with their disarmament obligations. Altogether, the nuclear armed states have an accumulated 13,500 warheads and have each shown reluctance to disarm further. Thus, with minimal evidence of progress in disarmament, the treaty’s overall effectiveness was questioned. In 1996, the International Court of Justice highlighted in its advisory opinion on the legality of the nuclear weapons utilization that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith … nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” However, the ICJ failed to recognize that not every nation prioritizes the interest of the global community over that of their own country.  This is because the possession of nuclear weapons represents military and financial superiority as well as technological ingeniousness over other nations, which would directly result in diplomatic and geopolitical authority. 

The reluctance to disarm is evident with four UN member states who never accepted the NPT, primarily three that are believed to (or already) possess nuclear weapons: India, Israel, and Pakistan. This is because the call for disarmament was limited to the nations who signed and there was neither further incentive for, nor supervisional effect on, non-signatories. Unsurprisingly, the five authorized NWS—P5 members of the UNSC and victors of WWII—also resisted the treaty. As global superpowers, the P5 states often manipulate the international community to serve their own interest and ambition; for this reason, the dynamic between the P5 and the UN has long been criticized as unbalanced. As these powers are unwilling to potentially reduce their global superiority (as demonstrated through nuclear weapons possession), the UN’s relevance in global politics has decreased over time. Furthermore, the deterioration of relations among the big powers has been exacerbated as China, Russia, and the US confront each other in conflicts globally. As a result, through the NPT, the UN restricted its ability to exert power and promote nuclear security with international cooperation. Over the past 50 years, though disarmament has occurred at small scales, complete disarmament was not nearly achieved.

Complete disarmament is the entire purpose of the TPNW. Has the UN improved upon the weaknesses of the NPT in the newly signed TPNW? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the origins of the new treaty for a more comprehensive perspective on the prospect of complete disarmament. The preparation for the new treaty began a decade back, in 2010, when the UN called for a conference to review the NPT. The call for complete disarmament was compounded by major intergovernmental conferences, pushing the agenda in favour of non-nuclear states. The New Agenda Coalition [NAC], a group of nations seeking to build an international consensus on disarmament, coupled with continuous civil pressure from the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons [ICAN], prompted negotiations in the UN. Soon afterwards, a first draft resolution was introduced and voted upon by the General Assembly in 2017. However, in a response from the Trump administration, the NWS and the NATO nations “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the treaty.

NWS would argue that nukes are necessary for instilling peace, and that the TPNW is “a strategic error” that jeopardizes international military and security; but couldn’t peace and security be achieved through its eradication? To that end, the UN has improved upon the NPT in two ways. First, the content of the treaty challenges existing policies, even if NWS opt out of the TPNW. For example, the treaty creates a new obstacle for the NWS to maintain its nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence relationship with allies through Article XVI, which does not permit state parties to join with reservations. As a result, many NATO countries that support the new treaty would be unable to sign it unless it agrees to stop storing nukes for the US. However, the aforementioned incentives calling for countries like the US to disarm do not apply to the question surrounding China’s nuclear ambitions. Technically speaking, China can protect its key interests of cementing themselves as the global superpower by refusing to sign the treaty as the US wanes in power; however, China should prioritize the best interest of global security. Thus, it should actively engage with the NWPT and continue to promote disarmament. Article I within the treaty bans state parties from developing, testing, producing, possessing, stockpiling, transferring, using, and threatening to use nuclear weapons, among other key prohibitions. Despite being a non-signatory, Article I interferes with the interests and policies of China because the legal obligations of current signatories may force them to adopt new policy measures that could create difficulties for China to maintain its current nuclear position. Second, the effect of external factors such as civil/domestic sentiments can help facilitate global disarmament. For instance, campaigners associated with ICAN expect governments and their nuclear agencies “to stop producing nuclear weapons and financial institutions to stop investing in nuclear weapon-producing companies”. Activists are optimistic that the new treaty will have the same impact as previous international treaties dealing with weapons such as landmines; that it would influence a societal stigma to the production, testing, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons. Overall, through further reassurance over the dangers of nuclear weapons, the public perception on nuclear weapons can favour the goal of the UN regarding disarmament.

Conclusively, the UN has augmented its past actions drastically. The clauses of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons better avoid loopholes, engage non-signatories with the treaty’s accompanying effects, and attract reassurance from public opinion. Thus, in due time, the TPNW can assist the UN achieve global nuclear disarmament to a great extent, so long as there are no escalations between the global superpowers. Unfortunately, this historic event has been brushed aside with all else that is going on in the world, but it is important to make note of the magnitude of a 50th signatory being placed on paper. The future for complete nuclear disarmament is bright, so long as the brightness is not from the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

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