According to the United Nations Office For Disarmament Affairs, nuclear weapons are among some of the most dangerous weapons of mass destruction on earth. Atomic bombs have the ability to obliterate cities, to kill millions, and to destroy the environment in the process. In an effort to end the development of these arms for modern-day warfare strategy, the United Nations passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also referred to as the Nuclear Ban Treaty. On July 7th, 122 nations voted in favour of passing the historic treaty that calls for a world without nuclear weapons. Under this treaty, member states agree, “never, under any circumstances, to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons.” Additionally, they are prohibited from transferring weapons to other states or threatening to use them at any time.
Although the treaty received widespread support from a large majority of participating states, nine major countries boycotted the vote. The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel are all known to possess some level of nuclear arms. This created a conflict of interest for the countries, as they refused to support the complete ban of nuclear weapons. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom, in particular, justified their boycott of the vote by stating that the treaty is “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence which has been essential to keeping the peace… for over 70 years.” These nations were adamant in their conviction that this treaty would fail to “address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary.” Nonetheless, a United Nations’ treaty can enter into international law upon the ratification of a mere 50 states. Thus, despite the dissenting opinions of several major global powers, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was formally passed.
The establishment of this treaty comes during a particularly tumultuous time in our global history, as several powerful nations are currently in the midst of expanding their nuclear arsenals. North Korea, specifically, has caused a great deal of international concern over the past several years. Under the dictatorship of Kim Jong-un, this East Asian country has been relentless in its pursuit of procuring the most advanced weapons of mass destruction. United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went so far as to say of Kim, “It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today.” Despite pressure from the international community, North Korea has continued to expand its nuclear weapons programs. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was developed to condemn the use of these weapons of mass destruction under all circumstances. According to the former Secretary of State for the United States, the treaty is, “an important step towards delegitimizing nuclear war as an acceptable risk of modern civilization.” The primary intent of this treaty is to foster a collective mentality that is categorically opposed to nuclear weapons, in an attempt to unite member states in the best interest of the global community. This legislation is not expected to effect change in terms of eliminating nuclear weapons, but it is expected to create a universal goal. To this point, Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, said, “While the treaty itself will not immediately eliminate any nuclear weapons, it can, over time, further delegitimize them and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use.” It is Kimball’s belief that the norms established as a result of this international law have the potential to change the way states think about nuclear weapons.
Why would any major global power choose to reject a piece of legislation that is formed on a universally altruistic premise? Unfortunately, the situation today is far more complicated than simply opting to outlaw nuclear weapons. Nikki R. Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, said, “We [the United States] have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?” The threat of nuclear war on the part of North Korea remains at the forefront of the minds of many countries. Ambassadors to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France argue that this treaty fails to offer any concrete solution to the threat of North Korea’s growing nuclear programs. Rather, these nations are confident that their personal arsenals of weapons act as a more realistic deterrent against nuclear attack. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 supports their position. Unlike the treaty of July 7th, the NPT aims to enforce a more gradual approach to disarmament. This treaty was formed on the stance that non-nuclear states should remain unarmed. In return, states that were already nuclear powers, such as the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, would “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Those states also claim responsibility for reducing their personal stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
It is abundantly evident that more work needs to be done to address the current nuclear crisis. While the United Nations has made strides toward total disarmament of nuclear weapons with its recent Nuclear Ban Treaty, it has failed to garner the support of nine critical countries. The NPT is also unable to amass support from all member states, as that legislation is adopted primarily by the nuclear-armed powers. Countries without access to nuclear arsenals are forced to rely on the actions and judgment of those with access. Understandably, a state of restlessness ensues in these nations, as they struggle to obtain more active control over the situation. This raises the question of whether the United Nations is able to address the state of nuclear weapons in a more comprehensive manner. Are treaties effective in eliminating the threat of nuclear violence?
In an ideal society, weapons of mass destruction would be non-existent. Nations would not feel obliged to develop nuclear missiles in an attempt to further their status or to protect their domestic interests in the global sphere; countries would not be compelled to pursue the accumulation of personal arsenals for the sake of national security and power. Unfortunately, as of now, these are unrealistic aspirations. Instead, it is more productive for us to acknowledge the full scope of the situation in order to best address the state of the nuclear crisis today.
North Korea remains the greatest threat to global stability in light of its persistence on expanding its nuclear weapons programs. Kim Jong-un has not been receptive to the pressure that countries, such as the United States, have already placed on North Korea in an attempt to halt its intercontinental ballistic missile operations (ICBM). Despite intense political polarization since the election of President Donald Trump this past January, both liberals and conservative Americans have found common ground on this issue. If North Korea remains obstinate about continuing its weapons programs, then the remaining nuclear-armed states must work together in reaction to this in an effort to protect the safety and security of the greater good.
This reaction does not need to be inherently violent, however, as countries can opt to effect change in North Korea through socioeconomic means. In April, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said, “I think the goal now is to work as strongly as we can with China. China receives I think about 80 percent of the exports from North Korea, they are in a position to tighten the screws on North Korea and tell them they cannot continue their weapons or their missile programs.” Sanders, a proponent of non-violent resistance, proposes that the leading powers enact change in North Korea by placing pressure on its trading relations with China. If Beijing remains committed to its promise to limit trade with North Korea and to cut off imports of coal, then the country will be unable to financially sustain its current ballistic missile operations. This approach presents a peaceful solution for the imminent threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.
It is critical that the interests of all member states of the United Nations are taken into account when drawing up a piece of legislation on a contentious issue. If each country feels confident that its voice is heard, there is greater overall potential for higher rates of compliance in future scenarios. Treaties do have the potential to effect actual change, but only if they represent the interests of participating nations in an inclusive manner. Once North Korea is forced to halt the aggressive expansion of its weapons arsenal, the members of the United Nations can meet again to discuss a realistic strategy for more efficiently reducing any further threat of nuclear violence around the world.
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