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Global Perspectives on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

  • AUTHORJohn Carlson, Irma Arguello, Andrea Berger, Lewis Dunn, Oliver Meier, Nuclear Threat Initiative
  • Aug 3, 2017

Beginning next month, the recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will be open for signature, marking the next phase in a long-sought but largely symbolic ban. Approved in July by nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries, the ban would prohibit testing, producing, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing or stockpiling nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosives. It will enter into force following ratification by 50 countries.

Supporters of the ban treaty say it serves to delegitimize nuclear weapons and reinforce global norms against use; however, without the support of the nuclear-armed states, some argue that the treaty will be ineffective. There also are serious concerns that the current text of the treaty could undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), regarded as the bedrock of international efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons and technology. Regardless, the new treaty is clear evidence of the worrying polarization of states—polarization driven, in part, by a perceived complacency among the nuclear-armed states and unwillingness to take serious steps to reduce the risks posed by nuclear weapons.

We asked five nuclear experts from around the world to give us their thoughts on the new ban treaty and their recommendations for making progress on global nuclear disarmament.

Irma Arguello, Head of Secretariat, Latin American and Caribbean Leadership Network (LALN) and Chair, NPSGlobal Foundation

The nuclear weapons ban treaty is a symbolic milestone and reflects the fact that many countries view the prohibition of nuclear weapons as the only path to total disarmament. Because this path has been rejected by the nuclear-armed states the treaty currently stands as a strong moral statement, rather than an instrument of practical application. Regardless, several major flaws in the draft text should be fixed before its entry into force. These include inconsistencies with the international law of armed conflict and issues relating to verification and safeguards. Importantly, the treaty must avoid confusion and prevent any erosion to the NPT. The current process of bi-annual meetings and reviews for the new treaty also adds a significant diplomatic burden for states. 

Looking ahead, the priority for all states should be to work comprehensively on global nuclear risk reduction—in particular, reducing the risk of the potential use of a nuclear weapon. This requires more intensive work on arms control measures,  declaratory policies 

of nuclear-armed states, and enhancing the nuclear security regime to reduce risks posed by non-state actors. Disarmament verification must also become a global endeavor, with the active participation of the international community. Any strategy for reducing nuclear risks will require the active participation of all nuclear-armed states. Most urgently, the United States and Russia, along with China, should work to reach a common view about how to reduce global nuclear insecurity. Visionary leadership will be vital. 

Andrea Berger, James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies

The new nuclear weapons ban is likely to further polarize the non-proliferation community – a development that both proponents and opponents of the initiative share responsibility for. Sharp dissenting statements issued by France, the U.S. and UK foreshadow this possibility. Yet the ban treaty arrives at a time when major challenges to the health of the NPT already exist. 

The crisis in US-Russia arms control, or President Trump’s apparent interest in unravelling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, are extremely concerning.

Nuclear programs in East Asia are proceeding along similarly worrying trajectories. Against this backdrop, the ban treaty seems likely to become one ingredient in a recipe for multilateral gridlock, acting as a focal point for the wider frustrations of all. 

John Carlson, member of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) and counselor to NTI, former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office 

The nuclear weapons ban should have been a landmark treaty. However, its political and historical significance is undermined by major problems in the text, especially on the vital issue of safeguards (verification). Disarmament depends on rigorous and universal verification standards, but this treaty discriminates among parties, setting different requirements depending on a party’s circumstances. This and other problems (outlined here) reflect that the treaty was negotiated in only four weeks, an unprecedented pace for a treaty of such importance. If the General Assembly does not fix the problems this will become a textbook case on how not to negotiate a treaty. Despite the treaty’s shortcomings, however, its message cannot be ignored. 

Two-thirds of the international community have made it clear the nuclear-armed states must stop making excuses for lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. The circumstances might not be right for complete disarmament in the near term, but there are many steps that can and should be taken now to reduce the risk of nuclear war. The nuclear-armed states must start a serious process towards disarmament – this is essential not only to meet world expectations, but for their own survival.

Lewis A. Dunn, Independent Consultant and former U.S. Ambassador to the 1985 NPT Review Conference

The Prohibition Treaty reflects deep frustration at today’s nuclear disarmament stalemate and fears of nuclear use. It is a wake-up call for all Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Still greater polarization – and questions about the NPT’s value in reducing nuclear dangers – will accelerate the treaty’s loss of credibility and legitimacy. Sooner than later, its effectiveness in supporting the security interests of the NPT nuclear-weapon states will be undermined. For Prohibition Treaty supporters, Article VI of the NPT remains the only legal obligation to advance nuclear disarmament. Their claim that the new treaty will lead to rethinking reliance on nuclear weapons is but a long-term hope. 

More immediately, the Treaty will not reduce today’s nuclear dangers or reinvigorate a moribund nuclear disarmament process. The challenge for all NPT Parties is to agree on a shared vision of the nuclear future and commit to build the conditions for its realization.

Strategic elimination of nuclear weapons as means of statecraft, security, and power by 2045, one hundred years after the use of these weapons, is my proposed vision. The road to complete physical elimination runs inexorably through their strategic elimination.

Oliver Meier, German Institute for International and Security Affairs

The hastily drafted nuclear weapons ban is a hybrid treaty. While it helps strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons possession and use, it also includes elements that could undermine the global non-proliferation regime. For example, the treaty potentially opens the door to states “cherry picking” between provisions in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the new treaty. It also lacks clear definitions of terms and provisions, particularly on verification. 

Combined with a lack of compliance procedures, this will make it difficult to implement and enforce the treaty. One suggestion is to form a group of “friends of the nuclear order” that would work to advance the normative agenda of the treaty, while minimizing the potential risks to the NPT, the IAEA and the broader safeguards and verification regime. Such a group could consist of states which have not joined the treaty because of alliance relationships but are supportive of a world free of nuclear weapons as well as treaty members who have concerns over certain elements of the treaty and are interested in building-bridges towards non-states parties. This group could advance joint, parallel initiatives at NPT meetings of states parties, within the IAEA, and during future meetings of ban treaty members with a view to reducing the contradictions and tensions between the treaty and the non-proliferation regime.

For more information and perspectives on the prohibition treaty please see the following resources:

Commentary by members of the European Leadership Network

Statement by Chung-in Moon and Ramesh Thakur, Co-Conveners of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network

Statement by Dr. William Perry, NTI Board Member

This commentary was originally published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative. To view the original commentary, please click here.