A ban on nuclear testing is not enough. We need a total ban on nuclear weapons

August 29, 2016

The first and only wartime use of nuclear weapons occurred in the final days of World War II, against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But on over 2,000 occasions since then, atomic and hydrogen bombs have been detonated in the atmosphere, underwater and underground as part of nuclear test programmes – with devastating consequences for human health and the environment. The most recent such detonation was in North Korea in January of this year.

Today, 29 August, marks the UN-auspiced International Day Against Nuclear Tests, an opportunity for governments to reaffirm not only their opposition to nuclear testing, but also their commitment to ridding the world of these worst weapons of mass destruction. The only guarantee that they will never be used again is to eliminate the 15,000 that still exist today, including many hundreds that are poised for use within minutes of a warning.

Two decades ago, the international community resolved to ban all forms of explosive nuclear testing, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). This agreement built on an earlier partial ban on nuclear testing. Regrettably, however, the 1996 treaty has not yet entered into legal force due to the continued resistance of a small handful of veto-wielding nations. But, even so, its impact has been significant.

When the treaty was negotiated in the mid-1990s, several nations still had active nuclear test programmes but have felt compelled to join the treaty under pressure from the international community and their own citizens. Nuclear tests were once a frequent event, but no longer. Since the beginning of the 21st century, North Korea is the only nation to have carried them out, and on each of the four occasions that it did so, the response of the international community was one of unequivocal condemnation.

However, despite – or perhaps because of – the undoubted global taboo against explosive nuclear testing, the United States, Russia and China have, in recent years, mastered non-explosive means of testing, which the CTBT does not forbid. This is one of the treaty’s major shortcomings. Another is its over-complicated entry-into-force provision, which effectively allows any member of a select group of nuclear-capable nations to prevent the treaty from ever becoming part of international law.

Too often, nations that oppose meaningful progress towards nuclear disarmament invoke the failure of the CTBT to enter into force as a reason for not pursuing other measures to advance a world without nuclear weapons. Those in the NATO military alliance, together with Australia, Japan and South Korea, frequently offer strong rhetorical support for the CTBT, but have thus far been unwilling to support broader disarmament measures that would challenge the very legitimacy of nuclear weapons.

It was these nations that objected to, or abstained from voting on, the landmark report last month of a special UN disarmament working group in Geneva, which recommended the convening of a conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination”. They have argued that the present international security environment is not conducive to nuclear disarmament, and a ban is premature.

The proposed new legal instrument, which they oppose, would prohibit nuclear weapons in all their aspects, closing the loopholes in the existing legal regime, including by giving legal effect to a ban on nuclear testing. It would place nuclear weapons on the same legal footing as chemical weapons, biological weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions – all inherently inhumane and indiscriminate weapons that are subject to global prohibition treaties.

The UN working group stated that the new instrument would “contribute to the progressive stigmatization of nuclear weapons” – in much the same way as the CTBT has contributed to the stigmatization of nuclear testing over the past two decades. The leading proponents of a total ban on nuclear weapons view it as “the most viable option for immediate action, as it would not need universal support for the commencement of negotiations or for its entry into force” – that is, it could not be held hostage in the same way as the CTBT.

This October the UN General Assembly is expected to act upon the working group’s recommendation by adopting a resolution to convene a negotiating conference for a ban in 2017. For this process to succeed, it will be crucial to include the voices of the victims and survivors of nuclear weapons, including those whose lives have been irreparably damaged by nuclear testing. Our collective determination to ensure that no one else ever suffers as they have must be our overriding motivation.

A ban on nuclear testing is not enough. We must work resolutely now to outlaw nuclear weapons fully.



  • sheen

    “If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were alive today, they would be part of ICAN.”

    Martin Sheen Actor and activist

  • bankimoon

    “I salute ICAN for working with such commitment and creativity.”

    Ban Ki-moon Former UN chief

  • yokoono

    “We can do it together. With your help, our voice will be made still stronger. Imagine peace.”

    Yoko Ono Artist

  • jodywilliams

    “Governments say a nuclear weapons ban is unlikely. Don’t believe it. They said the same about a mine ban treaty.”

    Jody Williams Nobel laureate

  • desmondtutu

    “With your support, we can take ICAN its full distance – all the way to zero nuclear weapons.”

    Desmond Tutu Nobel laureate

  • herbiehancock

    “Because I cannot tolerate these appalling weapons, I whole-heartedly support ICAN.”

    Herbie Hancock Jazz musician

  • dalailama

    “I can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, and I support ICAN.”

    Dalai Lama Nobel laureate