Bringing On Pressure: The Treaty On The Prohibition Of Nuclear Weapons


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Dalya Al Masri

Dalya Al Masri is a Palestinian-Canadian graduate from the University of British Columbia who specializes in international relations and political science, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa.
Dalya Al Masri
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On September 26th, 2019, seven states ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, bringing it to 79 signatories and 32 state parties. Kazakhstan’s ratification on August 29th paved the way for countries to follow suit.

Kazakhstan commemorated the International Day against Nuclear Tests by ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), becoming the 26th United Nations member-state to ratify the Treaty. Earlier that month, Bolivia’s ratification meant that there are now more than half as many ratifications as necessary for the TPNW to enter into force. There are a further 44 states that have signed the treaty and that are expected, in the not too distant future, to ratify it. These signatures and ratifications have all occurred in less than two years since the Treaty was first negotiated in September 2017.

What is special about the TPNW is that it is the first treaty that requires all its signatories to “never… develop, produce, manufacture, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons.” This is in contrast to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1970, which divides countries into two classes: nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states, with different obligations for each.

Although Article 6 of the NPT commits all “Parties to the Treaty…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, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” the nuclear-weapon states have not delivered on this commitment and still maintain thousands of nuclear weapons. The international community’s support for the TPNW was prompted by this lack of compliance from the nuclear-armed states.

The TPNW aims to shift the status quo and introduce a new norm in the nuclear world. As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the 2017 Nobel Prize for peace, has argued, “History shows that the prohibition of certain types of weapons facilitates progress towards their elimination. Weapons that have been outlawed by international treaties are increasingly seen as illegitimate, losing their political status.”

The need for outlawing nuclear weapons and eventually eliminating them is more urgent than ever. In the last decade, the United States and Russia have been modernizing their nuclear weapons stockpile, which has, in turn, created newly justified fears of a rapidly growing nuclear arms race. This is part of a larger global pattern of investments in upgrading nuclear arsenals.

This is coupled with the demise of arms control. The latest step in that direction occurred on August 2nd, when the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, followed by Russia. The only remaining Treaty is the New START agreement, but that is to expire in 2021 and it is not clear if a successor agreement will be negotiated in time.

Not surprisingly, none of the Nuclear Weapon States have joined the TPNW. In this situation, it is up to the non-nuclear weapon states who have signed on the 2017 Ban Treaty to pressure nuclear-armed states to sign the TPNW, whether through sanctions, embargoes or condemnation. The Ban Treaty itself enjoins countries to act in this fashion; its Article 12 says: “[e]ach State Party shall encourage States not party to this Treaty to ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty, with the goal of universal adherence of all States to the Treaty.” The countries that have signed the treaty need to push for a nuclear-free world, and it is partly their obligation to get nuclear weapon states to ensure a world free from the threat of nuclear catastrophes. The stakes have never been higher.