Support a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

It is every country’s responsibility to ensure that we end the threat of nuclear weapons before the world sees another nuclear detonation. Over the past six years, an increased focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has emerged in multilateral nuclear disarmament discussions and has led to a strong push by non-nuclear armed states to jumpstart an international process to prohibit nuclear weapons.

While President Obama’s administration chose to oppose this process, the [Trump] administration should recognize it as a legitimate international concern and support a ban on nuclear weapons. After all, numerous U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, supported the elimination of nuclear weapons. If the United States were to give its support to this new endeavor, it would go a long way towards reaffirming the United States’ commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and international humanitarian law.

While concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons have always existed, Jakob Kellenberger, the former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was instrumental in bringing this issue to the forefront of the international nuclear weapons discussion. Just a few weeks before the 2010 NPT Review Conference, Mr. Kellenberger emphasized that, “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.”

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, all state parties (including the United States) agreed by consensus to express “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons,” and affirmed the need to make “special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”

With this new focus on humanitarian consequences, a new movement called the “humanitarian initiative” emerged. States organized three international conferences dedicated to examining the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and the legal framework that governs these weapons.

Simultaneously, an ever-increasing number of states signed up to cross-regional statements expressing concerns about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, 159 states expressed concerns over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use and declared, “it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.”

The humanitarian initiative has become the most dynamic movement for engaging the public, exploring new constituencies and re-energizing civil society around the issue of nuclear weapons in the past several decades.

It has provided an outlet for the frustration that many feel regarding the very limited progress on global nuclear disarmament and the lack of political will among nuclear-armed states to make meaningful moves towards a world without nuclear weapons.

The prohibition of weapons typically precedes their elimination, not the other way around. For example, prohibitions of biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions have been essential steps in ongoing efforts toward eliminating these weapons. Considering the evolution of international humanitarian law since nuclear weapons were first developed and the fact that by almost any definition the use of nuclear weapons would be incredibly destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate, it remains unacceptable that nuclear weapons are not yet prohibited.

While nuclear-armed states remain opposed to a treaty banning nuclear weapons, it can still be undertaken by non-nuclear weapon states. Of course, like the biological and chemical weapons conventions, a nuclear weapons ban would allow nations with stockpiles of these weapons to join so long as they agree to eliminate them within a specified timeframe. Once such nations have joined, agreements could be developed over time to ensure that stockpiles are destroyed in a verifiable and irreversible manner.

If nuclear-armed states won’t participate, the treaty process would still allow states in any part of the world to formalize their rejection of nuclear weapons and help create a clear international legal norm against the possession of nuclear weapons.

By changing the way the world perceives nuclear weapons, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would have meaningful impact beyond those states that may formally adopt such an instrument at the beginning. The ban treaty, once in force, could challenge the notion that possessing nuclear weapons is legitimate for some states. It would have both normative and practical impacts on those states that stand inside and for those states outside it.

A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons could have significant benefits for the United States.

For example, through the devaluation of nuclear weapons and the emergence of a new international norm against their possession, a ban treaty could create better conditions for nuclear disarmament, which the United States has supported as a goal for decades. If nuclear weapons were considered less attractive, as a potential risk of humanitarian catastrophe instead of an essential security tool, incentives for states wanting to develop them or spending billions of dollars to modernize them would be reduced.

With more external pressure and expectations of progress on nuclear-armed states, a ban treaty would work to reinforce other efforts championed by the United States, such as the ratification of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and further bilateral agreements to reduce nuclear arsenals.

But a nuclear weapons ban treaty could also be an effective tool to further the U.S. non-proliferation agenda. Many non-nuclear weapon states have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because of the “bargain” contained in the treaty. States promise to not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the promise of nuclear-armed states to disarm their weapons. But a ban would prohibit nuclear weapons universally, and thereby strengthen the NPT and make it a more powerful tool to prevent proliferation. A ban treaty, with or without the participation of the United States, would be an effective measure for the international community to pressure all non-nuclear armed states to fully reject nuclear weapons forever.

Banning nuclear weapons is not the same as eliminating them. But a treaty banning nuclear weapons would be the most significant change to the status quo on nuclear weapons and could become a catalyst for progress on nuclear disarmament and arms control in the coming decades. While the dismantlement of all nuclear arsenals might be a long process, a clear international rejection of these weapons would be an essential component of any future disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.

--Beatrice Fihn is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The Nuclear Ban Treaty was passed by the U.N. General Assembly 122 nations on July 7, 2017.

The Nobel Committee awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN on October 6, 2017, "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"

More resources

--“Nuclear Policy in a Time of Crisis,” a day-long, live streamed, in-depth briefing on nuclear weapons policy. This event will be live streamed on the Ploughshares Fund Facebook page here.

--“The World Should Listen to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates,” by Michael Douglas for Time Magazine, October 10, 2017 here.

--“Banning nuclear weapons: the moment of truth has arrived” by Tilman Ruff for Kyodo News, October 17, 2017 here.

--“‘Living on Borrowed Time’: Eliminate Nuclear Arms” by Ira Helfand for The New York Times, October 11, 2017 here.

--“A Peace Prize That Honors the Quest” by The New York Times Editorial Board, October 9, 2017 here.

--“The world has nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize honors the quest to abolish all of them.” by Michael Birnbaum for The Washington Post, October 6, 2017 here.

--“Ban treaty a significant milestone” by Jonathan Granoff for New Straits Times, October 5, 2017 here.

--“More Than Paper: How Nuclear Ban-Treaty Advocates Can Really Advance Disarmament” by Jon Wolfsthal for War on the Rocks, October 4, 2017 here.

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