THE HAGUE — An international agreement that bans nuclear weapons became operational on Jan. 22, more than 75 years after the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded the atomic age.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or Nuclear Ban Treaty for short, was negotiated in 2017 and reached enough ratifications on Oct. 24, 2020, to activate with a 90-day delay. Parties to the agreement, currently 52 countries, cannot legally use, possess, test, build, transfer, acquire or rely on another country’s nuclear weapons. Cambodia was the latest country to join the pact.
The agreement does not apply to countries that have not signed it, including the nine that are known to have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. These countries, however, can join the pact at any time.
“The Treaty is an important step towards the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” said António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, in a video message and statement. “The elimination of nuclear weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”
Setsuko Thurlow, an 89-year-old survivor of the US atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and a lifelong nuclear disarmament campaigner, told PassBlue from her home in Toronto, “I am fortunate to have lived so long to see this day.”
The treaty’s coming into force marks decades of work by campaigners and diplomats worldwide to make headway on nuclear disarmament, which most countries have pledged to pursue through the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. But the glacial pace of progress on the NPT has frustrated many countries, who feel that nuclear weapon states are stringing them along without being seriously committed to disarmament.
“At the heart of the NPT was a bargain,” said Antonio Patriota, Brazil’s ambassador to Egypt and a former foreign minister and UN envoy, speaking from Cairo. Countries that already had nuclear weapons could keep them while others agreed not to build any, in exchange for a promise from the possessors to gradually disarm. Disappointment with how that bargain has panned out led some diplomats and disarmament advocates to look beyond the NPT, Patriota said.
Momentum toward the Nuclear Ban Treaty was led by a few countries and a coalition of civil society groups, called the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, founded in 2006. Crucial to their success was shifting the debate away from questions of security and deterrence and toward the humanitarian calamities that would result from nuclear conflict, experts say.
Framing nuclear weapons as a humanitarian problem helped persuade diplomats that the issue concerned their countries directly, said Rebecca Davis Gibbons, a nuclear affairs expert at the Harvard Kennedy School, speaking with PassBlue from Portland, Maine. This strategy also drew on those that led to prohibitions on chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions, she added.
The treaty was adopted at the UN in New York City on July 7, 2017, by 122 affirmative votes. It was shepherded through by Elayne Whyte Gómez, a Costa Rican diplomat who presided over the negotiations with a core group of countries that included Austria, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Thailand.
Austria’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, said on Jan. 22 that a meeting of the treaty’s participants to decide their next steps is planned for later this year or early 2022 at the UN headquarters in Vienna.
The Geneva-based ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, which Thurlow, the Hiroshima survivor, accepted on ICAN’s behalf with Beatrice Fihn, the executive director.
“It was worth the struggle,” Thurlow told PassBlue, speaking about her activist journey and the pain of reliving Hiroshima’s horrors over and over again. “The memories of that cruelty have never left me.”
The main value of the treaty is to “stigmatize” and “delegitimize” nuclear weapons as instruments of security, Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s policy coordinator, told PassBlue. “It makes clear that the majority of nations do not consider that these weapons provide security — quite the opposite.”
The treaty was fiercely opposed by the US from the start, under the Obama and Trump administrations, with the latter enlisting 40 countries, including most NATO members and parties to the NPT, to boycott negotiations in 2017 at the UN and to dissuade others from signing it.
Nikki Haley, the new American ambassador to the UN at the time, told the media in March 2017, “(we) would love to have a ban on nuclear weapons, but in this day and time we can’t honestly say we can protect our people by allowing bad actors to have them and those of us that are good trying to keep peace and safety not to have them.” (See video below, with Haley flanked by French and British diplomats and other ambassadors.)
A Dec. 15, 2020, statement from NATO, the US-led military alliance that includes Britain and France, reiterates its stance, saying: “We reject any attempt to deligitimise nuclear weapons. We call on our partners and all other countries to reflect realistically on the ban treaty’s impact.”
Russia, which with the US owns more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons globally, and China, a nuclear power not allied with the US, also oppose the treaty. Their efforts to suppress it have been relatively muted.
“There are those who look at this issue from more of a moral, humanitarian perspective, and those who approach it from a security-focused perspective,” said Frank Rose, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, speaking with PassBlue from Washington. Rose was the assistant secretary of state for arms control in the Obama administration.
The threat environment faced by the US, marked by tensions with Russia and a rapidly rising China, is not conducive to nuclear disarmament, Rose added. “If you’re really committed to disarmament, you have to resolve the underlying political and security conditions.”
The Biden administration is already taking action on nuclear arms control. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, confirmed on Jan. 21 that the US would seek to extend New START, the agreement with Russia to limit stockpiles that is expiring on Feb. 5. The Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, swiftly told reporters that Russia also wanted to extend the pact and eagerly awaited the American paperwork.
President Biden has also hinted at supporting a no-first-use policy, meaning the US would pledge not to resort to nuclear bombs unless an enemy did first. But US hostility toward the Nuclear Ban Treaty is not likely to change, experts say.
Whyte Gómez expressed frustration with the attitudes of US policymakers, as she spoke with PassBlue from San Jose, her country’s capital. Rather than oppose the treaty, the US could use it as a conversation-starter with Russia and China to devise a “new security paradigm” not reliant on mutually assured destruction, she said.
Feeling bolstered by the force of international law, Thurlow said she and fellow Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors would continue their advocacy against nuclear weapons. “Although it is painful to look back and talk about what we experienced,” she said, “it is our moral responsibility to warn the world.”