The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Explained

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the United Nations back in 2017 and has come into force on 22nd January 2021. This is the first legally binding multilateral treaty ensuring the process of eliminating nuclear weapons. It completes the ban of weapons that are considered unacceptable due to their inhumane and indiscriminate effects. Nuclear weapons now join landmines, cluster munitions, biological and chemical weapons on the banned list.

The TPNW prohibits signatories from developing, testing, producing, acquiring or threatening to use nuclear weapons. States must irreversibly destroy weapons, clean the environments where they have been tested and perhaps most significantly, aid those who have been exposed to the weapons.  

Those bound by the treaty cannot ‘assist, encourage or induce’ any activity prohibited under the agreement. Essentially signatories cannot engage with states regarding nuclear activities. This would forbid allowing nuclear weapons of ally to be station on a signatory’s soil.

As of 22nd January, 86 states have signed the treaty and 51 have ratified. Unsurprisingly none of the 9 official nuclear powers have signed, along with many countries who rely on the protection of nuclear powers, including the 27 NATO states. While the treaty is of significance itself, it would seem futile if those possessing what it is trying to be banned are not bound by its authority.  

This is not the failure one might think it is. The treaty creates a new international legal standard which all nuclear policies will now be judged by if the country is not a signatory and bound by if they are. It is hoped that the treaty will create a stigma surrounding nuclear weapons, much like the treaties banning landmines and biological/chemical weapons have done. The resulting international pressure in theory should pressure nuclear states to disarm.

Another important result of the treaty is that money will start to move away from the sector. Banks, pension funds and insurance companies are divesting from companies involved in the nuclear arms industry. It is not a good look for business to be supporting industries illegal under international law. If investment dries up, many companies may not see it as a viable industry to be a part of.  

The treaty is being realistically viewed as a moral statement rather than an enforceable one for the moment. However there needs to be a starting point and it is no secret that this is probably the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons. Despite many believing this will not work, ban treaties have got a good reputation. They have worked with biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster bombs so the precedent is there for it to work with nuclear weapons too. Delegitimisation will have a genuine impact on policy making, but it is not something that will be fixed overnight, the process will take years, realistically decades.

Notably we have seen New Zealand and Kazakhstan both ratify the treaty whilst still committing to full military cooperation to their nuclear allies (US and Russia). A small start but we should expect to see more states doing this as delegitimization and stigma starts to change opinion.  A slow process but one that has strong potential to work.

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