Late in the evening of October 24th, Honduras became the 50th ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). What might’ve been a quiet Saturday for some marked a major milestone for the nuclear ban movement, triggering the Treaty’s entry-into-force in 90 days. January 22, 2021 was marked in calendars globally as the day set to make the development, possession and use of nuclear weapons illegal in international law.
Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly just three years ago, the rate at which the TPNW has continued to gain support is a testament to the efforts of its ardent campaigners. As noted in a statement from the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ office, it is the ‘culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons’. It is also telling of the extent to which non-nuclear weapons states are truly frustrated with the status quo, criticising the failure of nuclear-weapons states to fulfil the nuclear disarmament obligation enshrined in Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This collective commitment to nuclear disarmament is all-the-more notable given 13 ratifications occurred this year, amidst a global pandemic that’s seen the world stall in many other areas.
However, with 13,400 nuclear weapons still in the possession of nine nuclear-armed states – all of which are hardly rushing to be the TPNW’s next signatories - many are asking: what impact will the Treaty’s entry-into-force actually have?
It is no secret the countries whom hold nuclear weapons do not look upon the TPNW favourably. As the 50th ratification neared last week, Washington went so far as to circulate a letter urging TPNW signatories to withdraw their support as a ‘strategic error’ and reiterating the P5’s staunch opposition to the treaty. A lack of support and outright disapproval from nuclear weapons possessors, however, does not render the TPNW’s entry-into-force obsolete.
Rather, similar weapons-ban treaties such as the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, demonstrate that a treaty’s normative implications can shape the actions of non-signatories. The ban’s additional stigmatisation of nuclear weapons widens the scope of discussion on the utility of nuclear deterrence and morality of possessing nuclear weapons. Proponents and opponents alike will be closely monitoring debate, particularly in countries which rely on the protection of extended nuclear deterrence in alliances. In Australia, which seeks cover under America’s nuclear umbrella, the opposition’s Hon Anthony Albanese MP and Senator Penny Wong released a statement welcoming the TPNW’s most recent ratification, whilst the Greens’ Senator Jordan Steele-John urged Australia’s signature. But it does not stop at the country-level. Codifying the illegality of certain types of weapons also has the potential to impact production and prompt further divestment by financial institutions. All behaviour becomes subject to stronger political and normative pressure.
That said, the TPNW is no silver bullet. The road ahead for nuclear disarmament remains long, extremely so, and not without its roadblocks. Nuclear arms control architecture is undeniably strained, and the dangerous prospect of a new nuclear arms race loom. With the TPNW’s entry-into-force set to occur around the same time as the postponed tenth NPT Review Conference, there is a worry that divisions in the non-proliferation and disarmament community will worsen and make a successful outcome more unlikely – but it is worth noting these divides existed long before the nuclear ban, failing to reach consensus at the 2005 and 2015 Review Conferences. Tangible progress in reducing arsenal numbers is going to require sincere, concerted efforts from all countries on all sides of the debate.
Perhaps, too, the ongoing discussion of consequences falls short in recognising just what this occasion symbolises for some. The TPNW’s starting point was to shift focus from the possessors of weapons to their humanitarian impact; and thus, we should never lose sight of the voices of survivors as a point of reference. We may debate in our lofty policy wonk circles whether and what impact the TPNW’s entry-into-force may have, but what say the hibakusha? Setsuko Thurlow, a prominent advocate for the TPNW and Hiroshima-bombing survivor, said: “When I learned that we reached our 50th ratification, I was not able to stand. I remained in my chair and put my head in my hands and I cried tears of joy”. And that, in itself, is impact.
Su-Yin Lew is a Masters of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne, former YAIA International Security Fellow and a previous intern with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Any views presented are in a personal capacity.