The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: A Step Forward or Pure Symbolism?

Published on 27 January 2021 at 12:03

On the 22nd of January 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force with 86 signatories, having been adopted in 2017 with 52 party states including Ireland. Activists have hailed the treaty as a significant step forward in denuclearisation while others, noting that none of the nuclear-armed states have joined it, have dismissed the treaty as little more than “symbolic”. This article will briefly explore past diplomatic efforts to reduce the risk of global nuclear annihilation before taking a closer look at this latest treaty and what it means for denuclearisation efforts going forward.


Prior to this recent treaty, the most comprehensive treaty seeking to tackle the spread of nuclear weapons was the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or NPT), which entered into force in 1970. This treaty was designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons following decades of build-up by the nuclear powers, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union. The treaty envisioned the parties disarming their nuclear arsenals and using nuclear power exclusively for peaceful means. As of 2021, the NPT has been ratified or acceded by each state represented in the UN except for India, Pakistan, Israel and South Sudan, with North Korea withdrawing in 2003 following the development of its nuclear weapons programme.


Over the last few decades, the number of nuclear weapons have decreased from its peak of over 70,000 to an estimated 13,410 today, of which 3,650 are operable. This process of denuclearisation has been advanced further by bilateral denuclearisation treaties between the US and USSR (and later the Russian Federation) including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and its successors, START II and START III.


This latest treaty is much larger in scope and ambition compared to the NPT in that it aims to eliminate stockpiles of nuclear weapons in their entirety. Parties who sign the treaty are prohibited from developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring or using nuclear weapons. They are also prohibited from threatening to use nuclear weapons or assisting other countries in developing them.


There are also provisions included for states who currently hold nuclear weapons under Article 4 of the treaty. Such provisions set out procedures related to timelines for decommissioning nuclear weapons and the verification of such by independent authorities. Finally, Article 6 obliges parties to provide assistance and rehabilitation to victims of nuclear weapons (who live under the relevant jurisdictions). This includes victims of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in addition to those affected by the thousands of nuclear weapons tests that have taken place since the Second World War.


In another contrast to the NPT, this treaty has, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered much less support in comparison to its predecessor, with none of the nuclear-armed states signing the treaty, and a large number of non-nuclear states (including all members of NATO) also refusing to become party to the agreement. This has led some to dismissing the treaty as “symbolic” and thus lacking any real teeth compared to its predecessor. However, it remains legally binding on those parties who have signed it and states may opt to join it at any point in the future, thus representing a significant step forward in the goal of eliminating the threat of global nuclear catastrophe.


In addition, activists and leaders hope that the treaty will gain further traction, gain signatories and eventually pressure holders of nuclear weapons to destroy their arsenals. This is bolstered by a requirement under Article 12 for parties to encourage other states to join and ratify the treaty. In an example of activist pressure, Catholic bishops in Australia have called on the government to join the treaty in order to promote global peace.


However, significant hurdles remain for those seeking an end to the existence of nuclear weapons. In the last few years, North Korea has gained nuclear weapons capable of being launched thousands of kilometres and the United States has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or the Iran nuclear deal) which was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


Further, Russian president Vladimir Putin has endorsed a new policy of nuclear deterrence which would allow for nuclear weapons to be deployed in response to non-nuclear strikes. Finally, India, a nuclear power, has indicated that it will not join the treaty in the near future, despite claiming to be in favour of nuclear disarmament.


In spite of these hurdles, however, activists will take hope in the fact that, while the treaty has so far gained a mere 86 signatories, it passed the United Nations General Assembly with 122 states voting in its favour. This may give activists and political leaders greater impetus to push for further denuclearisation and the eventual cessation of the existence of nuclear weapons

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