On January 22, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will enter into force. The treaty bans the development, production, possession, deployment, testing, use and just about anything else you can imagine related to nuclear weapons.
Fifty years later, nine nuclear-armed militaries possess more than 13,000 nuclear weapons, arsenals that mock their claimed commitment to disarm “at an early date.”
Approved at the United Nations by 122 countries in 2017, and subsequently signed by 86 and ratified by 51 nations, the nuclear weapons ban will join the venerated status of international prohibitions already established against lesser weapons of mass destruction. These earlier agreements include the Geneva Gas Protocol, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Ottawa Treaty or Mine Ban Convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is no magic wand. Nine nuclear-armed states claim that the treaty doesn’t apply to them, and it’s true that only governments that are “states parties” to the treaty are subject to its prohibitions and obligations. However, the treaty can be a kind of a lever and a beacon for achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons, a goal every government on earth claims to desire.
“the nuclear weapons ban will join the venerated status of international prohibitions already established against lesser weapons of mass destruction”
Decades of refusal to conclude “good faith” negotiations for nuclear disarmament “at an early date,” which the United States and four other nuclear nations agreed to in the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, have left the rest of the world fed up. Fifty years later, nine nuclear-armed militaries possess more than 13,000 nuclear weapons, arsenals that mock their claimed commitment to disarm “at an early date.”
As with bans on other weapons of mass destruction, scofflaw states that continue to produce and use nuclear weapons will increasingly be condemned and shunned as outliers and rogue actors. And nuclear-armed states have already been stung by the treaty’s imminent entry into force. Last October, the Trump White House urged those governments that had ratified the treaty to withdraw their ratifications. Happily, none did.
For more than a decade, public support for the elimination of nuclear weapons remains consistently strong. Current polls — Belgium, 64%; Germany, 68%; Italy, 70%; Netherlands, 62% — show strong majorities in countries that now host U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. The treaty heralds a new global, civil, diplomatic and economic environment in which nuclear weapons are banned. In Belgium, one of five NATO countries that currently station U.S. nuclear weapons inside their territories, the parliament in January 2020 nearly expelled the U.S. weapons in a close vote. When the first NATO country still hosting the U.S. nuclear bombs demands their removal, others are expected to follow suit.
Elsewhere, financial divestment campaigns in Europe are succeeding, pressing hundreds of institutions to get out of the business of genocidal atomic violence. The Dutch pension fund APB, the fifth largest of its kind in the world, has announced it will exclude companies involved in production of nuclear weapons. It joins more than seventy other European banks, pension funds, and insurance companies that have already adopted divestment policies.
January 22 marks the culmination of the effort led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, civil society, and non-nuclear-armed states to create the treaty. It is also the beginning of a new movement that will, in the end, see the elimination of the existential nuclear threat.
Given the need to stop the Biden administration from continuing the $2 trillion commitment to “modernize” U.S. nuclear weapons, build new bomb plants, and invest in new nuclear weapons, the treaty and its message could not be timelier or more compelling.
As supporters the world over have noted, this treaty is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
Ralph Hutchison is coordinator for the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch in Wisconsin.
This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.