Policy Brief 71 - The Ban Treaty: Perspectives from Southeast Asia

  • Sep 29, 2020

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The Ban Treaty: Perspectives from Southeast Asia

By Mely Caballero-Anthony


The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was  adopted  by  the UN Conference at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 7  July  2017. After months of negotiations from its adoption by the UNGA, resolution A/C.1/71/L.42 to convene negotia- tions on a nuclear weapons ban on 27 October 2016, the Treaty was endorsed by 122 countries, with one vote against  and  one abstention. And while it was expected that the nine nuclear  weapons  states (NWS)  and  their  allies  were  dead  set  in rejecting the Treaty, it was nonetheless hailed as a historic step towards a nuclear- free world. 

Since its adoption, the TPNW– also referred to as the Ban Treaty has been the subject of intense debate among the policy and academic communities, and several civil society groups that have been advocating for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The treaty is seen as an extraordinary achievement in establishing a new international norm, and one that Ramesh Thakur argues– “stigmatizes nuclear weapons and induces  move toward disarmament.” 

More significantly, for non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), the TPNW opens another avenue to push ahead with the long drawn and often contentious efforts in preventing and eliminating nuclear weapons. How successful these efforts will be remains to be seen. To be sure, the TPNW has drawn a lot of controversies. While hard dissenters dismiss the goal of a nuclear-free world as a pipe-dream, there are also sceptics/critics that point to its du- plicating the objectives of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ad could in turn weaken and/or jeopardize ‘progress’ made in advancing the NPT. In 2017, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Non- Proliferation,  Christopher   Ford, criticized the Treaty as "entirely unserious about real disarmament."


The lists of objections and reservations to the TPNW are indeed long and are note- worthy. These include the risk of ‘forum- shopping’ where NNWS may decide to opt out of NPT in lieu of TPNW and rendering NPT subordinate to TPNW. Other analysts point to the substantive issues that impact on non-proliferation, such as the Treaty’s lack of clarity on its legal obligations and insufficient measures on how to achieve the highest standards for disarmament verification. Of salience too is the concern among NNWS about delegitimizing nuclear deterrence. The TPNW effectively makes "threat of use"  illegal.  As  point- ed out by Tytti Erasto, for states that benefit from nuclear deterrence umbrella for their national security and strategic stability, the logic of nuclear deterrence trumps the normative imperatives of TPNW. Last but not least, many still view the success of the TPNW as contingent on the support of the NWS, which, from the start, was not forthcoming.


Mely Caballero-Anthony is a Professor of International Relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She is also the Secretary-General of the Consortium on Non-Traditional Security Studies in Asia. Her research interest includes regionalism and multilateralism in Asia-Pacific, human security and non-traditional security, conflict prevention, and global governance.