Current Affairs

Time to ban nuclear weapons

By J. Enkhsaikhan, Blue Banner NGO

Adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at UN HQ in New York. Photo courtesy of author

On 7 July this year, the text of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted at the United Nations Headquarters. It is the first legally binding instrument on nuclear disarmament that has been negotiated since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago. It was adopted by 122-1-1 votes, with nuclear-weapon states and their allies boycotting altogether the negotiations. Adoption of the treaty marked a major milestone in multilateral efforts to abolish nuclear weapons.
Though the two nuclear-weapon states – USA and Russia – with nearly 95% of the atomic arsenal have reduced their stocks of such weapons of mass destruction, the issue of outlawing nuclear weapons is not on their nuclear agenda. In the meantime, the number of nuclear weapon states has increased from 5 to 9, while modernization of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race are currently underway.
No wonder there is a growing concern about the increasing risks of nuclear weapons with the recent surge of threatening rhetoric and provocative acts. There is a growing frustration with the nuclear-weapon states for not fulfilling their commitments undertaken by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as well as by the understandings reached in the 2000  and 2010 NPT Review Conferences regarding nuclear weapons.  Logically the most reliable way to protect from the risks and horrors of such weapons is to eliminate them altogether. All these have led the vast majority of the international community to push for commencing negotiations to ban nuclear weapons with the final goal of eliminating them.
An important role in calling for such negotiations was played by non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWSs) of Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa, while overwhelming support of other NNWSs was decisive for the General Assembly to mandate international negotiations and adopt the text of the treaty.
The July treaty is a product of compromise. As such, it cannot fully satisfy interests of any one or group of states that participated in the negotiations. Though it will not bring about nuclear disarmament in the immediate future, the treaty’s adoption marks a concrete collective action to launch such a process. It creates a space for NNWSs to be more involved in the issue that directly affects their vital interests. The process would strengthen international norms of nuclear disarmament, widen public support and delegitimize such weapons, as was the case with other weapons of mass destruction and some conventional weapons.
The treaty is in full accordance with the principles and objectives of the United Nations as reflected in its Charter. It is also in accordance with Article VI of the NPT, whereby more than 190 states, including nuclear-weapon states and their allies, have committed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament … under strict and effective international control”. In that sense implementation of the ban treaty would only strengthen the NPT.
However, when the treaty enters into force, its implementation would be a challenging task due to the boycott of nuclear-weapon states and their allies. However, its entry into force would create a new political environment that would stigmatize the hold-out states and eventually realize the emerging new political and legal environment.
It is commendable that the treaty leaves the door open for the boycotters. However, it will take time, patience and enormous efforts of NNWSs to expand the treaty’s membership. Even the NPT did not enjoy wide support when it was first opened for signature and ratification. However, today 191 states are parties to it.
The treaty is a compromise, not a consensus document; some would have preferred it to have stronger provisions on specific issues while others would have wanted to have more ambiguous provisions with the hope to make it acceptable for the hold-out states.
From Mongolia’s perspective, specific reference to the “threat” of use of nuclear weapons is an important provision that directly challenges the concepts of “nuclear deterrence” and “extended deterrence”. The lack of a definition of a nuclear weapon or of a timeframe for removal of nuclear weapons from the territories of states that are not nuclear-weapon states make the treaty provisions somewhat weak.
The role of NNWSs in initiating the ban treaty negotiations and actually drafting the treaty were enormous. However, their role will be even more important in signing and ratifying the treaty in the near future so as to maintain this positive political momentum. That would not be easy due to the position of the nuclear-weapon states and their allies, possible attempts to ‘influence’ policies of NNWSs and discourage any step to bringing the treaty into force. Hence mutual support and cooperation among NNWSs is vital. Likewise, the role of civil society both at the national and international levels would be highly useful, as it was before and during the negotiations.
Once the treaty enters into force, meetings of states parties would become an important mechanism to coordinate further policies of NNWSs to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Any positive action needs to start at the national level, with a decision to sign and ratify the treaty. Also, national law or treaty implementation legislation would reinforce the treaty’s provisions, reflecting at the same time the specifics of that particular state-party. Exchange of information and experience would be useful for the treaty’s effectiveness.
Another group of NNWSs – those that are under nuclear umbrella or are hosting nuclear weapons – can play a unique historic role. As allies of nuclear-weapon states, they have a direct access to them and, instead of supporting their policies or participating in nuclear-war planning, they could steer the policy towards reassessing the role of nuclear weapons in military doctrines. This could be their practical contribution to implementing Article VI of the NPT and promoting the goals of a world without nuclear weapons until they themselves accede to the treaty.

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