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Hiroshima for Global Peace

[Column 2] A Personal Evaluation of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and Possible Pathways to Move Nuclear Disarmament Forward Following the Adoption of the TPNW

[Column 2] A Personal Evaluation of the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and Possible Pathways to Move Nuclear Disarmament Forward Following the Adoption of the TPNW

Tim Caughley

This evaluation of the TPNW is in two parts, headed “cause” and “effect”.

1. Cause

The negotiation of the TPNW was influenced by a variety of factors. Many non-nuclear-weapon states were concerned that the sanctity of the NPT was being jeopardized by the lack of sustained action on the part of NPT nuclear weapon states to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Courses of action agreed by all that Treaty’s parties towards the elimination of nuclear armaments were gaining little or no traction.

The NPT has long been dogged by tension between its five nuclear-armed parties and those 186 nations that have bound themselves never to possess nuclear weapons in the expectation that such arms would eventually be eliminated. The five NPT possessors and states allied to them see the road to a nuclear free world as requiring the banning of nuclear- weapons testing (via the CTBT) and a treaty banning production of fissile material (FMT).

But paralysis surrounds both steps, frustrating progress towards elimination. The CTBT’s entry into force and negotiation of a FMT are both blocked by states that possess nuclear weapons. Absent any recognition by possessors that multilateral nuclear disarmament had stalled, the international community reached a crossroads. The nuclear disarmament agenda could be surrendered to the possessors of nuclear weapons to take the next steps at their own pace (e.g., ratifying the CTBT; negotiating a FMT in the CD (or elsewhere); implementing key actions agreed by them at NPT Review Conferences). Or the vacuum would be addressed in other ways.

Concern expressed universally in 2010 by NPT parties about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was harnessed to draw attention not only to the risks surrounding nuclear weapons but also to the chronic impasse just mentioned. Momentum, driven by a broad coalition of non-nuclear states, civil society and inter-governmental organizations including the UN and Red Cross Movement, quickly developed for prohibiting nuclear weapons as a fresh step. Its supporters were not persuaded by the rationale–put forward by nuclear-armed states and their allies–that nuclear disarmament had become a casualty of today’s fraught global security situation. To prohibition advocates, that argument was tantamount to a justification for nuclear weapons, and inconsistent with the NPT and its non- proliferation ethos.

With this standoff now deeply engrained, the decision of the UN General Assembly in October 2016 to undertake negotiation of what became the TPNW was well supported but far from consensual. The resulting treaty was adopted less than a year later with 122 in favour, one against (Netherlands) and one abstaining (Singapore). But those 50-plus UN member states that in 2016 had opposed or abstained on the call for a prohibition, largely opted out of the negotiation.

2. Effect

The TPNW has thus had a difficult and controversial birth. Assessment of its impact requires four acknowledgements:

• a prohibition of nuclear weapons is an essential

step among measures needed for a nuclear- weapon free world (it already has counterparts banning chemical and biological arms);

• while the intention of the architects of the TPNW was that its terms exclude no state, support for

it from weapons-possessors and their allies that chose not to participate in its negotiation will nonetheless be hard won;

• given the time-consuming process of ratifying treaties, it is too early to assess–based on the level of formal support from states that have so far signed (56) or ratified the TPNW (5)–how effective it will be legally; and

• although it augments rather than supplants the NPT, the TPNW’s most valuable impact may be to precipitate moves to tackle the divide that is corroding the NPT. The TPNW’s emergence underlines a disturbing reality–a continuing lack of any coherence in charting the way forward for multilateral nuclear disarmament.

It is vital that nuclear-armed states and non-posses- sors acknowledge this last reality. Exploring scope for common ground might focus first on methods for bridging the gap (e.g., format for talks, informal ex- pert groups, procedural framework for elimination). Next, issues of substance could be pursued (mitigat- ing risk, identifying confidence-building measures, threat reduction, etc). In either case, these efforts must begin in earnest and with urgency – the re- cent moving of the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock to 2 Minutes to Midnight shows that the threat of a nuclear war through accident, miscalculation or intent has risen to an alarming level.

Mr. Tim Caughley

Senior Fellow, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)