Overview: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

By John Mecklin | October 6, 2017


After a decade of organizing and advocacy by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, and its hundreds of nonprofit partners, in July the UN approved a treaty that bans nuclear weapons. In recognition of that work, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded ICAN the Nobel Peace Prize.

The effort that resulted in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was strongly opposed by the countries that possess nuclear weapons and most of their allies. At least in part because of that opposition, the nuclear weapons ban treaty has received fitful coverage in major mainstream media, and much of that coverage has mirrored the thinking of policy elites who view the treaty as ineffectual or even dangerous.

The treaty to ban nuclear weapons is no instant panacea. There are legitimate concerns about how—or even if—it can ever be implemented, and whether other approaches toward limiting the numbers of nuclear weapons might be more practical and therefore effective. Debate about the treaty is lively and ongoing.

Over the last year, Bulletin authors have reported on and analyzed the effort toward a nuclear weapons ban from many different ideological and policy directions. What follows is a sample of that coverage, for readers who want a deeper understanding of why the Nobel committee thought ICAN’s work toward a nuclear weapons ban treaty “ground-breaking.”

Ban Brief

A Bulletin blog that offers regular updates on progress toward a nuclear weapons ban treaty, Ban Brief is written by Tim Wright, Asia-Pacific director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will.

The nuclear weapons ban treaty (not) in the news?

Nuclear culture expert (and Bulletin columnist) Hugh Gusterson looks at the way major US newspapers have covered the historic nuclear weapons ban treaty—and why that coverage has left readers clueless about motives and consequences.

The nuclear weapons ban treaty: Opportunities lost

Stanford’s Scott Sagan and Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino argue that the nuclear weapons ban treaty stands as a symbol of missed opportunities. The energy, organization, and genuine passion that eventually resulted in the ban treaty were assets that might have been used to address dangerous realities about nuclear weapons that are too often ignored: the human costs of clean-up of waste sites and production facilities and the potential for nuclear winter or other environmental effects.

After the nuclear weapons ban treaty: A new disarmament politics

Princeton’s Zia Mian explains why the nuclear weapons ban treaty creates space for a creative new disarmament politics based on law, ethics, and democracy—a politics that goes beyond well-trodden debates on the dangers and costs of nuclear weapons and traditional practices of arms control based on step-by-step reductions that limit only the size of arsenals.

A controversial ban and the long game to delegitimize nuclear weapons

Nonproliferation expert (and Bulletin Science and Security Board member) Sharon Squassoni looks at the “long game” nuclear weapons ban treaty supporters are playing as they try to foster the erosion of legitimacy for nuclear weapons.

A neutral state’s perspective on the ban—and a compromise

Political scientist Heinz Gärtner suggests a possible compromise between the haves and have-nots of nuclear weaponry: The creation of nuclear-weapons-free zones, along with promises to not use nukes against unarmed states.

Verifying the nuclear ban: Lessons from South Africa

Hassan Elbahtimy and Christopher Eldridge of Kings College London explain why several key lessons about the design and implementation of a verification regime for the nuclear weapons ban treaty can be drawn from the example of South African disarmament.

Can a treaty banning nuclear weapons speed their abolition?

Three world experts discuss, in roundtable format, whether the pace of nuclear disarmament will or will not quicken, if the nuclear weapons ban treaty comes into force.

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