Nuclear Weapons Have Always Been Immoral. Now They’re Illegal.

Nuclear Weapons Have Always Been Immoral. Now They’re Illegal.

Nuclear Weapons Have Always Been Immoral. Now They’re Illegal.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has reached the 50 ratifications needed to become international law.


Just over three years after it opened for signature, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) reached the 50 national ratifications needed to become international law. The government of Honduras ratified the antinuclear agreement on October 24, which means the TPNW will enter into force 90 days later: January 22, 2021.

This milestone was reached on United Nations Day, which marks the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, making it particularly serendipitous that UN Day would see the ratification of a global agreement that prohibits these weapons. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States and the beginning of the nuclear arms race.

The TPNW shows us what happens when those committed to multilateralism and transnational activism work together to change the world. Securing these 50 ratifications is a historic moment for nuclear abolition, achieved only by the relentless efforts of generations of activists and diplomats. For the last decade, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been working with officials from nonnuclear countries to prohibit these weapons under international law. Despite incredible pressure from several of the nuclear-armed states, the UN General Assembly adopted the TPNW on July 7, 2017, and later that year ICAN went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a result of those effort, nuclear weapons will soon be unlawful to possess, develop, deploy, test, use, or even threaten to use for TPNW states parties. These heinous bombs will be on the same legal footing as biological and chemical weapons, as land mines and cluster munitions. The TPNW is the first feminist law on nuclear weapons, recognizing the disproportionate impacts of nuclear weapons on women and girls and on Indigenous peoples, urging more equitable participation of women in disarmament, and mandating victim assistance and environmental remediation in relation to nuclear weapon use and testing.

While much work remains to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, their prohibition is a crucial step.

The imperative of the ban

Nuclear weapons are arguably the most extreme expression of the violence of the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist world order. Even without being launched, they are used to project the power and invincibility of their possessor. They are the pinnacle of a state’s monopoly on violence, the ultimate signifier of domination. The myth of nuclear deterrence insists that nuclear weapons maintain global security and keep the peace; the reality is that these weapons have harmed hundreds of thousands of people around the world, particularly Indigenous peoples.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world peaked in 1986 during the Cold War at over 70,000 weapons. Stockpiles have diminished since then to about 13,400. But all nine of the current nuclear-armed states—China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States—are building up their arsenals; modernizing warheads, missiles, bombers, and submarines; and spending billions to threaten each other and the planet with mass destruction. Their rhetoric about their commitment to nuclear disarmament is disingenuous. The five nuclear-armed states that are legally bound to eliminate their nuclear weapons under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have not complied with this obligation and thus are in violation of international law.

Given the stalemate over nuclear disarmament and the surging reinvestments in nuclear weapons, the majority of countries decided to take matters into their own hands. Recognizing the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that nuclear weapon production, testing, and use cause throughout the world, activists with ICAN worked alongside governments to ban the bomb. This meant making international law without the consent of those who believed they held all the power.

Overcoming the nuclear nightmare

The majority of the world’s countries support the TPNW. One hundred and twenty-two states voted for its adoption in 2017; since then, governments from around the world, particularly Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, have signed and ratified the treaty.

Some have said that the treaty is irrelevant, since none of the countries that have joined so far possess nuclear bombs. But that doesn’t matter right now. Over time, the treaty will have a normative impact on the behavior of other countries, regardless of whether they join, and on financial institutions and other national and local actors. The changes that the nuclear ban brings to law, politics, and economics will lead us to nuclear disarmament. As past social movements have taught us, change doesn’t happen in instant—it is iterative, contested, and must be constantly defended and built upon.

Already, more than 1,600 elected officials in countries that have not yet joined the TPNW have pledged to work to get their government on board. Cities and towns around the world have adopted resolutions encouraging their governments to join the treaty, including capitals in nuclear-armed states, like Paris and Washington, D.C. Financial institutions have started divesting from nuclear-weapons-producing companies, including within countries that have not yet joined the treaty. Public support is also already behind the ban. Public opinion polls show that 79 percent of Australians, 79 percent of Swedes, 78 percent of Norwegians, 75 percent of Japanese, 84 percent of Finns, 70 percent of Italians, 68 of Germans, 67 percent of French, and 65 percent of Americans support their government’s joining the TPNW.

The TPNW stigmatizes nuclear weapons, making it more difficult for nuclear-armed states to justify their possession and defend their “deterrence” doctrines. We’ve seen this work with other weapons bands, including on land mines and cluster munitions. We’ve seen stigmatization of destructive, unjust policies help change behavior and laws in relation to civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights.

Nuclear pushback

The nuclear-armed states know this—which is why they are panicking. As the Associated Press recently reported, the United States has sent a letter to countries that have ratified the treaty, informing them that they have made a “strategic error” and thus “should withdraw” their instruments of ratification or accession.

It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for a government to demand sovereign states to withdraw from a treaty. This behavior is not just about preventing the TPNW’s entry into force. It also offensive to the legislative processes within each country that decided to ratify the treaty. It is a belligerent move to tell other countries—mostly those of the Global South—that they have made a mistake or did not understand what they were signing up to.

The nuclear-armed states have denied time and again that the treaty will have any legal or political bearing on them. Yet, time and again, their behavior shows that they know the opposite is true. All nine nuclear-armed states boycotted the negotiations and urged their allies to do so as well. The Obama administration instructed countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) not to support negotiations, detailing the potential impact of the treaty on US and NATO nuclear operations. Since the TPNW’s adoption, the nuclear-armed states and their supporters have rejected the treaty as simultaneously irrelevant and dangerous.

They have even tried to argue that the TPNW contradicts existing international law on nuclear weapons, particularly the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But this is patently false. The norm against nuclear weapons that the TPNW solidifies into law enhances non-proliferation efforts. It’s remarkable to see so-called champions of nonproliferation—governments that have invested billions to stop other countries from doing what they themselves have already done—try to tear down legally binding rules against nuclear weapon development, possession, and proliferation.

Why waste all this effort trying to stop a treaty if you believe it will have no impact on you?

Hope amid fallout

In reality, the nuclear-armed states know that the TPNW, to paraphrase Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow at the treaty’s adoption, makes weapons that have always been immoral now also illegal. While we have much work to do in order to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, if the nuclear-armed states are this afraid of the prohibition treaty, we know we’re on the right track.

The hope for nuclear abolition, and the resilience of the movement, lies in the efforts of all activists for social justice. Everyone that is demanding disarmament and abolition of police forces; calling for a redirection of military spending toward collective care; envisioning a more equitable, just, and peaceful world order—all of their efforts are complementary to the efforts for nuclear abolition. Whether deliberately or not, our work for peace, social and economic justice, decolonization, and environmental protection is entangled. The world we seek to build—a world of solidarity, health, and well-being for all peoples and our shared planet—is not compatible with a world with nuclear weapons viciously safeguarded by our so-called leaders.

“Nuclear abolitionists everywhere can be incredibly encouraged and empowered by this new legal status” of the TPNW, said Thurlow at an event for the treaty last week. While we have a long path to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons, she noted, but “with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, we can be certain that that beautiful day will dawn.”`

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