The United Nations has officially banned nuclear weapons, although important holdings like the US and Russia might make that difficult for that to happen.
On Saturday, Honduras became the 50th country to sign Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which proponents say would create an international legal framework for nuclear dismantling. It will take effect on January 22, 2021.
The UN first approved the TPNW in 2017 when 122 members of its 193 members voted in support of its implementation. Iran supports. The nine nuclear-armed nations – including the United States and North Korea – are boycotting the negotiations, and the US has called on these countries to step down. Three years later, 50 countries have ratified the treaty and gave it the ability to become part of international law.
The elimination of nuclear weapons has been a goal of the United Nations since its founding in 1945, following the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, the organization said that the Security Council will work towards “the elimination of the national arsenal of atomic weapons and all other major weapons which can adapt to mass destruction.” Seventy-four years later, TPNW is trying to do just that.
According to the terms of the treaty, all states parties must report to the United Nations the status of their nuclear power 30 days in the agreement that comes into force. Even if a country hosts another country’s nuclear weapons, that country must report it. Any state that hosts nuclear for another must remove it.
The agreement also seeks justice for those harmed by nuclear weapons, such as survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or survivors of nuclear tests in France or the Marshall Islands. According to the agreement, member states must also “take necessary and appropriate actions” to improve the environment in affected areas.
This could hypothetically compel the United States to do so repairing the plutonium-leaking nuclear tomb he left in the Marshall Islands, although, again, the US has not signed the treaty.
The agreement’s ratification has become a major problem for nuclear test survivors.
“When I was 17 years old, the French government tested nuclear weapons 170 kilometers from my house. It’s like an earthquake. Now 60 years later people are still sick, babies are still born with deformities and the French government still won’t tell us how much waste is under our sand, “Touhami Abdelkrim, a survivor of the French nuclear test in Algeria, told the press. “We have never asked for these weapons to poison our children. All we ask is that France acknowledge what they have done, and join forces with other countries to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
More than 13,000 nuclear warheads still exist in the world, and 90 percent of them belong to the United States and Russia.
“It is true that a nuclear ban treaty cannot be the last vehicle for disarmament without the participation of nuclear powers; however, a nuclear ban treaty can still increase the political, economic and security costs of relying on nuclear weapons even for countries that do not join the treaty, ”Jennifer Knox, Policy and Research Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists – the men behind the Hour of Judgment – notify Motherboard by email. “The aim of the nuclear prohibition movement is to stigmatize nuclear weapons, incentivizing nuclear-armed states to take further steps towards reduction and elimination.”
Some experts are cold on the treaty, however, pointing to abstention from major nuclear powers and the failure of existing agreements.
“This is not an agreement we want, but it is an agreement we deserve,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said by telephone. “The US and its allies refuse to participate in this project. As a result, I think there is a flaw in the agreement. The problem with the agreement is that it exists as an alternative to a non-proliferation treaty.”
Lewis said the goals of the agreement were noble and he didn’t blame the UN for its shortcomings. “Look, we have to ban nuclear weapons,” he said. “It’s not clear to me that this agreement, as written, represents a viable path to doing that. I want to make it clear that I don’t blame the people who made the agreements. I blame the US and other nuclear-powered nations for refusing to participate. “
However, it seems clear that nuclear armed nations have been informed by the new agreement.
“You can’t say P5 [U.N. shorthand for the countries with officially declared nuclear weapons] not bothered by [new treaty]—The US letter encouraging countries to withdraw from the agreement proves that this is not the case, ”Jessica Sleight, Program Director for Global Zero – a nonprofit advocating for a nuclear-free world – told Motherboard by email.
While all nuclear-powered nations are boycotting the negotiations, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a Cold War-era treaty aimed at dismantling nuclear weapons over time, still stands. The United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China have all signed the NPT.
“I think P5 needs to refrain from claims that the treaty will undermine the regime of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It doesn’t have to be a problem. P5 should take it as an additional boost to reignite efforts at arms control and disarmament and make real, actionable progress towards their Article VI commitment, the lack of progress that is a real threat to the NPT, ”said Sleight.
According to Sleight, the growing nuclear arms race between the US and Russia is demanding a new treaty. He pointed to the importance of the Iran Agreement and a New Beginning as essential to achieving widespread disarmament.
New START is an Obama-era agreement between Russia and the United States that aims to limit the number of warheads deployed. It is set to expire in February unless renewed, and negotiations are not going well. Trump said he wanted China to be part of the negotiations. China has shown that it has about 300 nukes whereas Russia and the US have more than 12,000 combined. Both Russia and the US have tfacilitated the development of new types of nuclear weapons in recent years.
Lewis said the new agreement was part of a split he saw at the United Nations
“This reflects a hardening of positions, the feeling that is growing among non-nuclear weapons states – which I agree with – that the existing mechanisms are not functioning,” he said. “And the growing complacency on the part of nuclear weapons suggests that they should not take seriously their obligation to work towards disarmament.”
Knox agrees that the US, Russia and others are not acting in good faith when it comes to nuclear weapons. “Many non-nuclear countries believe that nuclear powers are not fulfilling their treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith,” he said, adding that these tensions predate the nuclear ban movement.
Sleight is more hopeful. “That [new treaty] intended to close the legality gap by imposing a ban on nuclear weapons based on humanitarian law, “he said. “While nuclear weapons would be illegal in the countries that signed and ratified the treaty, there are questions as to whether the treaty, especially in its early stages, is sufficient to make nuclear weapons illegal under customary international law. The requirements for such distinctions are unclear, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the International Court of Justice. “
It will take years, and possibly trials in the International Court of Justice, to gauge the impact of the agreement. But for those who survived nuclear weapons, the effects were immediate and clear.
“When I found out that we reached our 50th ratification, I couldn’t stand up. I stayed on the chair and put my head in my hands and I cried with joy, ”Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing, said in a press release. “I have given my life for the abolition of nuclear weapons. I just thank all those who have worked towards the success of our covenants. “