A new treaty to ban nukes is now set to become international law after being championed by nations around the planet

Kate Hudson

Attempts to ban nuclear weapons are nothing new and usually the impetus comes from the Global South.

The great news at the weekend about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) — it’s reached the 50 ratifications needed to become international law — is no exception.

If you look at the list of 50 states, they are overwhelmingly from Africa and Latin America; indeed both continents are already self-organised into nuclear weapons-free zones via the Treaty of Pelindaba and the Treaty of Tlatelolco.

Similar treaties also cover large parts of the south Pacific, south-east Asia and central Asia.

Many participant countries have suffered the effects of nuclear weapons testing, usually by colonial powers, or the impact of foreign wars and interventions.

They have excluded nuclear weapons from their own territories but they also recognise the fact that nuclear fallout is no respecter of borders.

They have continued, over decades, to press for global nuclear abolition. Why should their peoples be impacted by catastrophic nuclear war fought by powerful states on other continents?

So when CND calls for global nuclear abolition, it is not just a demand from civil society, it’s the demand from the overwhelming majority of states globally who are continuing the fight to ensure that humanity has a future.

But the struggle has been a long one, and every time an advance is made, the nuclear weapons states look for a way to derail the momentum towards disarmament.

The requirement for nuclear states to disarm has been enshrined in international law since 1970, in the form of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPT commits its signatories — including Britain — to take steps to disarm if they have nuclear weapons and not to acquire them if they don’t.

While the non-nuclear states have kept their side of the bargain, all the nuclear powers still have their weapons and are upgrading or modernising their arsenals.

In Britain this takes the form of replacing Trident at an ongoing cost of over £205 billion.

It was in this context of frustration with the failure of the NPT that the first steps towards the TPNW began.

In 2010, the NPT review conference’s final document expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

This was the first time this had been acknowledged and it opened the flood gates of international concern.

The following year, the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement appealed to all nations to negotiate a “legally binding international agreement” to prohibit and completely eliminate nuclear weapons.

Following this, a group of countries began delivering joint statements on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

By 2013, over 100 governments had joined the initiative and they welcomed civil society organisations to work alongside them.

CND was one of many in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that did just that.

The historical experience from the use and testing of nuclear weapons had demonstrated the devastating immediate and long-term effects of nuclear weapons.

Studies had shown that nuclear war would result in mass starvation due to the impact on agricultural production and profound climate change.

As Scientists for Global Responsibility pointed out in 2013, “the firepower of just one Trident nuclear submarine could not only devastate 48 cities and cause tens of millions of direct casualties, but also cause a global cooling lasting several years and of a magnitude not seen since the last Ice Age.”

Conferences in Norway and Mexico to discuss these effects and the way forward were followed by the Vienna Conference in 2014.

Some 155 states attended, including for the first time the United States and Britain.

The conference concluded with the hosts delivering a historic pledge to “stigmatise, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and other associated risks” and to “identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

In 2015, the United Nations general assembly adopted this pledge which led to the establishment of a special UN working group and then a decision to negotiate a global ban on nuclear weapons.

Some 123 countries voted in favour of negotiating a ban, with only 38 voting against.

Those opposed included Britain, the US, France, Israel and Russia. North Korea voted in favour of the ban conference. The other nuclear states (India, Pakistan and China) abstained.

The adopted resolution agreed to negotiate and conclude a new international treaty that would prohibit nuclear weapons.

Representatives from over 130 countries took part in the negotiations, while Britain continued to boycott the process and stood alongside the US ambassador outside the conference room, denouncing the talks.

The final text was adopted in July 2017, with 122 countries voting in favour.

The treaty is a strong and comprehensive text which has the potential to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

Its Article 1 is a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons and other related activity and its list of prohibitions includes the use, stockpiling, testing, production, manufacture, stationing and installation.

The treaty opened for signature in September 2017 and three years later sufficient countries have stepped up to the plate, ignoring the bullying of the nuclear weapons states to ensure that the treaty will enter into force in 90 days’ time.

The challenge now is to prevent the nuclear weapons states sabotaging the treaty.

They don’t want it and will try to ignore it. It’s up to us to work to bring Britain into the process.

And while our government says it will never sign, there are practical steps we can take to advance the treaty.

Towns and cities around the world — including Washington, Paris, Berlin and Edinburgh — are bypassing their governments and becoming Nuclear Ban Communities as they sign up to support the TPNW.

We can all work to bring our town or city on board. Visit cnduk.org/nuclear-ban-communities/ to see how.

Whatever the obstacles, the treaty is a breakthrough in international disarmament efforts and will be of enormous support in achieving the goal that most of the world shares: a world free of these weapons of mass destruction.

27 Oct 2020 by Kate Hudson

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