The nuclear powers are obliged under international law to work for disarmament, but now they are planning as if they intend to keep the weapons indefinitely. Russia and the Western nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals and the Asians are expanding theirs. At the same time, civil society around the world is working for a world free of nuclear weapons. On Sunday 10 December, the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons received the Nobel Peace Prize.
- What does a non-proliferation agreement, disarmament and a ban on nuclear weapons entail?
- Why are people around the world working to ban nuclear weapons?
- Why are the nuclear powers fencing off their arsenals?
- What is the criticism of a nuclear ban?
In a speech in Prague in 2009, President Obama breathed new life into the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. The following year, a new agreement was entered into with Russia (New START ), and a new US strategy document placed less emphasis on nuclear weapons than before.
But that was the end of it.
After 2010, there have been no negotiations; many previous agreements have been dissolved; and those who are left are under severe pressure. The nuclear powers are obliged under international law to work for disarmament, but now they are planning as if they intend to keep the weapons indefinitely. Russia and the Western nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals and the Asians are expanding theirs.
The frustration over this has been expressed in the humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament. It is based on moral and international arguments. The effects of the weapons are so dire that any use should be banned, and the best way to ensure that is to remove them all.
There is much to build on: In an advisory statement from the International Court of Justice in The Hague (1966) it is stated e.g. that it is difficult to imagine a use that does not violate international humanitarian law. The arguments are strong and easy to understand, and they have universal appeal.
The humanitarian approach has mobilized civil society worldwide behind a demand to ban all use and possession of nuclear weapons.
In July 2017, according to allpubliclibraries, the UN General Assembly adopted an agreement on this – Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – which was signed by 122 non-aligned countries. A few months later, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons , ICAN, the leading proponent of the humanitarian approach, received the Nobel Peace Prize .
2: The Prohibition Agreement
The agreement prohibits any use of nuclear weapons, including for retaliation, and all possession, stationing of other people’s nuclear weapons on their own territory included.
It is trying to fill two gaps in international law.
Chemical and biological weapons have long been banned, while nuclear weapons, the most destructive and non-discriminatory of all weapons, are not. The Prohibition Agreement aims to fill this gap.
The second hole is located in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ( Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT ). This agreement has a non-proliferation component that has been expanded into a regime that includes international security controls, national and international export control regulations, nuclear-weapon-free zones, security guarantees, and more, and a disarmament component that is in ruins.
The disarmament clause, Article VI, provides little concrete guidance on what should be done, and the little that exists – “an imminent halt to the nuclear arms race” – has not been met. That wording was aimed at two measures, complete cessation of testing and cessation of the production of fissile material , but the test stopping agreement has not entered into force and negotiations on fissile material have never started.
In the TPNW ban agreement, there is a long-term ambition to also fill this gap, by giving greater power to the disarmament work.
3: The significance of the agreement
The agreement aims at two premises on which all nuclear powers are based, and tries to undermine these. Both objectives are long-term.
First, these states are fencing off their arsenals because they believe the weapons have military and political utility. That perception is based on the premise that they can be used. If not, they are worthless. In the early 1950s, US Secretary of State Foster Dulles complained that nuclear weapons were useless because public opinion would not allow them to be used – and added that we must change this.
Attempts have been made to do this by making weapons which are more conceivable to use and which are therefore more likely to be used, such as weapons with low explosive power, down against the largest conventional bombs, and by extending the doctrines to predict use for many different purposes. The longest was under George W. Bush, President of the United States from 2001 to 2009, who opened up for use against countries that have only conventional weapons. But it has wavered back and forth: President Barack Obama narrowed the scope again. Now the humanitarian approach is trying to stigmatize the weapons and thus undermine the premise on which the utility rests – that they can be used.