The case for a ban treaty
Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited by an international convention, even though they have the greatest destructive capacity of all weapons. A global ban on nuclear weapons is long overdue and can be achieved in the near future with enough public pressure and political leadership. A ban would not only make it illegal for nations to use or possess nuclear weapons; it would also help pave the way to their complete elimination. Nations committed to reaching the goal of abolition should begin negotiating a ban now.
International law obliges all nations to pursue in good faith and conclude negotiations for nuclear disarmament. However, the nuclear-armed nations have so far failed to present a clear road map to a nuclear-weapon-free world. All are investing heavily in the modernization of their nuclear forces, with the apparent intention of retaining them for many decades to come. Continued failure is not an option. So long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a real danger they will be used again. A ban is urgently needed.
How a ban treaty would work
Negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons should be undertaken by committed nations even without the participation of those armed with nuclear weapons. The alternative is to continue allowing the nuclear-armed nations to control the process and perpetuate two-tier systems and treaty regimes that have no power to compel disarmament. A nuclear weapons ban would globalize what nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties have done regionally. It would allow nations in any part of the world to formalize their rejection of nuclear weapons and help create a clear international legal norm against the possession of nuclear weapons.
The prohibition of weapons typically precedes and stimulates their elimination, not the other way around. For example, the prohibition of biological and chemical weapons has been an essential step in ongoing efforts towards their elimination. Like the biological and chemical weapons conventions, a nuclear weapons ban would allow nations with stockpiles of these weapons to join so long as they agree to eliminate them within a specified time frame. Once such nations have joined, agreements could be developed over time to ensure that stockpiles are destroyed in a verifiable and irreversible manner.
The ban treaty itself need not necessarily envisage every complex step towards elimination by all nations. Instead it would put in place the basic framework for reaching that goal. Underpinning the growing call for a ban is a firm belief that changing the “rules” regarding nuclear weapons would have a significant impact beyond those states that may formally adopt such an instrument at the outset. The ban treaty, once in force, would powerfully challenge any notion that possessing nuclear weapons is legitimate for particular states.
Achieving a ban treaty
Since 2010 the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has featured prominently in discussions among governments and civil society organizations on ways to advance nuclear disarmament. This emerging discourse on the harm that nuclear weapons cause to people, societies and the environment underscores the urgency of concerted action for the complete prohibition and elimination of such weapons. Their devastating effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and through testing, have been well documented, and provide a clear rationale for negotiating a ban.
Nuclear-free nations have long complained of the lack of progress being made towards nuclear disarmament. Many have expressed grave concern at the continuing build-up and modernization of nuclear forces. Though frustrated, they are not without influence. After all, they make up the overwhelming majority of states. Working effectively together, they could put in place a powerful legal ban on nuclear weapons, which would not only stigmatize the weapons, but also build the pressure for disarmament. It is time to change the game.
- Banning nuclear weapons (Article 36)
- Banning nuclear weapons without the nuclear-armed states (Article 36)
- About a ban: Dismantling the idea of a ban on nuclear weapons (ILPI)
- Preventing collapse: The NPT and a ban on nuclear weapons (RCW)
- Deep Cuts Working Paper #5 The NPT and the Humanitarian Initiative (Tom Sauer, University of Antwerp)