Editor’s note: This article is part of a collection to mark the occasion of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons makes a case that nuclear weapons are in fundamental conflict with basic humanitarian sensibilities and international law. If it is to ultimately be successful, this view will have to become the common sense of the world.
For treaty parties and supporters, the challenge of nuclear disarmament politics going forward will be getting publics and policy makers in nuclear weapon states (and their allies) to set aside their long held, deeply institutionalized sense of nuclear superiority and moral exceptionalism and accept the treaty’s humanitarian imperative, its lawfulness, and the obligations that follow. The nine countries with nuclear weapons all stayed away from the talks, and some of them will work hard to prevent the treaty gaining ground. The key to long-term progress will be the United States, which more than any other country has set the global nuclear agenda since it made the first nuclear weapons and remains the only country ever to have used them in war. It is also the country most responsible for the existing international system.
The treaty requires parties to make its universalization part of their political engagement with the nuclear weapon states. Article 12 of the treaty mandates that states practice disarmament diplomacy and more. It declares that “each State Party shall encourage States not party to this Treaty to ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty, with the goal of universal adherence of all States to the Treaty.” This will require new kinds of official and public engagement with weapons states and opens the door for new kinds of transnational citizen diplomacy on disarmament. A key step in the new disarmament politics must be discussion of the forms that this encouragement can take, and what role citizens of ban treaty states and of nuclear weapon states can and should play in this effort.
To be taken seriously by the nuclear weapon states, the growing community of ban treaty states and peace activists worldwide must be willing to continue to be bold and take political risks, as they did in getting the treaty. They must put at the heart of their relationship with the weapon states the treaty’s acknowledgment of “the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament and the urgency of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free world, which is a global public good of the highest order, serving both national and collective security interests.”
Persuading nuclear weapon states to join the treaty will not be easy. It will require that governments and citizens use new forms of international politics that the treaty empowers. For example, politically charged demands for nuclear disarmament—perhaps avoided as too sensitive a topic in the past—can now be brought up as a matter of course when presidents and prime ministers from ban treaty states meet with their counterparts in nuclear weapon states. Along with trade and investment and tourism and sports delegations, ban treaty countries can now sponsor disarmament delegations, to explain why they signed the treaty—and why weapon states should do the same. Along with these types of engagement, of course, there can also be sanctions and boycotts. The ban treaty permits a politics of nuclear naming and shaming, shunning and divestment. These tools are well established when it comes to human rights and war crimes; they can be applied with new force to nuclear weapon sites, institutions, officials, and employees.
If they are to prevail, the ban treaty states will need to hold together and expand their coalition and keep working with civil society groups. Together they will need to present unified demands—at the UN General Assembly and in other international forums—that weapon states join the treaty. They can hold joint Article 12 summits and support campaigns in the weapon states to focus attention and build support for the treaty.
Ban treaty states could seek to further embed the treaty’s prohibitions into international law by seeking an amendment to the statute of the International Criminal Court to make the use of nuclear weapons a war crime. The court’s statute permits such an amendment if it relates to “weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or which are inherently indiscriminate in violation of the international law of armed conflict, provided that such weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare are the subject of a comprehensive prohibition.” The ban treaty is a comprehensive prohibition, and many ban states are signatories of the International Criminal Court statute and could build a majority in support of such an amendment.
This commentary is adapted from the essay “After the nuclear weapons ban treaty: A new disarmament politics” by Zia Mian, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 7, 2017
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