Nuclear weapons have always been inhumane and unacceptable, soon they will be illegal – Tilman Ruff

On Saturday 24 October 2020, Honduras brought the number of nations ratifying the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (‘TPNW’) to 50. This milestone means that after 90 days have elapsed, on 22 January 2021, the treaty will enter into legal force, becoming international law and binding on the states that have ratified it, and all those which ratify in future. The treaty will, however, stigmatise nuclear weapons for all states, whether or not they join the treaty.

It is fitting that 24 October also marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN, ‘determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly, on 24 January 1946, established a commission to develop a plan for the elimination of atomic weapons.

This is a historic achievement and an enormous win for humanity and planetary health. Outlawing nuclear weapons is an essential step towards eliminating them, which is the only reliable way to prevent their use. 

Australians can take particular pride and encouragement from this achievement. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (‘ICAN’) was founded in Melbourne by the Medical Association for Prevention of War in close collaboration with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (‘IPPNW’). ICAN became the leading civil society coalition working with the majority of the world’s governments to conclude the TPNW. For this work, in 2017 ICAN became the first Australian-born entity to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

This effort involved many partners. Crucial among them was the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, and particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross, which provided substantive input to many aspects of the treaty. 

The growing danger

The treaty is especially needed in the face of the real and present danger of nuclear war climbing higher than ever. The hands of the Doomsday Clock stand further forward than they have ever been: 100 seconds to midnight. All nine nuclear-armed states are modernising their arsenals with new, more accurate and ‘useable’ weapons; their leaders making irresponsible explicit nuclear threats. The cold war is resurgent – hard won treaties reducing nuclear weapons numbers and types are being trashed, while nothing is being negotiated to replace them, let alone build on them. If the US does not reciprocate Russia’s willingness to extend the New START Treaty and it expires, then from 5 February 2021, for the first time since 1972, there will be no treaty constraints on Russian and US nuclear weapons, fomenting a resurgent Cold War. Armed conflicts which could trigger nuclear escalation are increasing in a climate-stressed world. The rapidly evolving threat of cyberwarfare puts nuclear command and control in jeopardy from both nations and terrorist groups. Close to 2000 nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched within minutes of a leader’s fateful decision. 

The radioactive incineration unleashed by nuclear war involving even less than 1% of the global nuclear arsenal targeted on cities in one part of the world would be followed by a worldwide nuclear ice age and nuclear famine, putting billions of people’s lives in jeopardy.

As the World Health Organisation and Red Cross/Red Crescent have repeatedly confirmed, health and emergency services could not respond substantively to the needs of the victims if even a single nuclear weapon exploded on a city. When there is no cure, prevention is imperative.

In this profound existential crisis the vision and opportunity provided by the TPNW is all the more crucial and urgent.

What’s in the treaty?

The treaty’s preamble lays out the evidence and compelling humanitarian rationale for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, explicitly complementing and building on the disarmament commitment enshrined in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (‘NPT’).

Article 1 provides the first explicit, categorical and comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons in international law. It prohibits states parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, controlling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. Crucially for ‘nuclear-dependent’ states like Australia which claim another state’s nuclear weapons are central to their security and provide assistance for their possible use, the treaty also prohibits states parties from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any prohibited activity. 

Article 3 strengthens the NPT requirements for nuclear safeguards. All states parties must bring into force a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (‘CSA’) at minimum and maintain their current International Atomic Energy Agency (‘IAEA’) safeguards agreement at the time of entry into force. The TPNW also goes further than the NPT’s voluntary arrangements for nuclear possessor states in requiring them to conclude and maintain an adequate safeguards agreement.

Article 4 provides the only internationally agreed framework for all nations to fulfil their legal obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons through time-bound, irreversible and independently verified elimination of their nuclear weapons programs and facilities.

Under article 5, all states parties must adopt necessary national measures to implement their obligations under the treaty and to prevent and suppress treaty violations by persons or on territory under their jurisdiction or control, including through penal sanctions. 

For the first time in an international instrument, article 6 obliges joining nations to provide long-neglected assistance for the victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, and to undertake feasible remediation of environments contaminated by nuclear weapons use and testing.

Article 7 obliges states parties to cooperate with other states parties to implement the treaty, and article 12 commits states parties to promote universalisation of the treaty.

Treaties work

The TPNW fills a gaping hole in international law that for far too long saw the most destructive weapon, the only weapon which poses an existential threat to all humanity and to the biosphere, as the only weapon of mass destruction not to be prohibited under international law. 

Experience with biological and chemical weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions provides consistent lessons. Treaties which have codified in international law the rejection of an unacceptable weapon provide a crucial basis and motivation for the progressive work of eliminating these weapons. Providing one legal standard for all nations has been essential to the substantial progress made in controlling banned weapons. All the weapons subject to treaty prohibition are now less often justified, produced, traded, deployed and used. No indiscriminate and inhumane weapon has been controlled or eliminated without first being prohibited.

The Australia government’s opposition to the TPNW is at odds with its support for all the bans on other inhumane weapons. The sticking point is that Australia is deeply conflicted about nuclear disarmament while claiming that US nuclear weapons are essential to Australia’s security, and providing assistance for their possible use through hosting military facilities engaged in command, control and targeting of nuclear weapons. However, there is nothing in this treaty which prevents non-nuclear military cooperation with a nuclear-armed state, as other US allies like New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines have already proven.  

There are welcome signs towards Australia getting on the right side of history, including support for Australia joining the treaty from parliamentarians from a wide cross-party spectrum. Labor leader Anthony Albanese and shadow foreign minister Penny Wong welcomed the 50th ratification and affirmed Labor’s National Policy Platform (p. 261) commitment to joining the treaty. 

A sure sign that this treaty matters is the strong opposition it continues to arouse among nuclear-armed states. Shortly before the treaty reached 50 ratifications, the Trump administration wrote to all states that have joined the treaty saying it ‘turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous’ and admonishing them that ‘you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification of accession’. Nuclear-armed states are clearly nervous that the treaty becoming international law puts their continued justification and possession of nuclear weapons on notice and exposes their failure to deliver on their obligation to disarm. 

Another important sign that the treaty matters is that money is already moving away from companies that profit from making the worst weapons of mass destruction, soon to be illegal. The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (in Norway), major banks (like Deutsche Bank, KBC in Belgium and Kyushu Financial Group) and pension funds (including ABP, Europe’s largest) are among the growing number of financial institutions divesting from companies building nuclear weapons. Every responsible financial institution should now do the same.

In a dark time, the TPNW shines a light on the most promising path to free the world from the risk of indiscriminate nuclear violence. Time is not on our side. The treaty provides our best hope for our worst weapons. 

A/Prof Tilman Ruff AO is a physician in the University of Melbourne’s Nossal Institute for Global Health, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985), and a co-founder and founding chair of ICAN (Nobel Peace Prize 2017). He participated closely in the processes that led to the UN General Assembly’s negotiating mandate and led the IPPNW delegation during the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.