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Nuclear Weapons

The U.N. Treaty to Ban the Bomb

February 20, 2018

With a new United Nations treaty, non-nuclear-armed nations present a unified front against nuclear weapons.

Only nine countries in the world have nuclear weapons. But if nuclear war were to break out, the effects would impact the whole world. Radioactive fallout could spread around the globe. Economic fallout would have global repercussions. Climatological fallout—known as “nuclear winter”—could last for decades. Even countries that aren’t involved politically could be devastated.

So shouldn’t countries without nuclear weapons get a say in their use?

A unified front

Specifically, it makes “developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons by any state illegal.”

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—also known as the Ban Treaty—gives non-nuclear weapons states an equal voice in the international conversation about the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. In 2017 the United Nations convened negotiations on a treaty, which was ultimately endorsed by 122 nations. The treaty sets a global standard that makes it clear that nuclear weapons are not acceptable and urges nuclear states to disarm. Specifically, it makes “developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, or stockpiling of nuclear weapons by any state illegal.”

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Why it matters

The treaty only applies to countries that sign it—and it seems unlikely that any of the nuclear-armed countries will sign anytime soon. Most of the nuclear-armed states have reacted negatively, with the United States repudiating the treaty in particularly pointed language. But perhaps this is not surprising. The treaty sends a clear message to those nine nations—and any others considering a nuclear weapons program—that the rest of the world stands against these dangerous weapons.

Signing The U.N. Ban Treaty

It’s part of a long-term strategy towards eliminating weapons of mass destruction by stigmatizing them. This strategy has worked before, with bans on landmines, cluster munitions, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. Weapons that are banned by international treaties lose their legitimacy—which makes them politically unpopular and a risky enterprise. Given enough of these pressures, financial institutions may stop doing business with nuclear weapons producers. The U.N. Ban Treaty aims to turn the tide on nuclear weapons—hopefully, in the coming decades, reliance on these weapons for security will erode.

Coming to an agreement

But progress had been slow since the mid-1980s.

The idea for a Ban Treaty originated with a small group of diplomats, activists, and non-governmental organizations. For decades non-nuclear-armed states had been told by the countries with nuclear weapons to leave negotiations about those weapons to them. But progress had been slow since the mid-1980s. The diplomats believed that it might be possible to write a treaty that would give the nations without nuclear weapons a way of expressing their frustration with the slow pace of nuclear weapons elimination. They partnered with civil society organizations to make the treaty a reality. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) launched officially in Australia in 2007. They spent the next decade building public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons and bringing together a coalition of partner nations and organizations to further the cause.

Nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, in the risks of escalation they create, and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.

Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, addressing the Geneva Diplomatic Corps in 2010

In 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent adopted a resolution that urged nations worldwide to “negotiate a legally binding international agreement to prohibit and completely eliminate nuclear weapons.” In 2012, Switzerland issued a humanitarian statement on nuclear warfare at a U.N. summit in Vienna on behalf of 16 other countries.

The idea began to solidify in a series of international conferences. In 2013, representatives from over 100 countries attended the first conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo, Norway. Subsequent conferences in Nayarit, Mexico and Vienna, Austria drew increasingly large numbers. At the Vienna conference, a Humanitarian Pledge that called for "closing the legal gap" in international law regarding nuclear weapons was approved.

Supporters of the U.N. Ban Treaty rally in Hiroshima, Japan.

Activists in Hiroshima, Japan, rally in support of the U.N. Ban Treaty.

Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

In late 2017, the United Nations officially began negotiating a ban treaty. On July 7, 2017, the treaty was adopted by 122 U.N. member states.

In 2017, ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize for "its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons."

What’s next?

By giving non-nuclear-armed states a voice, the treaty reshapes the international landscape. In the past, we’ve seen that stigmatizing and legally prohibiting classes of weapons leads toward their decline. As more countries continue to sign and ratify the nuclear ban treaty, the nine nuclear nations will, hopefully, have to respond.

Nuclear History: The Current Era

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