Landmark nuclear weapons ban comes into force

A memorial gathering at Peace Park in Nagasaki, southern Japan, Jan 22 2021. (Kyodo News via AP)

A historic treaty to ban all nuclear weapons came into force on Friday in what has been hailed as an important step towards nuclear disarmament, but one opposed by the world’s main nuclear powers.

Under the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signatory states are prohibited from all activities involving nuclear weapons, including possessing, developing and testing.

When the treaty was initially approved by the UN General Assembly in July 2017 more than 120 countries supported it, but these did not include any of the nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons. However, it secured the 50 ratifications it required to come into force by October 2020, and is now part of international law.

The first multilateral nuclear disarmament treaty in more than two decades, the landmark ban is the culmination of years of campaigning by survivors of nuclear attacks and civil society groups including the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

“This treaty is a momentous step forward and the culmination of many decades of activism, from when the bombs were dropped in 1945 and the Hibakusha [the Japanese word for survivors of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs] were calling for the total prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s policy and research coordinator, told Geneva Solutions.

UN Secretary General António Guterres said that the treaty represents a “strong demonstration of support for multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament” and commended the states that have ratified it.

“Nuclear weapons pose growing dangers and the world needs urgent action to ensure their elimination and prevent the catastrophic human and environmental consequences any use would cause,” he said in a video message. “The elimination of nuclear weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”

Why is this important? The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US in 1945 killed around 215,000 people, causing lifelong consequences for survivors and lasting effects on the environment due to radiation.

Aimed at preventing such devastating bombings happening again, the treaty provides a legally binding framework by which nations can work towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons. It states that ratifying members must “never under any circumstances develop, test, produce, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

It also goes beyond existing treaties by including landmark obligations for countries to provide assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and to remediate contaminated environments.

Despite the treaty coming into effect, no nuclear-armed states have yet joined. Russia, China, the UK, France and the United States have not signed the accord, with the US urging countries in October to withdraw their support for the pact. India, Pakistan and Israel, which are all known or believed to have nuclear warheads, have not supported the treaty, nor has the 30-nation NATO alliance.

Japan - the only country in the world to have suffered nuclear attacks - also does not support the treaty. Although Japan renounces use and possession of nuclear weapons, the government has said the ban is unrealistic due to the divide between nuclear and non-nuclear states.

Read also: Helping small states have a big say in nuclear disarmament.

Honduras was the 50th state to ratify the treaty, which was required for the 90-day countdown to officially begin until the treaty came into force. In Europe, Austria spearheaded efforts that led to the adoption of the treaty in 2017, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz recently repeating calls for non-signatory states including Japan to participate in the first meeting which will be convened in a year's time.

Alongside Austria and Honduras, countries that have ratified the treaty include Nigeria, Ireland, Malta, Thailand, Mexico, South Africa, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Vietnam and the Vatican City.

“A lot of the time the news focuses on the countries that have nuclear weapons and narrows in on what they're doing,” said Sanders-Zakre. “Part of what this treaty does is recognise that all countries are involved and implicated by nuclear weapons, and all of them should have a say on whether nuclear weapons provide security, and most of them believe that they do not.”

What's next? Although none of the signatory parties are nuclear states, campaigners expect the treaty will have a broader impact even on countries that have not joined, like that seen after the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) came into force in 2010 and following the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) in 1999. Some companies in countries that had not joined the treaties chose to stop producing prohibited weapons, and countries changed policies on their use and transfer.

“There's real momentum, pressure and recognition that these activities that are banned by the treaty, even if a country hasn't joined it yet, are increasingly stigmatised and increasingly unacceptable,” said ICAN's Sanders-Zakre.

As of Thursday, ICAN’s executive director Beatrice Fihn told The Associated Press that 61 countries have now ratified the treaty, with another ratification expected on Friday. But there is still a long way to go. 150 governments have not ratified the treaty despite many having strongly supported its adoption at the UN General Assembly.

ICAN will now work with signatory states to implement the terms of the treaty, and continue to campaign for countries who have not yet signed to join.

“Nuclear weapons have always been immoral, now they are illegal,” said Fihn in a statement. “The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a victory for all people, made possible by the efforts of civil society and the international community. A handful of nations have held the world hostage with these horrific weapons. With the treaty we break those chains and chart a new course to a world free of nuclear weapons.”