A Global Effort to Protect Life: The UN Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

Honduras became, at end of October, the fiftieth nation to ratify the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.[1] The Treaty, which was finalized in the summer of 2017, has been signed by 84 nations.[2] Now that 50 of those nations have ratified it, the treaty will officially enter into force as international law on January 22, 2021.

The Treaty obligates the nations that have ratified it “never under any circumstances” to “[d]evelop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” (Article 1). Nations party to the Treaty are also obligated never to assist any other nation with such activities. Moreover, these nations commit, to the extent they are able, to provide appropriate assistance to those affected by nuclear weapons testing and to repair environmental damage from such testing (Articles 6 and 7). Last, but certainly not least, nations party to the Treaty commit to encouraging other nations to join it (Article 12).

To date, the Treaty has not been signed or ratified by any of the nine nuclear-armed nations in the world: Russia, the United States, China, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea.[3] While those nations most capable of curbing the nuclear threat may not yet be subject to the Treaty’s obligations, however, the Treaty can still make a significant and positive contribution to world peace.

The Treaty and Future Peace Activism

As advocates for the Treaty, such as Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will (www.reachingcriticalwill.org), have argued, an international treaty banning nuclear weapons creates a stigma against such weapons.[4] Nations that fail to join the treaty have a similar questionable status as those that refuse to join treaties prohibiting landmines or chemical and biological weapons. As more nations join the treaty (even if those nations don’t possess nuclear weapons), the strength of global opinion that holds nuclear weapons to be morally suspect will grow. Further, the Treaty serves as an inspiration for further action by peace activists.

Peace activists should continue to put pressure on financial institutions or other groups that invest in companies that manufacture nuclear weapons or their components to divest their money from those companies.[5] The existence of an international treaty prohibiting such weapons can give renewed power and urgency to such divestment efforts. Activists also can advocate for their own nations to join the Treaty or to take similar steps to reduce the nuclear danger.

While nations that already possess nuclear weapons are unlikely to join the Treaty anytime soon, activists can pursue other initiatives targeted at such nations. The Back from the Brink campaign (https://preventnuclearwar.org/) aims at nuclear abolition but also works for intermediate steps such as taking nuclear weapons off high alert and canceling American plans to spend huge sums on new nuclear weapons.[6] Activists can mobilize around these or similar initiatives. Even without full nuclear abolition, the nuclear danger can still be reduced.  

Nuclear Powers vs. the World?

As peace activists continue their work against the nuclear threat, one particular theme might be worth emphasizing. The Treaty’s biggest apparent limitation—the absence of any nations that currently possess nuclear weapons—is also an opportunity for activists to teach an important lesson. An anti-nuclear weapons treaty ratified only by non-nuclear nations makes a powerful statement: nuclear weapons’ threat reaches far beyond those nations that possess them.

The nuclear threat has often been characterized as being primarily between hostile nations that both possess nuclear weapons. We might think of the danger mainly as a matter of one nuclear-armed nation attacking another, which then retaliates in kind. Most of the imagined victims of nuclear weapons are the people in these warring nuclear nations.

People living in nations that go to war with nuclear weapons would indisputably be victims of such weapons. They would not be the only ones, however. Scientists studying the environmental effects of nuclear weapons have projected the catastrophic effects such weapons’ use will likely have on the earth’s climate. The soot thrown into the atmosphere by a nuclear exchange would cool the earth, causing crops to fail and probably leading to world famine.

Such an environmental cataclysm would be the probable result not only of a full-blown nuclear war between major nuclear nations such as Russia and the United States but even of a much smaller nuclear exchange. One model projects that if India and Pakistan used even 50 low-yield nuclear weapons against each other, global cooling and starvation would likely follow.[7] Scientist Jonas Jägermeyr, an author of the India-Pakistan study, comments, “Even this regional, limited war would have devastating indirect implications worldwide… It would exceed the largest famine in documented history.”[8]

These environmental dangers mean that almost any use of nuclear weapons by a nation with even a very small number of such weapons poses a colossal threat to the world. Much of humanity, not just the two nations fighting with nuclear weapons, would suffer the lethal consequences of using these weapons. Thus, people from every nation on earth can plausibly claim that the possession of nuclear weapons by any nation concerns them.

The Treaty’s preamble recognizes this global concern by noting that “these risks [from nuclear weapons] concern the security of all humanity” and “all States share the responsibility to prevent any use of nuclear weapons.”

In this context, the Treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is not only a condemnation of nuclear weapons’ threat but also an expression of defiance against a tiny number of nuclear-armed nations who are endangering the majority of the world’s people. As Acheson puts it,

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…meant making international law without the consent of those who believed they held all the power.[9]

Emphasizing the environmental dangers of nuclear weapons, as well as the global power imbalance involved in the nuclear threat, allows peace activists to connect their work both to concerns about climate change and to opposition to imperialism. Moreover, opposition to imperialism need not and should not focus exclusively on the United States: to repeat, virtually all nations that possess nuclear weapons pose a serious threat to humanity.

Moving Forward

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons doesn’t end the nuclear threat by any means, but it does provide a fresh opportunity for peace activists to renew their efforts. Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, offered some comments after Honduras ratified the Treaty. Her comments can guide us as we move forward:

While this is a time to celebrate, it is not a time for us to relax. The world is ever more dangerous…

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has opened a new door, wide. Passing through it we begin a new chapter in our struggle — with a mighty embrace of gratitude from those we have lost, and a heartfelt welcome from those who are yet to come. The beginning of the end of nuclear weapons has arrived! Let us step through the doorway now![10]

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life blog.


[1] For an overview of the treaty, see “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, accessed November 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/3pXShDM; for the treaty’s text, see “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” United Nations General Assembly, accessed November 26, 2020, http://undocs.org/A/CONF.229/2017/8.

[2] Signatory and ratification information is available at “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Status of the Treaty,” United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, accessed November 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/33gAP3G.

[3] For details on nuclear-weapons-armed nations, see Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists, September 2020, https://bit.ly/3o3Cv8v.

[4] Ray Acheson, “Nuclear Weapons Have Always Been Immoral. Now They’re Illegal,” The Nation, October 27, 2020, https://bit.ly/37aSAm3.

[5] For more information on divestment efforts, see Susi Snyder, “Nuclear Weapons Banned, What Now For Financial Institutions?” Don’t Bank on the Bomb, accessed November 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/3nYgjg1.

[6] “Our Five Policy Solutions,” Back from the Brink Campaign, accessed November 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/379c4Yp.

[7] On US-Russia war, see Rutgers University, “Nuclear Winter Would Threaten Nearly Everyone on Earth: Second Study of Its Kind Confirms Extreme Impacts from US vs. Russia Nuclear War,” ScienceDaily, August 28, 2019, https://bit.ly/2J5cHua. On India-Pakistan war, see Columbia University, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine, Says Study,” Phys.Org, March 16, 2020, https://bit.ly/2JdGqAP.

[8] Columbia University, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine.”

[9] Acheson, “Nuclear Weapons Have Always Been Immoral.”

[10] “Setsuko Thurlow: The TPNW – A Game Changer in Nuclear Disarmament,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, accessed November 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/2V87d4e.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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