Library special A World Free of Nuclear Weapons

With the Nobel Committee's decision to honour the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) with the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the Committee sent a powerful message of concern that should be attached to nuclear weapons. North Korea is actively developing its nuclear programme, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal is in the balance, and the United States and Russia are both seeking to modernise their nuclear forces.

ICAN campaigned for the drafting of an entirely new disarmament agreement - the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons - that was opened for signature at the UN in July this year. The Treaty seeks to make nuclear weapons illegal under international law in the same way as the Anti-personnel Landmines Treaty banned a whole category of weaponry. The Treaty opened for signature at United Nations headquarters in New York on 20 September 2017 and will remain open indefinitely. Once 50 nations have ratified or acceded to it, it will enter into force. Thus, the treaty will be the first universal treaty that prohibits the use of nuclear weapons.

The question is whether this new treaty is needed at all? There is of course already the long-standing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - a product of the Cold War years whose chief goal was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five established (or "declared") nuclear powers - Britain, France, the United States, China and the former Soviet Union. The agreement was a series of bargains. Countries that joined the treaty as non-nuclear weapons states gave up the bomb in return for the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology. Those five countries who were declared nuclear powers agreed to take steps progressively to give up their nuclear weapons. The non-proliferation regime has had it success. However, four additional countries today have nuclear weapons.

Three of them - India, Israel and Pakistan - never signed up to the agreement in the first place and North Korea abandoned the treaty regime to set about the development of a small nuclear arsenal.
But Ican believed that the NPT had not fulfilled its promise and that a parallel agreement was needed, modelled on the successful treaty to abolish anti-personnel landmines. This would not begin with intergovernmental diplomacy but with grassroots activity. The goal was to get a new nuclear ban treaty opened for signature and then to campaign widely to change public opinion to compel governments to sign on.

Well that treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is now a reality and 53 governments have signed up. Of course the problem is that the nuclear weapons states are not among them. Nor are they likely to sign in the foreseeable future. The treaty though does set a legal norm and is a strong basis, campaigners believe, upon which to build. ICAN's Nobel Peace Prize certainly underscores the concern about nuclear weapons at a timely moment. North Korea is proceeding apace with its nuclear missile programmes, raising questions about what other countries in the region might do. Some voices in South Korea have already suggested that US tactical nuclear weapons should be deployed there.

On the multilateral front, even great successes in arms control - the Chemical Weapons Convention for example, which had a high point when Syria was compelled to give up its chemical arsenal - now appears something of a false dawn, with chemical weapons having subsequently been used in the conflict on numerous occasions. With even more frightening challenges ahead - genetic weapons for example and the existing disruptive power of cyber-weapons - a crisis in arms control is not good for anyone. The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize highlights the importance of the lofty goals of disarmament even if ICAN's treaty is unlikely to be any more successful in ridding the world of nuclear weapons than the NPT agreement before it.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

By resolution 71/258, the General Assembly decided to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. The Assembly encouraged all Member States to participate in the Conference and decided that it shall convene in New York, under the rules of procedure of the General Assembly unless otherwise agreed by the Conference.

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