A Historic Nuclear Ban Treaty Is Set to Become International Law: Here’s What That Means

October 24, 2020
Tim Wright/ICAN
Jennifer Knox
Policy and Research Analyst

On October 24, Honduras became the 50th state to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also called the nuclear ban treaty. Ninety days from now, the treaty will enter into force as an instrument of international law. This historic treaty is the first comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, placing them alongside biological weapons and chemical weapons as illegitimate tools of war under international law.

UCS celebrates the achievement of the states and civil society partners that made the nuclear ban treaty a reality. We believe in nuclear abolition, not just arms control. Nuclear weapons are a threat to human civilization, and the use of even one nuclear weapon risks catastrophic humanitarian disaster. We know from the testimony of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the effects of nuclear use are horrific and last for generations. This is not just an issue for the nine states that possess nuclear weapons because the devastation of a nuclear war cannot be confined by borders. The only way to eliminate that risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons.

At UCS, we also believe that nuclear abolition requires leadership, innovation, and sustained commitment. We are proud to follow the leadership of the communities most affected by nuclear weapons. This leadership includes the hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the people victimized by nuclear testing, which occurred overwhelmingly in colonial territories, in the global South, and in territories of indigenous peoples and people of color.

As the nuclear ban treaty enters force, there is more important work in front of us than ever before. Those who want to help change nuclear weapons policy can get involved with organizations like Back from the Brink (co-founded by UCS) that are passing local resolutions that call for abolishing nuclear weapons. Grassroots support for changing policy is a critical next step in moving towards complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

Continue reading below for answers to common questions about the nuclear ban treaty.

What is the nuclear ban treaty?

The nuclear ban treaty is the first comprehensive and universal prohibition of nuclear weapons. The treaty prohibits all state parties from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons. State parties are further prohibited from assisting any other state in conducting such activities.

The nuclear ban treaty was negotiated by a majority of UN member states and was adopted on July 17, 2017. Many civil society groups also supported the negotiation of the nuclear ban. The most prominent of these groups is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). ICAN received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work on the nuclear ban treaty.

Will the nuclear weapons states join the nuclear ban treaty?

None of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons participated in the negotiation of the nuclear ban treaty, and they have demonstrated their opposition to the nuclear ban treaty in various ways. However, even without the participation of states possessing nuclear weapons, the nuclear ban treaty fills an important legal gap by prohibiting the remaining weapons of mass destruction. The nuclear ban represents a critical shift in thinking about nuclear weapons, away from their supposed strategic or security role and towards the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of their development and use. This framework prioritizes the people and communities harmed by nuclear weapons in the past, present and future.

Additionally, the nuclear ban treaty can affect the behavior of states possessing nuclear weapons even if they never join the treaty. It is true that the nuclear ban treaty cannot be the final vehicle for disarmament without the participation of the nuclear states; however, the nuclear ban treaty can still raise the political, economic, and security costs of relying on nuclear weapons even for states that do not join the treaty. The aim of the nuclear ban movement is to stigmatize nuclear weapons, incentivizing nuclear weapons states to take further steps towards reduction and elimination.

Does the nuclear ban treaty undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Critics of the nuclear ban treaty frequently claim that it undermines or contradicts the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, which entered into force in 1970, is considered one of the most successful international treaties in human history and the keystone of the global effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The NPT recognizes five nuclear weapons states and requires all other parties to forswear the possession of nuclear weapons.

Like the nuclear ban treaty, the final aim of the NPT is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Article VI of the NPT requires all state parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The states that have signed and ratified the nuclear ban treaty are all state parties to the NPT, and they see their participation in the nuclear ban treaty as fulfilling their obligations to pursue a disarmament treaty.

There are significant tensions between the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states within the NPT that threaten the long-term stability of the treaty. However, those tensions long pre-date the nuclear ban movement. The greatest danger to the sustainability of the NPT is the failure of the nuclear weapons states to demonstrate meaningful commitment to their disarmament obligations, they should fulfill their side of the bargain by pursuing steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security and mitigating the risk of nuclear conflict. These steps should include ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, revitalizing arms control efforts, and declaring no-first-use doctrines.

What happens when the nuclear ban treaty enters force?

At review conferences, state parties will together develop action plans and metrics by which to measure progress. State parties and civil society groups will continue to strive for universalization of the treaty by encouraging new states to join, and they will also collaborate to develop peace and disarmament education initiatives. The nuclear ban treaty also calls for state parties to contribute assistance and environmental remediation for the victims of nuclear use, development, and testing.

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons

Tags: NPT, TPNW

About the author

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Jennifer Knox is a research and policy analyst for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she helps develops the program's research agenda, connects research to legislative strategies, and contributes to legislative outreach.