A Treaty To Ban Nuclear Weapons

A couple of weeks ago, the United Nations sponsored a discussion of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. It’s a discussion that has been brewing for some time.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970. It allowed nuclear weapons to the five countries that had already tested them – the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. Other signatories agreed never to develop nuclear weapons or to traffic in their technology.

The nuclear weapon states agreed, in Article VI,

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.

Many arguments have focused on these words, including the argument for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. That argument is that the nuclear weapon states have not pursued the negotiations laid out by Article VI in good faith and that therefore other avenues to eliminating nuclear weapons must be pursued. A nuclear ban treaty would support and encourage Article VI negotiations.

Leading up to a treaty, the Humanitarian Initiative has emphasized the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons – the civilians who would be targeted and killed, the inability of governmental services to deal with a nuclear attack. Approximately 150 nations and several nongovernmental organizations have participated in the initiative.

The International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has taken a leading role in developing the ban treaty. Their website and that of Reaching Critical Will provide material advocating the treaty. Perhaps the most complete statement of objectives and what might be included in a treaty is from Reaching Critical Will, but the UN discussions made clear that many of the parties differ on objectives. ICAN also has a statement.

All nine nuclear weapons states oppose a ban treaty, as have their allies who are protected under a “nuclear umbrella” –the nuclear states will protect them if they are attacked with nuclear weapons.

Much of the discussion gets down into the weeds rather quickly. Even the statements linked above are wonky. For that reason, I have paid only cursory attention to the ban movement until I heard a panel on the ban treaty at the Carnegie Conference. I have many questions.

Who speaks for the ban movement? So far, ICAN and Reaching Critical Will have provided the most written material. As a draft treaty is written up, more spokespeople are likely to emerge. I would particularly like to see a country or group of countries take the lead.

What is the purpose of the ban? At present, different players seem to have diffenent objectives – shaming the nuclear weapon states into giving up their nukes, moving public opinion against nuclear weapons, showing the impatience of the non nuclear weapon states, removing the distinction imposed by the NPT. Political coalitions always include differing motivations, but these motivations may lead to different outcomes and will have to be reconciled in a treaty.

How will the ban interact with the NPT? A concern expressed by those opposing the ban is that it will weaken the NPT by offering a venue in which countries can say they’re against nuclear weapons without supporting the NPT.

Can the non nuclear weapon states pressure the nuclear weapon states via a ban treaty? This can ultimately be answered only by letting events play out, but I always like to see some thinking about a path and how the treaty might be used.

Proponents of a ban treaty cite the chemical and biological weapons conventions as models for a nuclear ban treaty. It would be helpful to work through those comparisons more closely. At least some of the nations possessing those weapons were ready to give them up when the conventions were negotiated. That is not the case for nuclear weapons.

Another model that might be considered is the NPT. Such a treaty was first proposed in 1957 and required 13 years of negotiations before it came into force in 1970. More about these negotiations and the negotiation of the conventions on other weapons would be helpful.

Some links with more information:

Report from the recent UN sessions.

Fact sheet from Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Discussions among people with different viewpoints from Carnegie Endowment and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


Graphic source

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